The end of Matthew’s Gospel today references the presence of God that we experience when we are engaged in various forms of prayer.
“For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.”
God dwells among us when we are gathered together as prayerful people – prayers of song and of speech, prayers of silence and of laughter. Studying, worshipping, healing, serving. God is always with us. And when we are focused and receptive to God, wholly occupied with God, we experience a deeper aspect of God.
What Matthew is talking about is not a passive, “just show up to church and the magic will happen.” Matthew’s words come from the Jewish understanding that God dwells where people are participating and engaging together in prayer, a particular form of God’s presence when we share the time and space to be in community together.
The Hebrew word for this is shekhinah. And Matthew, who was writing for a Jewish community coming to know themselves as followers of Jesus, knew shekhinah to be the aspect of God which rests between and among people who are occupying themselves with the joyful adoration of God that happens in the midst of all that takes place in our lives… good, bad, hard times and easy times, our worries about friends and family in places of fire and flood and hurricanes, our grief and frustration about racism and deportation, and our joy in new births, deepening friendships, successful operations, and serving others… all of it.
The shekhinah comes to dwell as we open ourselves in joyful adoration in the worship of God. And so it actually matters how we bring ourselves to one another, how we offer ourselves here… in our sanctuary.
Today we return to our beloved St. John’s sanctuary after spending 2 months in our “summer chapel.”
This sanctuary that was reshaped to include a center aisle when the church was moved stone by stone from its location on Wall St in 1926.
This sanctuary that is graced by these amazing windows depicting the beauty of creation given in honor of people who lived well over 100 years ago.
This sanctuary that is decorated by the beautiful woodwork of George Huber, an immigrant to the United States, installed in the 1940’s during WWII.
This sanctuary where the baptismal font was moved from the private baptistry in the 1990’s so it could take its proper place in the public space of the church.
This sanctuary where people have been married and baptized, where we’ve cried and prayed and celebrated, where we’ve held funerals for our friends.
In this sanctuary, shekhinah has been with us, is with us, will remain with us – the spirit of God that flows among us as we sing the hymns of our tradition, as we speak the words of prayer, as we sit in silence, as we share the scripture, as we focus on God, as we bring ourselves fully to this place where we, as a community meet the living God with receptive, open hearts and minds.
In this sanctuary. This home for the community of St. John’s.
This spirit of God, this shekhinah, is an angel that hovers sweetly as a mother… gently nudging, and sometimes pushing, helping the community along. It listens and it speaks. It hears what is on our hearts and whispers hope.
It listens to our lives and brings us to new perspectives of what it means to Love each other. It attends to our pain and cracks open doors of forgiveness and new life… always leading us to the Table of Reconciliation.
This shekhinah is the angel of this place, the angel of our community that dwells among us and, as we open to it, refreshes our souls in this sanctuary and longs to be carried with us as we leave this place and offer ourselves in ministry to the world.
We come to this sanctuary to hear the stories of our tradition, to listen deeply and connect them to our own lives. To find meaning in our lives through the stories that have been handed down to us.
How does the story inform and instruct us? How does the story challenge us? Comfort us? How does the story invite us to the Table of Reconciliation at the center of our sanctuary?
When we hear Jesus today, through Matthew’s Gospel, talk about responsibility, what does the Angel of this Place have to offer you? As it hears what is on your heart, how is it informing you and instructing you? How is it opening you up to the Table of Reconciliation?
Take a moment now and rest in the knowledge that this angel is here with us and rest deeply in these questions. Open your mind and your heart. Rest yourselves in this Sanctuary and listen to the Angel of this Place. Just listen. Let any remaining hisses of fear and division drift away. And just listen… for the whispers of hope and of grace and of love.
Here’s a parsing of today’s lesson from the Gospel
Matthew is structured with 5 discourses; 5 sets of interactions that occur after major parts of the story, in which Jesus is speaking with the Disciples, with us, to instruct us. If we consider it, Matthew’s technique is masterful. He offers a story and then helps the readers interpret the events through Jesus direct interaction with us, the Disciples.
Today’s passage comes from the 4th discourse, on the communal responsibilities to one another. In chapters 15 and 16, Jesus comes into conflict with the Jewish leadership – the Sadducees and Pharisees – and they have accused him of being evil. He can see what’s coming. They can all see what’s coming. In last week’s Gospel, we know that Jesus understands his fate is one of great suffering in Jerusalem. Peter objects to this and so he chastises Peter with the words, “Get behind me, Satan!”
