Archives for August 2017

To Work in the Vineyard, Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost – October 8, 2017

Proper 22

[RCL] Exodus 20:1-4, 7-9, 12-20; Psalm 19; Philippians 3:4b-14; Matthew 21:33-46

The easiest way for a preacher to deal with the challenging story in today’s Gospel reading might be to understand it as simply a metaphor for events we already know well – another tale of deadly confrontation between Jesus and the Jewish leadership of his day. As we heard at the end of the passage, the religious chiefs perceived that Jesus was referring to them as the wicked tenants. Therefore, they felt threatened and angry and decided to arrest Jesus. However, they had to wait for a more opportune time because they feared resistance from the crowd of Jesus’ followers. And of course, we remember what happened next – Jesus’ betrayal, arrest, trial, and crucifixion – all followed by the resurrection that concluded the action and began a whole new relationship between God and another people.

To follow the story in this way is to see it as an allegory, explaining how the church grew beyond the control of the then-current religious establishment. In such a symbolic narrative, each character corresponds to something in real life. The wicked tenants represent the religious leaders of Jerusalem, the owner of the vineyard is God, the vineyard itself is Israel, the slaves sent to collect the owner’s share are the Old Testament Prophets, the son is Jesus, and the new tenants who would gain use of the vineyard are the Gentiles and/or Jesus-following Jews.

But, to be honest, all this does is provide for us a history lesson, and, in fact, one that we already know. A more difficult way to deal with the story in today’s Gospel is to find courage enough to reflect on a more general theme that few like to consider – the concept of God as a condemning divinity. We may need to face up to the possibility that the story reveals God to us as a punishing one, prone toward retribution against those who choose not to follow his way. The wicked tenants who failed to give God his due suffered the fate of a miserable death, losing all they had hoped to gain for refusing to pay their fair rent, not giving the owner, not giving God, what he deserved.

How can we face the seeming inconsistency of knowing God as loving and gracious and all-giving on the one hand, and on the other – following the tone of today’s story – seeing God as a punishing and judging entity?

And closer to home – can we face the question, “What connection is there between ourselves and the wicked tenants and the selfish, misguided religious leaders who rejected Jesus?” Could their fate also be ours? After all, don’t we often shy away from what Christ would have us do? Are we not sometimes selfish like the wicked tenants? Do we not refuse to share the fruits of the “vineyard” as stingily and stubbornly as they? How often have we failed to respond lovingly to the gifts of God’s creation that envelope our lives – the good earth, the resources we use to sustain ourselves, other people – our brothers and sisters who dwell beside us in this blessed life? Does it not follow, then, that we also deserve to be put to a miserable death?

But surely there is something wrong with such an assessment. Perhaps a better way to deal with this dilemma is to examine today’s story in the full context of the Gospel, to view it against the backdrop of all we know of God’s action in Christ. Then we can draw a less harsh—and truer—conclusion about the conflict of experiencing a totally loving God and the punishment apparent in today’s story. As Christians, we always start with the fact that God initiates the relationship with us – not we with God. God calls us to be in unity with him and all people. God’s reaching out to us is best understood as his giving us everything we have – with no strings attached and without our deserving it, without our having done anything to gain it. Despite this, Jesus made it clear that we are the most precious beings in all creation – so valuable, as he proved on the cross, that we are worth dying for.

We don’t have to earn God’s love; it is given freely. So, why would a loving God put us to a miserable death? The answer to this question lies not in the possibility that we might wind up experiencing a miserable spiritual death, but, if so, to recognize that such a fate can only result because of our choosing. The wicked tenants received all they needed from the owner, but they refused to accept his graciousness and turned their backs on him, his servants, and even his son. They, by their actions and inactions, cast themselves out of the vineyard, no less than Adam and Eve’s disobedience resulted in their loss of the benefits of the Garden of Eden. The miserable death we might experience can only result from our failure to accept the gifts of God and respond to them in thanksgiving and by reflecting God’s love back on that creation and all people in it. It can only result from our selfishly acting as if the vineyard is all ours – or should be all ours and no one else’s, let alone God’s.

