The Rev. Jeremiah Williamson
It all seems so complicated, doesn't it? The Bible is too big and too complicated. The problems in our world are too big and too complicated. And it makes it difficult to know how to really live like a Christian in the world. We seldom come across anything simple.
The Bible is a huge book. Actually the Bible is a huge collection of books: 39 books in the Old Testament, 27 in the New Testament, and then, for us Anglicans, the books of the Apocrypha. And they are written by a wide variety of authors, with a wide variety of theologies, in a wide variety of genres, over a number of centuries. It is the kind of collection that has a martyred prophet in 2 Chronicles invoke the vengeance of God with his last breath and has another martyred prophet use his last breath to pray for the forgiveness of his killers. And they are both good guys. It is a complicated book.
And it is old. The newest stuff in the Bible is around 1900 years old. That is the newest. It can be difficult to make sense of the cultural differences in books from the early 20th century, and so the first century can seem very remote - let alone the 8th century BCE. Reading and understanding and applying the Scriptures to day to day life is not easy. The book is too big and too complicated.
And the world in which we live is big and complicated too. It is packed full of cultures and religions and individuals with their individual circumstances. The course of history can turn on one person's bad day. Then again a group of a million people with good intentions, big hearts, and strong passions, can fail to make any impact at all.
And the problems we face in the world seem overwhelming: global warming, gun violence, global poverty, hunger. It can be stressful trying to pull together your family's weekly meal schedule, let alone untangle centuries of conflict in the Middle East. It can overwhelming to the point of paralysis or apathy. We live in a big world with complicated problems.
And we are called to live in this complicated world as Christians. And the book to which we might turn for guidance is seldom clear, often contradictory, and very old. It is not easy.
And as a priest, I hear this. And I get it. It is not easy to live in the shades of grey. Which is why many folks yearn for black and white, clear-cut answers. It is why folks devotedly cling to those who might just tell them what to think and say and do. And there are plenty of people, religious leaders, news channels, politicians, who are happy to tell others what to think and say and do.
This, however, is not usually a feature of the Episcopal tradition. We tend to be middle way people - preferring the both/and to the either/or. Our tradition favors the big tent approach, invites diversity of thought and belief. And that is a good thing. I think our ethos encourages community and reconciliation; I think it helps us avoid fundamentalism and inflexible judgmental attitudes.
But it takes a lot energy to live in the grey. It requires huge amounts of intention. It means trying to make the most Christian life decisions possible in situations Christ perhaps never personally faced. It means embracing that there are times when none of the options are good and the best choice might be the lesser of evils.
And so every once in a while, it is nice to encounter a simple gospel. Today's gospel is just three verses long. It is not a parable. It is not a complex theological treatise. It is not a fantastical event beyond the realm of our normal life experience.
Instead, it is about basic human relationships. I think of this small passage as the gospel on a micro level. This is the kingdom of God experienced at the grass-roots level – Christ present in the simple encounter with another human being.
In this gospel passage, Jesus tells his followers to honor each other. Basically, there were Christians in the early Church who shared the Gospel on the road; and there were those who shared the Gospel closer to home. The spread of the Gospel was reliant on both callings; they were complimentary roles within the growing Church. Jesus is asking Christians to honor each other, care for each other, recognize the need those with various ministries have for each other.
This is a timeless message for the Church. We Christians need each other. Together we make up the body of Christ. And for the first century Christians in Matthew's community this message carried additional weight. You might remember the Gospel passage from last week; it immediately precedes today's passage in the context of the Gospel. In last week's Gospel we were reminded that many members of the early Church were forced to choose between family and Jesus. And many of those who chose Jesus, were disowned by their family, their friends, and their neighbors.
The Church became their new family; a new community established on Christ. They really needed each other. And that is why Jesus' message to the Church in the Gospel is: welcome each other, take care of each other, love each other.
And this is where this Gospel becomes so simple and so practical – not easy, but simple and practical. Living the Gospel might just be as simple as seeing Jesus in each other.
There is an Indian greeting with which many of you are probably familiar: namaste. Namaste can basically be translated as “I bow to the divine in you.” With hands together in a prayer position over the heart, the one greets the other with a bow, honoring the infinite worth of the person.
It is an idea that, when embodied, could change the world. And it is a promise that we have made to God; as baptized Christians we have promised to seek and serve Christ in all persons, to recognize and bow to the divine in each person we encounter. What would it look like if every Christian took this baptismal promise seriously? What would it do to our families? What would it do to our church? Our neighborhoods? Our cities? Or to the world? What if everywhere you looked you saw Jesus – in every face? And then treated each person you encountered as you would treat Jesus?
When you walk out these doors today, you go as a representative of Christ. Whoever welcomes you, welcomes Jesus. But it goes both ways. The ones you welcome or don't welcome also bear the mark of the Divine.
The Bible is too big and too complicated. You will never figure the whole thing out. But you can still seek and serve Christ in your brothers and sisters. The problems in this world are too big and too complicated. You probably won't win a Nobel Peace Prize. But you can still change the world with love, by honoring the divine spark in each person you encounter.
Once upon a time, there was an old monastery tucked away in the middle of a forest. For many years people would seek out the monastery. The peaceful spirit of the place was healing for the soul.
But as time passed fewer and fewer people were making their way to the monastery. The monks had grown jealous and petty in their relationships with one another, and the animosity was felt by those who visited.
The Abbot of the monastery was distressed by what was happening, and poured out his heart to his friend, a wise old Jewish rabbi. Having heard the Abbot’s tale of woe he asked if he could offer a suggestion. “Please do” responded the Abbot. “Anything you can offer.”
The old rabbi said that he had received a vision, an important vision: the messiah was among the ranks of the monks. The Abbot was flabbergasted. One among his own was the Messiah! Who could it be? He knew it wasn’t himself, but who? He raced back to the monastery and shared his exciting news with his fellow monks.
The monks grew silent as they looked into each other’s faces. Was this one the Messiah?
From that day on the mood in the monastery changed. Brs. Joseph and Ivan started talking again, neither wanting to be guilty of slighting the Messiah. Brs. Pierre and Thomas left behind their frosty anger and sought out each other’s forgiveness. The monks began serving each other, looking out for opportunities to assist, seeking healing and forgiveness where offense had been given.
As one traveler, then another, found their way to the monastery word soon spread about the remarkable spirit of the place. People once again took the journey to the monastery and found themselves renewed and transformed. All because those monks knew they were in the presence of the Messiah.
Sometimes things are simple – as simple as opening our eyes and being transformed by the things we see. A community of people who seek and serve Christ in all persons, a church of people who see Jesus in every face is the answer to all of those problems in this world that seems too big and too complicated. It's a simple thing; simple but certainly not easy. But maybe we can do it. Or maybe we can at least try. Or maybe we can try, with God's help. Let's do that. Namaste.