The Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost – The Rev. Katharine Flexer

The Rev. Katharine Flexer

The Rev. Katharine Flexer

The Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost: September 11, 2016

Jeremiah 4:11-12, 22-28 | Psalm 14 | 1 Timothy 1:12-17 | Luke 15:1-10

Preacher: The Rev. Katharine Flexer, Rector of St. Michael’s Church

I begin with the invitation to communion from the Iona Community in Scotland:

This is the table, not of the Church but of Jesus Christ.
It is made ready for those who love God
and who want to love God more.
So come, you who have much faith and you who have little,
You who have been here often
and you who have not been for a long time or ever before,
You who have tried to follow and you who have failed.
Come, not because the Church invites you;
It is Christ who invites you to be known and fed here.

Today is our Welcome Back Sunday, and today is the 15th anniversary of the attacks of 9/11. In the midst of that mix of events, we are all welcome to the table. Come, you who are here because 15 years ago today your heart broke and you need to come and find solace for that grief. Come, you who are here because the summer is over and the school year has begun and it is time to reconnect with your community. Come, you who are here because hey, today there’s a barbecue. Come, you who are here because, well, you’re not just sure why you came, but here you are.

We are all of us welcome. Those of us who are among the 99 sheep who stay where we’re told, and those of us who wander off on the hillsides when the shepherd is calling. Those of us who need to be sought out, and those of us who have been here all along. Those of us who are overjoyed that we have finally found what we need, and those of us who are still searching. All of us, welcome here today.

It’s an odd juxtaposition, marking the anniversary of the 9/11 attacks on the same day we welcome the beginning of the program year. Today we’ll bless those beginning a new school year – most of them children and teens who were not born yet in 2001. For those of you who remember being in New York City on September 11, this day has one kind of feeling. For the many of us who have moved here since then, it feels different. And for those not yet even born when it happened, it’s even different still. Every year we get further away from those times is a reminder of how life goes on; how when we can’t imagine ever coming to terms with tragedy, the days and months and years peel by, regardless. There’s a mercy in that. And so we are forging ahead with the welcomes and the blessings and the new beginnings, even while we mark and grieve yet again. Recognizing that each of us is in a different place today, and glad of the differences. All of us are welcome.

Mercy and welcome – I think it’s a deeply human longing, a longing that every one of us shares. Perhaps you noticed an op-ed in the NY Times the other day by none other than Glenn Beck, the right-wing talk radio show host. He wrote about the need for empathy for those who differ from us. He acknowledged himself a ‘flawed messenger’ for the plea, but made it nonetheless, that we must seek reconciliation with one another in this country lest we descend further into hate. And Glenn Beck arrived at this, partly, by getting to know some of the leaders of the Black Lives Matter movement, and understanding them as human beings like himself. I admit I was amazed to read his words.

As I have preached before, I believe this too. We struggle so much in our time and culture with truly welcoming others who are different from ourselves. But it’s not just an American problem of 2016, of course; it’s a human problem with deep roots. And we have the most trouble welcoming and showing mercy to others when we lack understanding and truthfulness about our own selves.

Some of you know that one place you see this teaching is in the program of Alcoholics Anonymous. The Big Book of AA, by the bye, holds real wisdom that all of us can use – I commend it to you to read. I last read it a few years ago and was impressed again by its absolute frankness, for how straightforward it is about human nature and how often we all fool ourselves. Recently I came across a ‘simple version’ of the 12 steps. Step 1 is, ‘There is a power that will kill me.’ Step 2 is, ‘There is a power that wants me to live.’ And so on. Step 7 reads, “If you want your life to change, ask a power greater than yourself to change it for you. (If you could have changed it yourself, you would have long ago.) Step 8: Figure out how to make right all the things you did wrong. Step 9: Fix what you can without causing more trouble in the process. Step 10: Understand that making mistakes is part of being human…’

Not just wisdom for those struggling with addiction, right? The 12 steps lead to wholeness and healing, and they do so through mercy, being merciful with oneself and others. But true mercy, as those in the program know, is not the same as excusing yourself for your behavior. Mercy is not saying, well, never mind all that I did, it doesn’t matter. True mercy requires seeing with clear eyes what is really so – what are our addictions and our blind spots and our weaknesses, all the negative parts of ourselves that lead us to act the way we do. Mercy requires taking steps to change – understanding as we do so that we can’t change ourselves, all by ourselves. And then, being merciful, we realize we continue to need that help, recognizing our ongoing struggles with living the way we should.

The 12 steps are, of course, based in Christian practice. All of those steps of truth-telling and mercy are just what Jesus teaches. But many around him in the gospel stories don’t like that. The gospel passage today begins with the Pharisees grumbling about the company Jesus keeps. This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them! they mutter. Sinners! Imagine. So Jesus tells a few little stories, leading in with, Which of you wouldn’t do this? Of course, the weird thing is that the stories are nothing like what the Pharisees would do – or probably what any of us would do, either. Leave 99 sheep alone in the wilderness to find the one who got lost? Throw a big party because you found one missing coin? Doesn’t quite make sense as a guide for action.

But Jesus is pointing out something important about how the Pharisees are relating to God and to others. They, the grumbling Pharisees, are sure they’re righteous – they’re doing the right thing and following the law. It’s other people who are clearly notorious sinners, and Jesus is flagrantly consorting with those sinners day and night. So Jesus tries to explain to them, yet again, that not only are those other sinners welcome back in God’s eyes, but even you Pharisees, grumbling and righteous (sinners) that you are, are welcome back. All you have to do is acknowledge that you’re lost. All you need to do is have mercy on yourself. And in so doing, you can have mercy on others.

Mercy and welcome. What we long for, each of us, in our heart of hearts. What if we were to begin this new year with such mercy? We could have mercy for the other kids in our class at school who we think are weird or irritating, realizing that they might find us weird and irritating too. We could have mercy for those who perpetrate attacks like those of 15 years ago, and those who manipulate the fear of such attacks to further their own agenda – knowing that we ourselves also can tend toward violence. We could have mercy for those in our nation who will vote differently from us this November, recognizing that they, like us, do so out of a mix of fears and hopes for the future and their own lives. We could have mercy for those who struggle with addiction and demons in their lives, knowing that we also suffer from our own addictions and compulsions that hold us captive. And so on. Mercy that sees and tells the truth, but that begins first from a place of knowing our own selves, our own need for forgiveness, our own need for mercy. Our own need to be welcomed back in.

We can have mercy because we know that we ourselves need mercy. We ourselves are not all we could be. We ourselves act in ignorance or in outright wickedness and hurt others every single day. Are we welcome at the table? Yes, we are. Here at this table, and here at the table of this community, and here at the table God spreads for all of creation. And if we are welcome, then aren’t others welcome as well? Can that mercy overflow beyond the bounds we set?

So come, you who have much faith and you who have little,
You who have been here often
and you who have not been for a long time or ever before,
You who have tried to follow and you who have failed.
Come, not because the Church invites you;
It is Christ who invites you to be known and fed here.

So welcome here today; welcome home.