It is not so much that God’s patience with us might eventually run out, causing us to be put to a miserable death. It is more like our time runs out only because we wait too long to catch on to what God wants for us, and then we actually by our actions or inactions cast ourselves out of God’s vineyard, producing a self-inflicted kind of misery that we alone can create.

Today’s Gospel story, of course, provides for us a warning about what we can miss out on if we act like the wicked servants. It reminds us of the great theme of stewardship that is so central to the life of the church and to the healthful focus of individual Christians. When we sing the familiar words, “Praise God from who all blessings flow,” we need to remember the actions that they imply – that we need to “walk the talk” by remembering that what we have is not ours to own, but is on loan from God. We need to remember that God’s way of grace and love is wooing us to respond to our good fortune of living in his vineyard by reflecting that love in our actions toward others. That as we care for, as we exercise stewardship over God’s creation – especially our fellow human beings – we do so as a reflection of God’s love. That love is poured out to us in such measure that it overflows from us, and through us can overflow onto all creation. An overflow that allows us to maintain creation and preserve it and protect it from harm. An overflow that impels us to love others and share with them the Good News of God in Christ – a truth they might miss if we ignore our mission and neglect that which so graciously enriches us.

If, in reflecting on today’s Gospel story, we will concentrate on God’s setting us up on a fabulous vineyard, lovingly and graciously giving us all we have, we can recognize that this is his way of coaxing us and wooing us and encouraging us into being good and faithful servants – good and loving workers in the world he has left to our care – good and faithful followers of his son, Jesus. Wooing us to give and pray for the spread of his kingdom and for the wellbeing of his children, our brothers and sisters in Christ.

Download the sermon for the 18th Sunday after Pentecost (A).

How Is God Calling Us?, Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost – October 1, 2017

Proper 21

[RCL] Exodus 17:1-7; Psalm 78:1-4, 12-16; Philippians 2:1-13; Matthew 21:23-32

In March of 1979, a nonprofit organization by the name of the Cable-Satellite Public Affairs Network was launched. It is better-known by its acronym: C-SPAN. The organization’s mission is to provide continuous coverage of the goings-on of the US Government. You may have tuned in on occasion to watch as Congress works—or, depending on your perspective, as Congress doesn’t work.

Along with American programming, there are also occasionally programs from other countries, including one from the United Kingdom: Prime Minister’s Questions. The program airs straight from the British House of Commons and features the British Prime Minister and the leader of the opposition party.

The entire program consists of these two figures, along with other members of the House, pummeling each other with rapid-fire and hard-hitting questions, above a cacophony of cheers, jeers, and occasional pleas for “order” from the Speaker of the House. This can go on for hours! One person bounds to his feet and asks a biting rhetorical question, then someone else jumps up with a pithy answer or an even more searing question. It’s the political version of whack-a-mole!

If C-SPAN were around in Jesus’ day, there might have been a show called The Messiah’s Questions! Throughout the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus is berated with all manner of rapid-fire rhetorical questions.

At the outset of the Gospel, John asks Jesus, “Are you the one we have been waiting for?” Then the Chief Priests—the opposition party if ever there were one—ask Jesus one question after another. They ask why the disciples don’t abide by the tradition of the elders, they ask about divorce, they ask about taxes, they ask about the role of the Ten Commandments, and on and on it goes until even Pilate himself asks Jesus if he is, in fact, the King of the Jews.

In today’s passage in particular, the Chief Priests and the elders ask Jesus, “By what authority are you doing these things?” and “Who gave you this authority?” Then Jesus asks a few questions of his own. The Chief Priests and the elders knew how to play politics, and so they decide not to answer—not because they didn’t have an answer, but because they were afraid of how Jesus might respond to their answer.

