Sermon for the 12th Sunday after Pentecost

WHEN CHRIST MAKES US FRIENDS (Matthew 18:15-20)

I have a friend whom I can call on at any time and he will help me or – lately – listen to me on the phone since he has moved too far away to be of practical help. Yet even the sounds of his voice and his words of love that can’t actually be backed up by actions – mean a lot to me and help me through the day. So I call him a lot.

This is the kind of friendship Jesus is talking about when he says: “For where two or three are gathered in my Name, I am there among them.” When my friend and I talk in the Name of Love, Love itself is there; and in opening ourselves to each other, we have opened ourselves to Christ and it is he who blesses our words and makes them more than actions alone! He makes those words little sacraments of his love. And just as the little round wafers become the host and sacrament bearing the presence of Christ into our very bodies, so too do these little words, these little collections of letters, become sacraments of Christ and carry his love into our hearts and minds.

Just the other day a friend drove up 45 minutes just to check on me after the hurricane and get reacquainted after a long absence. And between gathering for coffee and cake at 2 Alice’s, and the words she spoke and the way I opened my heart to hear her, Christ was present and it wasn’t just us but him too; for we were gathered in his Name. So without extra blessing or prayer or the presence of the church building, or a cross present anywhere, Christ was present because his children – we – were present. And he has promised to be wherever we are, without any of those other props.

Christ Jesus is a very human god, born to a human mother with human brothers, walking this earth, hanging out with friends, teaching and leading and eating and partying with friends, feeding hungry people, clothing the naked, helping those stricken with disaster like our terrible hurricane last week, and staying present with them in the storm instead of going off doing mystical things.

And that is enough. He is a God without props. It’s just him, with just a human voice and just human friends to teach us and bless us and love us; and just human feet to walk amongst us, and just a human heart to beat for us, and just a human life to give for us, until we all finally realized it was God in this human form and built a church around this idea.

The other day, last Tuesday, I read this gospel and I thought I’d put it to the test. All right, I thought, if Jesus – the God of Love – is present wherever two or three are gathered in his Name; then let me gather with someone else in his Name, in the name of Love, and see if he – if Love – is there too. It’ll be a test of this principle, an experiment.

So I asked Ben, my son, if he’d like to go out for coffee together – also at 2 Alice’s, though this is not meant to be a commercial for that coffee shop – and he did, for we both love going out for coffee. And this was instead of me going off by myself to think about God’s love and my sermon in some more mystical way; which I also, usually, like to do.

No, this was a test. If God really means these words, we’ll see if they’re true. Better to actually experience God than just to think about Him.

And didn’t God come and become incarnate as Jesus so He could experience us and we could experience Him, instead of just thinking about Him or worshipping Him or reading about Him?

And sure enough, God was there. A special feeling was there. Joy was there, just as it always is when Friends or Family or even Strangers gather together in His Name.

That is why the gathering in His Name is so important! That is why Jesus spends the previous few verses defending it, and talking about what to do if the bond of unity is ever threatened or broken. If someone has something against you or you have something against them, take it to them; then to a few witnesses; then to the church; then expel them from the church, because you don’t want this bond of unity threatened or eroded from within; for wherever two or three are gathered in my Name, there I am in the midst of them. So the two or three have to be able to gather without hindrance.

So where was God in this hurricane, now that I’ve done this big wind up on friendship? Where was God in the flooding and the ruined furniture and the expense and all the work?

God was in the friends and family and helpful strangers, in all the work. God was in the friends in other parts of the country whom you could call for an ear to listen to and a shoulder to cry on. God was in the friends who called you.

God, for me, was in the friends who showed up early on Sunday to start pumping out the church office so it wouldn’t be ruined. God was in others who’d showed up the day before to make sure everything was off the floor. God was in others who called me to check up on me.

Unfortunately I didn’t fully understand this Scripture last week or I would have been calling all of you to check up on you. I was still stuck in a pragmatic view of help, and thought: what can I, one person who’s new in town do to help so many? Well, words alone, as I discovered, mean a lot.

I also learned that you all know a lot about help and neighborliness and God’s presence when two or more are gathered, for I learned how many of you had reached out to each other; and that makes sense, for you have been a church since 1858. So there has been a long time for the habit of friendship, this ethic of friendship, to build up.

It is important to remember that this ethic of friendship and love that we share started with Jesus. It was he who gathered 12 disciples together, and then 70 other followers, and then called on them to feed the 5,000. It was he who taught them to love each other. Christianity is a social faith. It is impossible to be a Christian alone. As Paul says: all the commandments are summed up in these words – “Love your neighbor as yourself.”

This is how we are a church, not just in solitary prayer though that is important and I do a lot of it myself. Indeed, Jesus did a lot of it himself, going up on a mountain to pray, alone with his father in heaven. But when the disciples came to get him, as they often did, he put his solitary time behind him and went with them to teach them and love them, not even letting his relationship with his father get in the way; for he is the Lord incarnate, God made human. He came to us specifically to be with us, specifically to love us, specifically so we could turn to him in the flesh.

And this continues after his death and resurrection. For he promises that wherever two or three are gathered in his Name he’s there too, even after he’s dead.

I’ve found that to be true – in coffee, and hurricane help, and church. I’m sure you’ve found it to be true too. Isn’t it wonderful that we have a God who lived out a human life so we can live out our lives with Him, calling on Him when we’re in need, not having to go to special places with special things to find him. We only to need to go to special people, to friends and family and other members of the church, and even strangers, for he said he’d be there when we reached out to them. And we have found, in this last week of disaster, that He is. He is. Thanks be to God.

Amen.