And, knowing that he must take the opportunity now, he starts instructing them on how to carry on this movement that he’s started in his anticipated absence, first emphasizing humility earlier in Chapter 18. This doesn’t come in our readings this year, but it’s worth reviewing:
‘Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”
He’s talking about the humility of one who is receptive, who is listening and learning, not to leave our brains at the door, but to allow our pride and our know-it-allness to take a back seat.
And he goes on to say, “If any of you put a stumbling-block before one of these little ones who believe in me, it would be better for you if a great millstone were fastened around your neck and you were drowned in the depth of the sea. Woe to the world because of stumbling-blocks! Occasions for stumbling are bound to come, but woe to the one by whom the stumbling-block comes!” (Mt 18:1-6)
Take a moment again and tune in again: What does the Angel of this Place have for you today? How is this presence of God informing and instructing you? How is shekhinah inviting you to the Table of Reconciliation?
The word “disciple” which is what we are as followers of Jesus, has the same root as “discipline”… discere, to learn.
After “humility,” Jesus talks about “responsibility” in today’s Gospel and in the readings for the next two weeks. The responsibility we have for one another in building the church, the ekklesia (from the Greek) – those who are called out into mission.
I was speaking about this with someone earlier this week – the importance of pastoral care, of caring for one another because the larger task of mission is hard work. So, to one another, we offer kindness and extend forgiveness.
And we engage in spiritual work so that we become more mindful of the ways in which we might become those stumbling blocks Jesus is talking about, those traps of unhelpful behaviors that are the ways of the world, not the ways of Christ.
This pastoral care is something we are all responsible for because it is how we are responsible to one another. It is the building up of the community, the lifting up of one another, extending the benefit of the doubt, offering mercy and tolerance and acceptance, disciplining ourselves because we are disciples…
Something I endeavor to remember: Be kind. Everyone is going through a hard battle.
All the ways in which we make of ourselves a joyful offering so that the community and not get lost in the minutiae and the drama so that the community can become the Body of Christ broken for the world and live out the Easter command, the Great Commission given to us on Easter morning: “Go to Galilee. Go to Galilee where Jesus has already gone ahead of you.”
Humility and responsibility – the qualities necessary in a community named the ekklesia. Two weeks ago we talked about this word that Matthew uses – ekklesia. We translate that as “church.” In the original Greek, the word means those who are called out by someone for something for a purpose.
Our own Presiding Bishop Michael Curry calls this the Jesus Movement. And when he became Presiding Bishops a few years ago, he spoke to the whole church in a video filmed in our own Cathedral of St. John the Divine in NYC. And here’s what Bishop Michael says:
“When Jesus called his first followers he did it with the simple words “Follow me.” “Follow me,” he said, “and I will make you fish for people.” Follow me and love will show you how to become more than you ever dreamed you could be. Follow me and I will help you change the world from the nightmare it often is into the dream that God intends. Jesus came and started a movement and we are the Episcopal branch of the Jesus movement.”
Coming our sanctuary every week is a homecoming. Not just a homecoming to our physical space but to our own souls, remembering our own souls – the sanctuary that we carry with us, where God is always present. The world can a wearying place. We know this now more than ever.
And as people of faith, we find rest as we gather together here with the Angel of this Place who whispers to us as it nurtures our souls so that we can be agents of healing in and for the world.
Take a moment again: What does the Angel of this Place have for you today? How is this presence of God informing and instructing you? How is shekhinah inviting you to the Table of Reconciliation?
As Bishop Michael finishes his talk to us in that video, he reflects on an interaction he had with a Mennonite pastor who had been sent by his church to organize a community of faith in the streets, a community without walls.
He said the Mennonite community asked him to do this because they believed that in this environment in which we live, the church can no longer wait for its congregation to come to it, the church must go where the congregation is.
Bp. Michael continues: Now is our time to go. To go into the world to share the good news of God and Jesus Christ. To go into the world and help to be agents and instruments of God’s reconciliation. To go into the world, let the world know that there is a God who loves us, a God who will not let us go, and that that love can set us all free.
May it be so.