theolog cabin

Hosted by semfem, this is a warm, cozy place to curl up and ponder theological matters.

Friday, August 04, 2006

October 17, 2004 (Reformation 3)

[preached at Amazing Grace Lutheran Church, Anchorage, AK]
Psalm 107:1-9
1 Corinthians 12:12-26
Luke 13:29-35 (primary text)

We focused on Reformation for the entire month of October, which was great. We used different parts of the ELCA mission statement ("Marked with the cross of Christ forever, we are claimed, gathered, and sent for the sake of the world") each Sunday, and took an ingathering at the end for future church leadership.

You know the drill...click on the time link to read my blathering.

Let us pray. May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O God, our rock and our redeemer. Amen.

I am the kind of person who is often accused of gathering too much stuff. I take huge suitcases on trips. I have plenty of clutter and boxes of stuff in storage. It's become a joke to my parents and friends, people who have helped me move all of that stuff many times.

I was a little surprised to look up "gather" and find out just how much gathering goes on in the Bible. The Israelites gather straw, animals, grapes, wheat, and manna, among other things. They are gathered by God, who makes covenants with them, speaks directly to them, and gives them the Torah. Those who heard the words of Jesus usually gathered to hear him speak. The difference between gathering on one's own and being gathered by God is that being gathered made the descendants of Jacob into a single people, into the people of God, shaped into his beloved people by the instruction he gave them. They were more than the sum of their parts, and more than people who simply shared a common interest. They were bound together into something greater than themselves. Likewise, those who came to hear Jesus speak were at first coming to hear a compelling teacher, but could not go away without being influenced by his words and healing.

Why is it important to speak of being gathered and not of gathering of our own accord? Because the idea of choosing to gather with others implies that we have the choice of whether or not to be influenced by others. After all, being gathered into community is only slightly younger than creation itself. Even God could see that it wasn't good for Adam to be alone and gave him a partner. Even the shyest of us were created as communal creatures, as people who are influenced by others and thrive when gathered into healthy communities. The concept of community is woven tightly into the entire Bible. An individual cut off from experiencing deep emotion--positive OR negative--for other people would somehow become less human. Not being influenced by anyone or anything would show a loss of life altogether.

Jesus speaks to the reality of being gathered when in another Gospel he talks about the wheat being gathered along with the weeds, because if the weeds are pulled up when the wheat is young, both will be uprooted together. Gathering is not a simple process, nor is it a smooth one. It is not all roses and sunshine and happy families. Frequently it involves a painful uprooting. It is one thing to speak of what God has created us to long for, fulfilling relationships and cooperation with others. It is another thing to see what really happens in communities, in nations, in congregations, in families, and speak the truth. Nothing is done in isolation from others, and pain always enters the equation at some point and in some degree. Even if we try to opt out of being gathered and withdraw from a community that is wounding us, we are still making decisions based on relationships with others.

Withdrawing from communities that wound us is sometimes necessary. Because no community can be completely shielded from pain, people sometimes do need to leave unhealthy situations for self-preservation. This is a natural reaction, just as turtles, hermit crabs and snails contract into their shells and retreat into safety. Humans react the same way once they have been stung or wounded. Eventually, with time and attention, the wound heals and we can once again take the risk of participating in community.

Some people take a long time to heal. Some withdraw permanently, believing they can only be healthy beings if they maintain absolute individuality. Some refuse to be influenced by others, valuing their own independence above everything. But being gathered into a healthy community does not mean that the community is perfect and without pain. It does mean that people do not stay wounded indefinitely. There is going to be pain, but the church is defined as a place where forgiveness happens in the face of that pain. If you were waiting for the Lutheran moment in this sermon, I'll give you a heads-up. This is it! Luther talked about each of us being both saint and sinner at the same time. A community can also be saint and sinner at the same time, both inflicting pain and seeking to heal that pain. Inconsistent? Perhaps. Reality? Yes.

Jesus' words show us that he sees and understands the possibilities and the realities of being gathered into community. On one hand he cries out that he has longed to gather all the children of Jerusalem, not as wheat into a storehouse, but as chicks under a hen's wings. But only a few sentences earlier he predicts that what God created us for will one day come true; that people will come from every direction to eat at God's table. Notice how the grammatical voice here has shifted so that people are gathering, rather than being gathered. In this future, the difference between gathering and being gathered by God has disappeared, because the will of God and the will of people are no longer opposed. God gathers, but the people want to gather as well. Jesus is all too aware that people in this world often resist being gathered for many reasons. He knows that the time when every last person gathers at God's table without pain is still in the future.

It is easy to see and think of examples of being gathered in the context of this congregation. Think of the feeling you get when we join hands after Communion or for the Lord’s Prayer.
Think of the joys and sorrows of others in this place that you have borne as if they were your own.
Think of someone here you have been angry with, and how that was or was not resolved.
Think of the path by which God gathered you into this place.

This last week, I've been thinking of a story that pushes the boundaries of who is gathered into a congregation. It’s a true story that happened just a few weeks ago to a congregation in Sacramento, California.

Gail was not yet forty years old. She worked part time as an administrative secretary for this congregation. She did not belong to the congregation, but those who knew her loved to talk with her about anything and everything. Some said that she was more authentic than many “proper” church people. She was beloved by her co-workers as a “real person.”

The week before last, Gail called in sick from work each day. She was struggling with severe back pain. The staff—pastor, intern pastor, and other office workers—called her each day that week, asking, pleading and finally begging Gail to let one of them take her to the doctor. Gail said no each time, refusing their help. On Saturday she didn’t answer her phone, but each of the staff left messages offering to help her in any way needed. Perhaps she had gone to the doctor after all, they thought.

But she did not return any of the phone calls, and so on Saturday night the pastor went over to Gail’s apartment and knocked—no, pounded—on the door. He could hear Gail’s dog, barking and barking, inside the apartment, but nobody answered the door. All he could do was call 911. Help arrived, and they found Gail in her bed. Nobody knows quite when she died.

The intern pastor—who shared Gail’s story with me—was sad that Gail had died, but most of all she was angry. Angry that Gail had refused to be cared for by the community around her. Angry that the congregation had chosen not to provide Gail with health insurance because she was a part-time employee. Angry that Gail had not sought medical help. Angry that she had been gathered into a relationship with this woman, which was now filled with pain.

It is not far from her grief and sadness to the lament of Jesus, when he cries out to Jerusalem, “How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!” Jesus sees the brokenness of the world, he sees both the joy and the pain that gathering causes, he sees the many children of Jerusalem fighting each other, and he weeps for it. But he does not give up on the children of Jerusalem. He continues to long to gather them together. In the words of the first verse, and also in the words of our psalm today, Jesus longs for a day when we can gather and be gathered at his table, from all directions, and there will be a place for everyone.

Today we are gathered into a community that both hopes and longs for this vision, but at the same time knows the pain that being gathered can cause. The good news is that God's love is greater than us and stronger than our disagreements. It gathers us together and is every day molding us as a church into the image of Christ, to bear each other's burdens and rejoice with each other. Amen.