Featured Sermon: Annual Council Eucharist – Bishop Barker
Holy Trinity – Lincoln
October 7, 2016
Jesus said, “Again, truly I tell you … where two or three are gathered together in my name, there I will be in the midst of them.”
– Matthew 18:20
Episcopalians may not always as biblically literate as we ought, but the words Jesus offers this evening are surely some of those that we know best and by heart. Where two or three are gathered together in my name, I will be in the midst them.
This idea informs our sacramental theology. We believe that Jesus is present in the rites of the Church – and especially in the sacrament of Holy Communion – in part because we believe these words to be true.
- This idea informs our ecclesiology – our understanding of what it means to be “church.” We believe that when we gather in the name of Jesus we actually become the body of Christ and that in no small part because of what Jesus says tonight.
- And maybe most of all – at the level of what we do and how we live day-in-and day-out as his disciples, we cherish the words of Jesus tonight because they offer hope when our efforts seem too modest or too small or too humble to really matter.
We take heart in this promise that he will be with us!
- Don’t worry if only three people come to the Bible study!
- Don’t despair when Morning Prayer is read for two!
- Don’t give up if the new church supper only turns out the usual suspects!
Where two or three are gathered together in my name, I will be in the midst them.
I love teaching about holy meetings. I actually got onto this because of a speaker I heard at an Annual Council of the Diocese of Nebraska probably 20 years ago. That person gave a superb presentation on how to help insure that church meetings were of an entirely different character than the rest of the meetings in our lives. I’ve never forgotten it.
Building on what I learned way back then, part of what I teach about how to run a holy meeting is to notice the affirmation we heard from Jesus tonight, and to take him at his word! IF we invite him, intentionally and by his name, Jesus will come. One key ingredient to making a meeting “holy” is to gather in the name of Jesus. I urge folks to do that by way of a prayer at the start of every church meeting of any sort. “We gather in the name of Jesus – and affirm that he is here with us.” That’s a huge start at making a meeting holy.
But the name of Jesus is not a magic talisman. And we’d be off base to think that Jesus is obligated to appear in our midst whenever we wish for him to come around.
Jesus is not Aladdin’s Genie, calling on his name is not like rubbing the lamp. If we would experience the presence of Christ when we call on him, our obligation runs deeper than merely saying his name. Jesus will show up – wonderfully, reliably and consistently to be sure – but only when in addition to calling out his name, we act like people gathered in that name!
Our new Presiding Bishop talks about the way of Jesus – and so the life of the Church – as being “loving, liberating and life-giving.” That seems like a terrific recipe for how we’re called to be if we would truly “gather” as disciples, and so be able to count on the person of Christ becoming present to us when we assemble in his name. This seems like a good roadmap for how to act as people who want to meet Jesus. Let us be loving, liberating and life-giving.
“Loving” is about how we treat one another. Loving in the fashion that will make Jesus present means looking for his image in those we’d normally cast out … it means forgiving those who have wronged us and acknowledging that every member of the human creation is made in God’s image … it means sharing generously with every neighbor from the gifts God has given to our care.
“Liberating” is about how we will be in the world. Being liberators means feeding the hungry, housing the homeless, caring for the environment – and tending to those in pain. Being liberators means fearlessly critiquing societal structures that privilege some at the expense of others, and doing our part to fight for all God’s children regardless of race, class, ethnicity or even religious preference.
And “Life-Giving,” it seems to me, is about embracing the sobering fact that as beings created in the image of God, it is possible – even demanded of us – that we act as co-creators with God. We are called to work together with the Creator to build a society that looks like the kingdom God intends. We are called to help give life to the world.
Marianne Williamson is famous for putting that truth and our attendant responsibility in this way:
Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate [but] that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us. You are a child of God. Your playing small does not serve the world. We are all meant to shine … we were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us.
Being “life giving” means shining with the glory of being created in God’s image.
What a terrific recipe for how-to “gather” as followers of Jesus and so be able to count on the person of Christ becoming present to us when we assemble in his name. Can we be loving, liberating and life-giving disciples?
Now let me tell you why I think we absolutely need to do this work. Let me tell you why all this matters. It matters because when things go right in the Church – when we see joyful and even miraculous results for our efforts at following Jesus, it is always because we are acting in this way. And when things go wrong in the church – when we fail as disciples – it is usually because we’re not acting in this way!
A whole lot of what lands on the desk of the bishop are “problems.” Those problems run the gamut from clergy-persons being naughty, to some important ministry not getting done as well as it might, to sudden and disruptive changes in parish leadership, to churches running out of money. And what I have noticed after doing this ministry for five years now, is that most of time, big trouble results not from those kinds of real challenges that we face as the Church, but from our failure to respond to those challenges in the fashion commended to us today.
– When we love and forgive those who have slighted us.
- When we’re generous stewards of our money and that of the
- When we take responsibility for doing the ministry that needs to be done in a given moment, and are prayerful and confident in the Spirit’s presence and
When we actually act like the loving, living and life-giving followers of Jesus that we are called to be – welcoming his very presence by calling on his name and practicing what he preaches – well suddenly the “problems” seem to have a way of working out!
Jesus shows up! And that changes everything!
A friend from another denomination got all exasperated with me a few months ago. “Agh,” she fumed, “You Episcopalians are so preoccupied with orthopraxy instead of orthodoxy. You’re more worried about how you behave that what you believe!”
Well – maybe! When Episcopalians are at our best we have the integrity and the courage to walk the walk and not just talk the talk. We KNOW our journey of faith does not end with a decision to accept Jesus as our Lord and Savior. We know the right belief is only the beginning of discipleship!
If for no other reason, you and I must take this work seriously because exactly one month from tomorrow, we’re all going to go and vote for a new President. While with all of you I’ve got my opinion and some good clarity about how I’ll cast my vote, my great concern is increasingly NOT the prospect that my candidate will lose, but rather how in the world our deeply divided country is going to get on, when half of us wake up on November 9, angry, scared and feeling more disenfranchised than ever.
Beloved – you don’t have to look any farther than the person sitting next to you in the Church pew to know what a supporter of that other candidate looks like. And it seems to me that the Church can either lead the way for our whole country in this moment, by being a community where we insist that our common bounds in Christ are bigger than any political candidate, party and divide. Or we can become the object lesson that Dr. Martin Luther King warned about when he said half a century ago that, “Together we must learn to live as brothers … or together, we will be forced to perish as fools.”
There is no more powerful name than that of our Lord Jesus. And if call on that name by gathering in the fashion he teaches, if we act in ways that are loving, liberating and life-giving to friend and foe alike …
Then we can be assured of his constant presence with us. And in his company, there is no challenge that we cannot overcome.
+ Bishop J.S. Barker