Gentiles, Tax Collectors, and the Unity of the Church – a sermon

Today’s sermon is available to download on the Saint Paul’s website, or you can read on.

        In the pew rack right in front of you there is a book.  It is red and it has a cross on the front, but it is not the Bible.  It is The Book of Common Prayer and Administration of the Sacraments and Other Rites and Ceremonies of the Church Together with The Psalter or Psalms of David which is more commonly called the Prayer Book.  The particular version you have was approved at the 66th General Convention of The Episcopal Church held in Denver, Colorado in 1979, and so many lovingly refer to it as the ‘79 Prayer Book to distinguish it from the versions approved in 1928, 1892, 1789, 1662, 1559, 1552, or 1549.  We rarely open that book on Sunday mornings, but almost everything you find in the bulletin comes from it.  It really is a treasure trove of spiritual resources and hopefully you’ll come to my Saint Paul’s 101 class and learn more about it.

        If you would, please take the Prayer Book and open it almost to the very back.  On page 845 you’ll find the beginning of “An Outline of the Faith commonly called the Catechism.”  The Catechism is, as the title suggests, merely an outline.  It doesn’t give us the full understanding of the Church’s teaching on any particular issue, but it is a starting place.  Honestly, it is pretty Busch League to begin a sermon with a quote from the Catechism, so I’ve given you this brief history lesson to start with instead.

        Now, turn with me to page 855. At the top of the page, you’ll see a question that has plagued Christians for 2,000 years.  “What is the mission of the Church?”  Ask one hundred church members that question and you’ll get at least a hundred different answers.  Conflicting ideas of what the Church should be about have caused most of the divisions in the Church, and it is probably part of what Jesus had in mind here in the eighteenth chapter of Matthew’s Gospel when he looked at his disciples and said, “If another member of the Church sins against you…”  If we’re honest with ourselves, we sin against one another with shocking regularity.  Saint Paul’s in Foley is certainly better than most, but even the best of us fails to live fully into the lofty mission of the Church “to restore all people to unity with God and each other in Christ.”  Even the most faithful church members have their own ideas of what the Church should be about: who it should serve, what the preaching should be like, how strong the coffee should be and whether we need sprinkles on our donuts.  When those concerns begin to get in the way of sharing the Good News of Jesus Christ, we have sinned, against one another and against God by falling into disunity and discord.

        I’m reminded of a story I once heard about a man who had been shipwrecked on a deserted island.  Finally, after almost twenty years he was discovered by a passing ship.  As the rescue boat landed on the beach, the man was thrilled to see another human being.  Hugs and tears were followed by a quick tour of the island that the man had lived on for so long.  There were three buildings.  As they approached the first building, the man pointed to it and proudly said, “This is my home.”  The second building he showed them was his church.  At the third building he stopped, shook his head, and said, “This is the church I used to go to.”

        The Church is full of people and therefore it is full of sinners, but we are sinners who have been redeemed through Christ; sinners who, ideally, seek out the Kingdom of God.  Jesus knew our sinfulness and wanted to ensure that God’s Kingdom would continue to be built even in his absence, and so he gave his disciples a few suggestions on how to deal with the inevitability of church conflict.  Woven into each of the steps, from confronting the one who has sinned against you alone to bringing him before the whole congregation, is the underlying mission of the Church: “to restore all people to unity with God and each other.”  And then, “When all else fails,” Jesus says, “when the one who has sinned against you won’t even listen to the whole Church, then treat that one as a Gentile and a tax collector.”

        It would be easy to read this as Jesus giving us permission to excommunicate everyone who disagrees with us.  After all, Gentiles and tax collectors were the worst of the worst.  Gentiles were bad enough, outsiders who didn’t follow the laws of Moses and who worshiped false gods, but tax collectors were even worse.  They were Jewish men who conspired with the pagan, Gentile, Roman occupiers to take taxes from God’s chosen people, paid in coins with the Emperor’s face on them, and who often took a couple of extra coins for themselves while they were at it.  You couldn’t be worse than a two-faced, traitor, tax collector, and Jesus said to treat the unreconciled Church member like one of them.

        Problem is, before he became one of the original twelve disciples of Christ, Matthew was a tax collector: one of those very same two-faced, traitors.  In chapter nine, we hear the story of Jesus meeting Matthew for the first time.  Matthew was in his tax booth, minding his own business, when Jesus came up to him and said, “Follow me.”  In an instant, he left everything to follow Jesus. That night, they had dinner at Matthew’s house surrounded by other sinners and tax collectors.  The Pharisees got wind of this motley crew of a dinner party and confronted the disciples about it.  “Why does your teacher eat with such scum?”[1] they asked.  Jesus replied, “Healthy people don’t need a doctor, only those who are sick… I have come to call sinners, not those who think they are already good enough.”[2] [scratches head]

        “And if the offender refuses to listen even to the church, let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.”  This doesn’t seem quite so cut and dry does it?  Jesus treated Gentiles and tax collectors pretty well.  He healed them.  He ate with them.  He called them to follow him.  In short, he loved them.  When all else fails, when we’ve hurt each other and reconciliation seems far away, Jesus tells us to love, for it is only through love that unity, with God and with one another, is possible.

        Fortunately, this sermon doesn’t come at a time in our church life that is full of conflict.  Instead, I stand here this morning very proud to be a part of the Saint Paul’s family.  It has been five weeks since we were first informed of Father Keith’s health issues.  Some congregations would have freaked out when they heard that their Rector had been put on pseudo-isolation or that he had a mass on his lung or that he was having a biopsy and maybe major surgery or that he’d be out for six weeks.  Y’all have handled it remarkably well.  Even in the midst of a lot of uncertainty, the rumor mill has been fairly quiet.  People have given Keith space to deal with it all.  Person after person has volunteered to help do whatever they can to keep this place running smoothly.  Instead of falling into disunity and discord, you have modeled what it means to live in unity and love one another.  Thank you for that.  Thank you for continuing to live into the mission of Saint Paul’s by reaching up in worship, reaching in to serve, and reaching out in love and thank you for living into the mission of the Church by seeking unity with one another and with God every step of the way.  Thank you for your faithfulness, for you witness, and for your love.

[1] 9:11 NLT

[2] 9:12-13 NLT

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