And so, Jesus asks yet another question— “What do you think?”—and then launches into a parable about two sons. When their father asks the sons to work in the vineyard, one son says something like, “Sure! I’ll get right on that!” But he doesn’t follow through in the end. Truth be told, most of us can sympathize with this son. How often have we made a promise or a commitment that, for whatever reason, we couldn’t keep?

But the focus of the parable is on the other son—the one who, unlike his brother, initially says he won’t help out but winds up doing so in the end. We might be tempted to ask why he chose to help in the end— “Did he have something else to do first?” “Was his schedule full?” “Was he angry with his father or his brother?” But if we’re not careful, these questions can bog us down in homiletical quicksand and we can lose the larger, more important point: regardless of what initially prevented him, the son eventually accepted his father’s invitation to go to work in the vineyard.

At its core, this parable is the pattern of our life with God. No matter what we’ve done, or what may have initially prevented us, God is always extending an invitation to us. We are constantly being drawn into a new place—to new depths of faith, to a new place of divine discovery.

No matter if this is the first time we’ve ever heard the Gospel, or if we’ve been faithful Christians for decades, this parable lays bare one incontrovertible fact: God isn’t finished with us yet! The baptized life has no emeritus status, and there’s no such thing as a retired or part-time disciple of Jesus!

But here’s the thing: life with God is always forward-looking, always calling us out of the confines of our past and present and into something new. In order to live into God’s invitation, we must be willing to leave the past behind—no matter how comfortable or familiar or profitable—and turn toward the future, complete with all of its uncertainties and questions and anxieties.

And make no mistake: that’s hard!

Consider, for example, the Chief Priests and the elders of Jesus’ day. They had quite a bit invested in the status quo. Leaving the past behind meant forfeiting their claims to power and position, which had become their entire identity. Stepping into life with God meant leaving all of that behind, in favor of a future they couldn’t predict and couldn’t control.

How about in our own day?

How willing are any of us to forfeit our positions, our authority, or our privilege? The truth is that, for most of us, the past is pretty enticing—especially when we enjoy privileges we haven’t earned.

But then there are the tax collectors and prostitutes, whose past was marked by derision and servitude; of being treated as things rather than as persons. For them, God’s future brought new life!

This is the essential question that every single one of us must faithfully discern: How is God calling us out of our past or present circumstances, into something new?

The truth is, sometimes the answer to that question is unsettling. After all, for as hopeful and encouraging as the future might seem, it’s always uncertain. At least we know our past, even if it is limited and dysfunctional.

As people of faith, we are called to hold that tension between the certainty and comfort of our past and the uncertainty and discomfort of God’s future. We’re called to ask ourselves how our past has been allowed to determine our future, how it has restricted our ability to live faithfully, and to consider where it is that we find life and joy and peace, versus where we find resentment and fear and death.

We’re called to ask these questions of our communities of faith, too. How have our churches become entrenched in the structures and strictures of the past? How does doing the same old thing because we’ve always done it that way cut us off from new and life-giving possibilities? What parts of our common life together need holding onto, and what needs letting go?

One final word of caution: when we ask these questions from a place of fear and anxiety—wringing our hands over what our future or our church’s future will be—these questions bear little transformative power. But if we ask them from a place of discernment and faithfulness, we can be sure that as we do this hard and holy work, God will be with us on the journey.

And in the end, we will find life more abundant!

Amen.

The Rev. Marshall A. Jolly is the rector of Grace Episcopal Church in Morganton, North Carolina. He studied at Transylvania University and Emory University’s Candler School of Theology, where he is currently completing doctoral work. He is the editor of Modern Metanoia—a lectionary-based preaching resource authored exclusively by Millennial clergy, lay leaders, and teachers. Marshall is also an amateur runner, a voracious reader, and a budding chef. Most important and life-giving of all, he’s Elizabeth’s husband.

Download the sermon for the 17th Sunday after Pentecost (A).

