Sunday, September 10, 2023 – Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost
by The Rev. Dr. Richard Burden
Sermon preached by SPEAKER
Below is a DRAFT text of the homily. It may vary considerably from the recorded version. Please excuse typos and grammatical errors, and do not cite without permission.
Happy fall. It’s good to see you all. Welcome. Welcome to you who have been here a hundred times, and you who are here for the first time, and to you online. Welcome…to this community of faith.
What does that mean…to be a community of faith? It’s different than being a community of ukulele players, or stoic philosophers, or sci-fi nerds, right? Those are different communities, (although given who your rector is, there’s a pretty big overlap here in sci-fi/religion Venn diagram). But being an community of faith is not the same thing as being…a pickle-ball league. So if we’re not simply a meet-up group…what are we?
Community often refers to a locality, but that doesn’t even apply to us, because how many of you don’t even live in Brookline? Or are watching from another state?
What does it mean to be a community? What does it mean to be a community of faith?
This section of Matthew’s gospel is all about community…and how to live in community and what to do when conflict inevitably occurs, and people get worked up…caught up in their own stuff and hurt each other. This section of the gospel is the early church—Matthew’s community of mostly Jewish followers of Christ—trying to work out how to live with one another when there are both Jews and Gentiles in the mix. Trying to figure out how to co-exist with people from different families…different localities…some with profoundly different practices…and passionately held radically different beliefs…how do you create community out of that?
Well, it’s not easy, is it? And there is bound to be friction, but generally a community has to cohere around something in common. The word community shares a root with the word “common.” So by definition, a community is a group that shares something in common. So what do we have in common?
My friend and teacher Sam Portaro likes to say that, “Christians are a people who have absolutely nothing in common, except Jesus.” [Sam Portaro, Conflict and a Christian Life, p. 109]. That was certainly true in Matthew’s time…and it’s very often still true today…and important to remember when you find yourself in a heated debate about liturgy, or doctrine, hymn selections, or even typos in the bulletin…the one thing that all Christians have in common—maybe the only thing—is Jesus.
So that’s one thing…But we say this is a community of faith…We are primarily Christian, but this community is not exclusively Christian…There are beloved members of this community who are not Christian, and others who are not sure whether they are or not…so we need a broader sense of what we have in common…of what it means to be a community.
Matthew never uses the word “community.” He uses a Greek word that gets translated as “church,” but really it means “to be called out of.” A community of faith—a “church”—is a group of people who has been called out of the world…And called to God. So that is one thing—whether Christian or not—we all have in common.
No matter who you are, or where you are from, or where you are on your journey to God, or with God…if you’re here regularly, it means that there is something in you…some part of you…no matter how large or how small…there’s some part of you that longs for God…for the Divine…And maybe you call that beauty, or peace, or inspiration…or wholeness…or Jesus…but it’s there. It’s that part of you that looks around at the all the beauty and tragedy in the world…at all of the peril and all of the possibilities and thinks, “yeah, this isn’t it…” “there’s more…I know there more.” And you’re right, there is! There is life abundant, but we need a community to help us see that…to hold us accountable to that…to give us the courage and the perseverance to live that life..to be icons of that abundant life.
Many people see the church as just another voluntary association of like-minded, autonomous individuals like so many other meetups, social clubs, and fandoms. But that’s not what the church is…that’s not what this community of faith is…We are people who have been called out of the world…and called into a journey with God…into a collaboration with God for the sake of the world…for the repair of the world. We are people who are destined to live and work in the world, but who strive not to be conformed to it (Romans 12). We are (to coin a phrase), Strangers in a Strange Land.*
We have Jesus, we have a sense of being called out of the world…or maybe just of seeking something…deeper? truer? more authentic?…and whatever else we have in common…that’s up to you to discover.
Because any full understanding of what it means to be a community of faith…any comprehensive sense of what this particular community of faith truly has in common…that’s only going to come from you, as you open up and share, and question, and converse with each other. And many of you have been doing that for years…and some of you are only just starting to have these conversations here, so let me offer a starter question that might help us all stay focused on this sense of being called out of the world…that may help you frame what belonging to this community feels like to you, and how belonging to this community comforts you, and challenges you, and continues to change you… are you ready? Here’s the question: Why are you continuing to say yes to this community of faith? Think about it…ponder it in your heart…but don’t hold on to it…share it with others, and listen to and absorb what they say to you…be responsible to and for one another’s stories. Because these ongoing conversations are how God works with us and through us to ensure that this community will continue to sustain all of us.
* real meet up groups in the Boston area.
* referencing not only the Robert A. Heinlein classic, but also Willam Stringfellow’s classic An Ethic For Christians and Other Aliens in a Strange Land