September 7, 2014

Church of Peace, United Church of Christ

Rev. Mariah Marlin-Warfield

Matthew 18:1-20

Introduction to the Scripture

Coming to Church of Peace is like coming back home. Here it feels like home. During our visioning process this past year, we worked to identify the gifts and strengths of Church of Peace. Again and again, this claim rose to the top. This church is like home, and the people are our family. There’s a certain hopeful promise in this idea. But it’s not without trouble too…

Home is where you know who you are, the place of warm embrace that smells like cinnamon. There are flowers in the front and a dog asleep by the fire. And home can also be a place of pain; the church can be too.

Coming to church is like coming home, is what we say. If you find this is true for you, I am glad. But you might hear us say, “Coming to church is like coming back home.” You might think, Maybe for you, but not for me. Maybe for them, but not for us. See, this is my first time visiting. Or this is the first time I’ve been here in thirty years. You might think, this is the first church I’ve set foot into since I came out as gay. Or this is the church I used to go to with my family, now it’s just me, coming here is not the same.

Whoever you are and wherever you are on life’s journey, you are welcome here. You might even be home. You might even find these are the people who become your family. I don’t know where your journey will lead; I do know this. If there are times when you feel like an outsider, if you wonder whether you really fit, you’re more at the edges than the center, know that you are not alone. This is a holy place.

Of course, it can be dreadfully uncomfortable. Not all the way inside at the center, but not all the way outside either.  You have been to this place if you’ve ever stood on line outside waiting for the door to be unlocked. Or if you have ever gone through a lunch line: You have your tray with your salad, and your plate, and your drink. Now you have to find somewhere to sit. So the litany begins:, “Hey do you mind if I join you?” “Could I sit here?” Here you are with your tray of food all paid for wandering with no place to sit. These are the edges, and this is a holy place.

Today we’re beginning our fall sermon series called “Jesus said what?!” It explores a set of teachings in the Gospel of Matthew that confound expectations. Now the scripture we’ll hear in just a minute deals with matter of determining who is inside and who is outside. Not a small question when it comes to the kingdom of heaven. Who gets to sit at our table and who is left looking for a spot?

Something I find striking is that Jesus’ tone is so matter-of-fact. He speaks with authority that makes things so clear-cut, so black-and-white. Like in each of the situations he names, the decision is perfectly obvious. Of course you should welcome a child, or cut off your hand if your hand makes you stumble. Of course you would leave ninety-nine sheep alone in the mountains, so you can go look for the one gone missing. Who wouldn’t.

I imagine the crowds sitting around him and asking each other, “Really?! Does he really mean this?” so if you find yourself asking that too, welcome to the edges. If you’re thinking this is not so black-and-white, me too. We gather here on the outside looking in. This is a holy place. May God bless our reading and hearing of this word.

Reflection on the Scripture: I’m New Here Too

Our Gospel reading this morning serves as an interlude from the edges. In between the transfiguration and the day he rides into Jerusalem,  Jesus is traveling with his disciples. Along the way, he gives church management seminars and tells stories of the kingdom to anyone who will listen. In the plot structure of the Gospel, this set of teachings is an interlude from the edges.

Now it is also the case that this book was written about fifty years after Jesus’ death and resurrection. The early church was beginning to find its organizational structure, and as you can guess, this came with conflict. A primary concern for this community is: Who is really part of the church and who must be rejected? Who’s in and who’s out. We say, “Whoever you are and wherever you are on life’s journey, you are welcome here” —like that’s so easy. Really, this can be a place of tender struggle. Our scripture today comes from the heart of this struggle.

It begins when Jesus makes a radical statement of welcome. He calls a child to come over, and he says, whoever becomes humble like this child will get into the kingdom of heaven. Whoever welcomes this child, welcomes me.

Okay, this doesn’t sound so bad. In the ancient world, a child had no status, a child was hardly thought of as a person. These days, we know better. Of course we mean to welcome children, surely this teaching is black-and white! Except it isn’t. Even in a world that means to value children, we have fierce debate on funding literacy education for the littlest ones. We don’t agree on whether to allow children from Central America to find refuge in our communities. It’s not so easy to welcome Christ after all…

The next few teachings seem to send a mixed message. Jesus says, welcome the littlest child. Then he says, if anyone makes a child stumble, it would be better for that person to be drowned in the sea. If your hand or your foot makes you stumble, cut it off! It is better to get into the kingdom missing some parts than to be thrown into the hell of fire. A compelling argument when you say it like that! But is that really the choice?

Jesus goes on to ask, “What do you think? If a shepherd has a hundred sheep and one of them goes astray, does he not leave the ninety-nine sheep in the mountains to go search for the one who got lost?” The way he asks this makes you want to answer, “Why, of course he does!” But does that really make sense?

Welcome every child, the least and littlest! If one sheep goes missing, go look for that lamb. All are welcome and needed in the kingdom of heaven. Of course, if somebody causes a child to stumble, they’re better off drowned. If a member of the body causes sin, cut them off and cast them out. Sounds like it should be such a simple sorting out! You’re in, you’re out; sheep over here, goats over there. This is the message of Matthew; the message of Jesus might be different.

Our scripture ends with a more hopeful teaching. Instead of such swift sorting-out, we hear instructions for a process of conflict resolution. First talk to the person, then go back again with others, then reach out to the church, then try this. It’s not just inside or outside, two choices. There are also the edges. Reconciliation happens at the edges. Looking for a place to sit and eat happens at the edges. The edges are a holy place.

A few weeks ago some old friends moved to Davenport. They invited me to lead a blessing of their new home on the day they closed and got the keys. At the time when they asked, I was skeptical about how this would go. I know how it is to move. It is exhausting and stressful in ways you can’t prepare for.  So on the day you’re leaving one house several hours away, finalizing the paperwork with the bank, getting your cars registered, and waiting on a furniture delivery, you really want to take a half hour in the middle of all this to have a blessing? Now  I could understand a housewarming party a few weeks after you’ve had a chance to settle in and unpack. But blessing the house now? It’s not even your home yet! Exactly.

When I showed up on their doorstep, there were happy hugs and welcome galore! There was no place to sit because the furniture hadn’t arrived, and no drinks or snacks, or any dishes. In one sense, we were all guests in this strange house, but that’s not how it felt. Right away they gave me a tour, the kids showed me their rooms. Imagine what we could put in the built-in trophy case!

Their welcome spilled into our blessing, and we began the ritual going from room to room announcing hopes, and dreams, and prayers. The littlest child blew bubbles in every room as a sign of the breath of the Holy Spirit.

I thought I had things pretty well planned, but as we walked through the front hall, the boys stopped me. “Wait! We have to bless the door!” You know they are right. Pray for old friends who come through the door and strangers who become friends too. Pray for those who stand on the front step and for all the welcome just inside.

Friends, I think it’s like this. In the middle of the busy stress of moving, please don’t forget to bless your home. In the middle of your planned-out liturgy of the rooms, don’t forget to bless the door. We can be the ones who offer welcome, even when we’re on the edges, even when we don’t know where to sit, even when all we can say, is “I’m not really sure. I’m new here too. But we will find a place together.” Because when it comes to the kingdom of heaven, you can be sure, we will find a place together.

If your experience of coming to Church of Peace is like coming home, I am glad. If you’re not so sure about church or not so sure about home, that’s okay too. The edges are a holy place, and Jesus finds us here. Wherever two or three gather, our savior shows up and looks for a place to sit. Together let us welcome the littlest children and Jesus too. In doing this, we just might find our way home. Amen.

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