Gratitude, Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost – September 24, 2017

Proper 20

[RCL] Exodus 16:2-15; Psalm 105:1-6, 37-45; Philippians 1:21-30; Matthew 20:1-16

Children’s books seem to fall into categories: one appears to be about obedience or learning to follow the rules, a great number are about bravery and perseverance, others are about understanding the world around you, but a great many of the books for children today are about teaching our children that they are loved unconditionally. There seems to be a lot of these books, yearning to reassure us that we are lovable. One book, Mama, Do You Love Me?, follows an Alaskan mother and daughter through a conversation where the toddler tests the boundaries and limits of her mother’s love, only to find that even if mama is angry, she loves her daughter still. It’s a story about how fragile we are as humans and how each of us is intrinsically good and worthy of love. It’s a great and honest book, and in some way tells the story of how much God loves us.

Today we find Jesus telling a parable that is also about how much we are loved. The parable of the five o’clock people tells of how fragile we are as humans and how boundless God’s love truly is. Many of us have heard a sermon every year on this parable. Sometimes it focuses on the anger and resentment of the people who showed up earlier in the day, sometimes it looks at why the people showed up at five, and other times we hear about how grace is given freely to all simply because they showed up. All of these ring true.

There is something quite fragile about humans; our fragility shows up when we baptize babies and ask their families to protect them from evil and for the community gathered to look after them. Each of us is born with the love and hope of God implanted in our hearts; unfortunately, we are born into a fragile and broken world. At baptism, each of us had people promise to look after us as we grew into the person God imagined us to be in the midst of our communities.

This is the world of the parable: good and fragile people doing their best, wondering why some got more for doing less. What we and the workers forget is that God is not like us. God is better and more loving than we can imagine being. God looks at the workers and says, “I love you regardless of what time you showed up for work, I’m just glad you showed up.” Like the mother in the book, God’s love is not conditional on our behavior, God just wants us to show up and work. It is a reminder that we need to be grateful for help in the work God has given us to do, regardless of what time that help arrives. The work is often about being a sign of love to the world, and finding ways to love others even if they don’t agree with us, look like us, or behave the way we want them to… or show up first thing in the morning for work.

One of the best ways we can be signs of love in the world is to say thank you. Gratitude is an expression of love. When someone does something kind for us, regardless of whether they had to or not, it is a reminder of the goodness in them meeting the goodness in us—and the natural response to kindness is gratitude. Gratitude is extraordinarily important because it is a way for us to remember the goodness in others and ourselves—but still, it is easy to forget to be grateful.

Today in the Episcopal Church, we are remembering and giving thanks for the birth of Julia Chester Emery. One could argue that she was one who showed up early to work and that she worked without complaint. In the early 1900s, Julia helped organize the women of the church to participate in a daily spiritual discipline of gratitude. She asked that everyone remember that when something good happens in his or her day, that this is a gift from God, and to make a thank offering in remembrance that all good things come from God.

With this simple task, she began inviting people to participate in a spiritual discipline of gratitude. She worked tirelessly to promote gratitude and to support mission in the Episcopal Church with the funds collected each year. She did all of this at a time when women were not allowed to work if married and had very little status in the working world. She overcame much adversity to do the good thing that God planted in her heart. She was well known for her tireless dedication to her goal of helping support innovative ministries in the Episcopal Church. She rarely took “no” for an answer. Julia Chester Emery exemplified grit, faith, and the willingness to live more fully into being the hands and feet of Christ in the world.

A spiritual discipline of gratitude doesn’t sound like much, but how often do we forget to say thank you? Thank you seems too simple, and yet it has the power to transform our lives. Have you ever tried genuinely thanking someone from whom you ordered food or coffee? Yes, it is that person’s job to make the coffee, but aren’t you glad that he or she said “yes” to doing the job that day? What about people you work with? Have you thanked them for all they do to support you? Have you thanked your family and friends? Most of us know the pain of someone dying suddenly with words of gratitude left unspoken between us. Saying thank you is simple, but it is transformative.

