Happy New [Church] Year

Exodus 14:19-31, Matthew 18:15-20, September 7, 2014

Today feels like the start of a new year. The choir is back. Sunday school is holding its Open House and Confirmation is having its organizational meeting this morning. There’s another change that I want to bring to your attention as well. I will be preaching texts from the lectionary for the next several months.

The lectionary is a cycle of Bible lessons keyed to the church year. Many different denominations use what is now called “The Common Lectionary.” There are four readings for each Sunday. Most of the time there is an Old Testament Lesson, one from the Psalms, a gospel reading and a reading from another text in the New Testament. For Presbyterian preachers, the lectionary is not recommended and certainly not required.

For about the past six years I have been selecting—with a lot of guidance and suggestion from the congregation—the texts that are read in worship, the texts that become the foundations of sermons. I’m choosing to preach from the lectionary starting today because our Sunday school curriculum follows the lectionary. The Christian Education Committee and I hope that there will be a lot of commonality in worship and Sunday school this way. Perhaps the lessons of scripture can be reinforced by Sunday school lessons, and vice versa.

“This day shall be a day of remembrance for you. You shall celebrate it as a festival to the Lord; throughout your generations you shall observe it as a perpetual ordinance.” is God’s command for remembering the Passover. This is the central event in Judaism, for it was at the Passover that God began to form those who were slaves in Egypt into God’s chosen people. And so observing the Passover every year is a joyous and hallowed responsibility for Jews. And it is more than retelling the story of God’s deliverance with a strong hand and outstretched arm. The story is told again and again and again to all generations because every succeeding generation need to feel, trust and believe that it has been delivered by God. It is not that God’s deliverance happened once, a long time ago. But that God’s at work right now, delivering the nation from the bonds of slavery.

Notice that I did not say that God is at working delivering each of us from our own personal Egypt, from our own personal kind of slavery. It is easy to personalize this message and imagine that the slavery of the Hebrews is a metaphor for one’s own personal suffering. But that’s not what people have gathered to remember and celebrate for more than 25 centuries. God has redeemed us from slavery and delivers the entire nation. And that act of deliverance is the identity of the people of Israel. We are a nation whom God has rescued. Not through our own initiative, but by working with the Master of the Universe, and responding to God’s leading, we are claimed as God’s people.

Yet God calls each of us in a different way and from different circumstances. And God calls us all into community. As a nation, as a church, and as a congregation. And so while each of us is blessed with different gifts and talents, abilities and inclinations, we are called to be together. The author of Ephesians describes the church as “members of one another.” We are members of other people who are very different from us. We talked about this very fact as the Nominating Committee met Tuesday night to begin looking for new ruling elders and deacons. I was frankly surprised that the members of the Nominating Committee were so aware of their gifts and the sorts of things they enjoy doing and bring them satisfaction. Not everyone enjoys everything that needs to be done at church—but everyone on the Nominating Committee understands that all these tasks are important. It is the challenge for this and every congregation to form ourselves in response to God’s call into a community of faith, a collection of different gifts, with a huge variety of opinion and outlooks—and to find common purpose and identity in the midst of such variety.

There is tension in this endeavor—tension between being an individual and being part of a community. Tension between responding to God’s call alone, and as a part of the Body of Christ.

The things we do together help to resolve this tension and mold us into a community. For centuries Jews have been celebrating the Passover and thus renewed their identity as a people before God. We do similar things together which give us identity as a community. Every Sunday morning there is the miracle of coming together to worship and sing and hear God’s word proclaimed and sometimes, like today, to celebrate the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper together.

Our celebration of the Joyous Feast of the People of God is rooted in the seder that is the meal when Jews remember the Passover. Jesus was sharing the seder with his disciples in what became known to Christians as the Last Supper.

Everything I’ve said about being together is true, but it’s not complete. Because it is also true that those who call themselves the People of God, and try to be the People of God, are forever falling short of God’s vision for our life together. Because each of us is imperfect and vulnerable and each of us stands in need of the grace of Jesus Christ. And so, sometimes the church stands accused of—at best, not looking much like the people of God, or—at worst hypocrisy. Because we are better at preaching than practicing our faith. Or as I heard in a song recently, “You’re talkin’ fast, but you’re preachin’ feast.”

The church should be held accountable for what it does in the name of God—and it should not be expected to be perfect. We should be held accountable for what we do as part of the Body of Christ—and we should not expect ourselves to be perfect.

But how are we to deal with imperfection, disagreement, conflict and friction as the People of God? First of all, conflict in the church, disagreement between church members, should come as no surprise. Most of Paul’s letters were written to churches that had basic disagreement about how Christians should live together. Even Jesus gave instruction for how disputes should be handled. The appearance of harmony is no indication of God’s favor. Rather, God’s presence is shown in how people live with one another in disagreement.

So Jesus tells his disciples simply that when they have been victims of another member’s sin, it’s their job to point that out to the other member. Jesus does not instruct us to hold onto hurts caused by other people, or to just let them go. Jesus instructs the members of one another not to be victims, but to speak up and be responsible for themselves. And if that doesn’t work, invite others to help the offender see his sin. Finally, Jesus explains that offenders are accountable to the entire body of the church, and the church has the authority to expel people until they repent.

And who is the church that it has this kind of authority? It is sinful people who have drawn themselves together, responding to God, trying to live as God’s people. And so it’s possible for churches to make mistakes and hurt people deeply.

That’s a good place for each of us to start as individuals who want to be members of the body of Christ. We are in need of the grace of Christ.

It was God’s gracious act at the Exodus that turned the slaves in Egypt into a nation. And it is by God’s grace that we are able to hear and respond to the Good News. It is by grace that we can gather around the communion table and enjoy the joyous feast of the people of God. As the Book of Order says, “access to the Table is not a right conferred upon the worthy, but a privilege given to the undeserving who come in faith, repentance and love…Even one who doubts or whose trust is wavering may come to the Table in order to be assured of God’s love and grace in Jesus Christ.” [W-2.4011] No one has earned a place at this table, none of us is entitled to be here, yet Christ invites all of us. And because Christ has called us into a new way of life we can gather here, today, and support each other as we await the completion of God’s work among us. Amen.