The simple thank offering collected in 1883 continues to this day in the form of the United Thank Offering. All of the funds collected are given away to support innovative mission and ministry in our church, as a sign of gratitude for the good that God has done in our lives and a sign of gratitude for the good being done through others.

Today we give thanks for Julia Chester Emery, for her vision, dedication, and belief that we should all be more grateful. We’re thankful for the workers, missionaries, and grant sites that the United Thank Offering has supported. We give thanks for those that showed up early to labor to make the world better, and for those who are still showing up. We give thanks for all of those who promised to support us at our baptism, and we give thanks for all who do ministry on our behalf. Today we give thanks for the goodness planted in our hearts, and we ask that we might be brave and tireless in our task, just like Julia Chester Emery.

Download the sermon for the 16th Sunday after Pentecost (A).

Corpses in the Corridor, Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost – September 17, 2017

Proper 19

[RCL] Exodus 14:19-31; Psalm 114 or Exodus 15:1b-11, 20-21; Romans 14:1-12; Matthew 18:21-35

As you heard today’s gospel, did it make you uncomfortable, so that you shifted your weight from one foot to another, or perhaps gazed awkwardly into space?

That parable Jesus tells does not pack a dose of sweet comfort but challenges us outrageously in a spot where we are most tender: the trouble we have with forgiveness.

The story has two scenes: first, inside the throne room of a powerful king; second, just outside in a palace corridor. Moreover, the story tells of two worlds: the world as we know it, and the world as God wants it.

The throne room changes in a moment from the world as we know it to the world as God wants it. That palace corridor, however, starts out as the world we know but fails to become the world as God wants it.

The throne room, as I said, starts out as the world we know. It’s a world of calculation and control. The boss man is reviewing accounts, and somebody, a slave, owes him big time—really big time. The slave gets called on the carpet, but that’s only a formality. No way can this loser pay back what he owes. Might as well sell this guy, his house, his car, his boat, his wife, his kids, and get a couple pennies on the dollar. This guy is ruined. Financially, he’s dead as a doornail.

Everybody there in the throne room thinks his appearance is a mere formality. Everybody, that is, except him. Upon hearing the sentence imposed on him by the banker king, this guy drops to his knees, weeps, wails, and writhes around, crying out for mercy. He makes promises he knows he can never keep. What a pathetic sight. And so useless.

This is, after all, a bottom line world. The king’s guards are not soldiers in plumed hats, holding lances. No, they are guys in suits holding calculators. The cold steel is in their hearts.

Do you know this world of calculation and control? Have you ever been there, filling in one role or another? Are you there today?

Well, in the story Jesus tells, something unexpected happens. The king drops dead. No, I don’t mean literally, right there on the red carpet in front of the throne. But it might as well have been that way. The king drops dead to the world as we know it, that world of calculation and control. Against the advice his accountants and lawyers would have given him had he bothered to ask them, he goes with his gut and forgives the poor slob his astronomical debt.

To add to the excitement, the poor slob drops dead. Again, I don’t mean literally, though it might as well have been. He dies to the world of calculation and control, which a moment before had been like an entire mountain on his chest. He’s now living somewhere else. So too is the boss man.

There we are, my friends. If the cross of Christ and the Christian life mean anything, this is what they mean: that to this world, we are dead, and so is God. By forgiving us the sins we cannot make up on our own, God dies to the world of power and control. God’s not playing that game. God has taken a one-way trip out of there.

This is a part of Christianity that is scandalous, shocking, and hopeful. It’s good news, hot off the presses, for anyone who even suspects that God is the Great Bully in the Sky. Now God has died to all that; God’s throne room is not a center for calculation and control.

God is dead to that sort of world, and so are we. We are pulled out from under that mountain which was resting on our chests. We are dead to the world of calculation and control that once held us captive. We are out the door and down the street.

What happens next to the guy in the story? His learning curve is, well, pretty pathetic. He’s not even outside the building when he runs into somebody who owes him something. There in the palace corridor, he grabs the fellow by the collar and tries—unsuccessfully—to shake the money out of him.

Welcome back to the world of calculation and control.

This second debtor does his own song and dance pleading for mercy. Is anybody going to die this time? Will there be corpses in the corridor? You’d think it would be a no-brainer for the forgiven debtor to remember that as of a few moments ago, he was dead to the world of calculation and control and that he should act accordingly in dealing with his debtor out there in the corridor. You’d think that mercy received would result in mercy given.

But that doesn’t happen. He has a strategically-timed bout of amnesia, forgets he’s dead, and acts out the world of calculation and control as though it were his big chance for Broadway. He refuses to show mercy, he fails to help his debtor die to a world of oppression. Instead, he’s ready to boot him into the nearest prison for what will be, well, an indefinite stay.

The palace corridor remains stuck. It remains in the world of calculation and control.

Here we get to the heart of why forgiveness is hard. We suffer strategically-timed amnesia. We conveniently forget—or maybe we’ve never acknowledged—that we are forgiven sinners, debtors who have been let off the hook.

We don’t admit that the king has dropped dead, dead to the world of power and control so that we might have another chance, and another, and another.

We don’t realize that if faith means anything, it means we’re free from this world of control and calculation, dead to it and all it claims, thanks to a king who dies for us.

And so a debtor who crosses our path–even just outside the throne room–will get a taste of calculation and control, and it will be bitter.

Christianity states that forgiveness is necessary. It is not an option, but an imperative. Christianity also makes it clear that forgiveness is hard. It is costly. There is nothing soft and sentimental about it.

The one who forgives dies to the world as we know it in order to usher in the world as God wants it.

This death brings with it a challenge to the one forgiven. That one is then confronted with the imperative of dying to the world as we know it in order to accept forgiveness, an imperative to pass on the gift of forgiveness. By accepting and passing on forgiveness, such a one bears witness to the scandalous truth that, yes, everybody is a sinner, and everybody is forgiven by a mercy that is God-sized.

It’s easy to fall prey to strategically-timed amnesia and forget to forgive. That is why Christians gather Sunday by Sunday to celebrate the Eucharist. Here we present time after time, through prayerful word and action, how the king died on a cross, died to the world of calculation and control, died to the world as we know it, in order to set us free from a debt we could never repay.

We gather here in this throne room, and the king drops dead, and we drop dead too. We’re out of that world, out of that world of control and calculation that once held us captive.

Then the time comes to leave this throne room and go elsewhere. We meet someone who needs our mercy. Will we die again to the world of calculation and control? Will we die to that world, or will we fall victim to strategically-timed amnesia?

There’s the challenge. We can have the ancient pattern of the world as we know it, a life that feels like death. Or we can die to the world as we know it, we can have corpses in the corridor, and await our resurrection.

The Rev. Charles Hoffacker lives in Greenbelt, Maryland, with his wife, Helena Mirtova. He is the author of A Matter of Life and Death: Preaching at Funerals from Cowley Publications. Many of his sermons appear on sermonwriter.com. He can be reached by Email at charleshoffacker8@gmail.com.

Download the sermon for the 15th Sunday after Pentecost (A).

Congregations and Conflict, Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost – September 10, 2017

Proper 18

[RCL] Exodus 12:1-14; Psalm 149; Romans 13:8-14; Matthew 18:15-20

“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.” (Matt. 18:15)

Congregations are communities of people. They usually function well. Some have very strong central authorities, and others work better with leadership by consensus. And all of them, from time to time, have conflicts that arise between members.

Speed Leas, a well-known expert in church conflict resolution, identifies levels of conflict which range from “Level One: a problem to solve,” to “Level Five: intractable situations where personalities have become the focus and energy centers on the elimination of the persons involved.” In this extreme condition, it is often necessary to bring in an outside person to deal with the explosive situation.[1]

Keeping congregations healthy is a mutual responsibility that requires the participation of everyone. In unhealthy churches, people often create a toxic triangle made up of the victim, the persecutor, and the rescuer. Once the triangle is established, it becomes more difficult to resolve a condition or address an issue. Often, the pastor is drawn in and expected to rescue everyone, but sometimes the pastor is the victim or even the persecutor. Wise leaders try to avoid getting triangulated so they can help resolve the situation from a detached perspective, but it isn’t always possible.

In Matthew’s text for today’s Gospel, Jesus addresses personal conflict by urging people to resolve their differences directly first, and then, if necessary, to bring others into the discussion. We aren’t given details or examples. Jesus’s mission is to create committed communities of believers that will witness God’s love to a battered and broken world.

There are some basic premises at work here: One is that Jesus teaches that God loves all God’s children and that our need to be right is not always helpful. The organization for families of alcoholics, Al-Anon, teaches this premise and reminds its members that all of us, including the alcoholic, have a Higher Power who is not taking sides.

The congregation is a place where people can work out differences in community by listening as much as lecturing, by understanding as much as demanding to be understood.

Another premise of Jesus is that healthy leaders are loving and primarily concerned about others. A small church in the Middle South has developed a strong core of healthy leadership over several decades. It carefully steers troubled people into places where they are loved and cared about, without allowing them to become leaders who, because of their own pain and suffering, could become toxic to others. This works, not because there is some secret group that puts people in their place, but because the entire leadership core cares about all the members, and helps troubled newcomers and long-time members fit in without being tagged as problem people.

The opposite situation is also common: a church where conflict is the main menu whenever the community is gathered. A small rural church was beset with conflict among its members, and quite proud of the fact. A number of diocesan clergy had taken turns at trying to help resolve the conflicts and were sent packing. The lifestyle of conflict became obvious to one pastor on a day when a new family showed up and two people got into a verbal spat in front of them. The family left, never to return. The pastor tried to point out that this behavior was damaging, but the people involved said this was who they were – like it or leave it! It was only after years of this conflict that a faithful and loving priest came to live in their community and slowly began to help them learn new behavior, mainly by modeling it himself.

If you are listening at this point you have likely been thinking of how your own faith community compares with these anecdotes. There are countless ways to evaluate the health of a congregation, and some are better than others. Every faith community has its own style of life that is built into its identity and history, and it can be difficult to change if it is unhealthy.

The passage from Matthew for this Sunday concludes with a well-known teaching: “Wherever two or three are gathered together in my name, I will be in the midst of them.” This is always heard as a reassurance that God desires us to be in community, whether small or large. Being alone is not necessarily bad, but it can lead to isolation and arrogance. The Divine Triune God is a God of relationships, a dynamic force that empowers our spirituality and grounds us in faith.  The Trinity models what our relationships are to be: fully in unity and desiring of diversity.

Depression in congregations often comes from our tendency to allow only like-minded or similar types of people into the community of believers. Things become static and nothing challenges us to grow and become more like what God desires the Church to be. The healing of depression in a congregation comes when new relationships are formed. Some smaller congregations are organized into clusters or regional groups with shared leadership for that very reason. Vitality comes when new people enter the scene, new ideas are introduced, and the same old way of doing things is transformed.

Jesus does not envision the Church to be a place of contention and conflict. But we know stories of his disciples and from the Book of Acts that the Early Church experienced a lot of tension and disagreement, even among its apostolic leaders. However, as the church expanded into the Greco-Roman civilization in the West, it had to take on and embrace different norms and customs, as it does even today. The challenge for the Church will always be to find and implement new ways of proclaiming the Good News. When we are engaged in that enterprise, when we are more concerned about serving others than survival, there will be less conflict and more delight in the people that God sends to us and sends us to. The health of any congregation rests on its sense of mission, and its willingness to be flexible and welcoming, as Christ welcomes each of us. Amen.

[1] Much of Leas’s material is available on the Internet and from his books available through the Alban Institute.

Ben Helmer is a retired Episcopal priest living in the Diocese of Arkansas.

Download the sermon for the 14th Sunday after Pentecost (A).