So I have to start by confessing my disappointment. Here it is our Welcome Back Sunday, our chance to welcome members new and old to our program year. And after a year of working at it all, our church is STILL under construction. I would have liked today to be the day when the organ was unwrapped and John could play it again, the day when the first walkers and strollers could roll up the ramp into church, the day when we could all file out into our lovely atrium on our way to the new bathrooms and elevator. The day when as you made your way to the BBQ in our backyard, you could admire the lovely new plantings in our restored front garden. But, instead…it’s all still so undone.
And what’s more, our kids had to start school this week in a heat wave, putting on their new school clothes and staggering through the humidity for ‘the beginning of fall.’ In our household we hadn’t even fully acquired all the necessary new school clothes, so the uniform for the first days of school had to be a mix of new things and old slightly-too-small things. When I was a kid, I remember having my shiny new school supplies lined up weeks in advance, marching off to the first day of school on a cool fall day in my new fall sweater. (Actually I think it was often too hot for that new fall sweater, in reality, but not in my rosy memory.) This scraped-together, oppressively hot September is not the new fresh start that I like to think of as back to school.
I was feeling pretty glum about all this this week. I almost wanted to put it all off, postpone our Welcome Back Sunday for a few weeks and hide until fall weather finally rolled around. But as the staff here talked through the plans for the next few weeks, I began to realize that even if the external trappings weren’t all fresh and ready, the people inside of them are. We’re starting off today even though we’re in the midst of chaos and dust. It’s a new beginning even if we’re still wearing our sweaty summer clothes. The kids have made their way through the construction signage to their Godly Play classrooms, and they’re underway with their story even as we speak. Our full choir is back in the church, starting off their program year. Lots of people are prepping for the barbecue that we’ll enjoy in just a little bit. And our font is right there in its new location, full of water. Things are starting, things are happening, even if the container they’re happening in isn’t quite what we’d wish.
So we’re blessing it all anyway, unfinished as it all is. We blessed the font’s new location, and then we used it to bless the start of the school year. We’ll bless the choir in a few minutes, and all of our music making this year. We’ll bless all of us at the end of the service, and we’ll bless the food we eat at the barbecue, and the feast we’ll share at this altar. We’re starting this year with blessings because that’s what church is all about – not waiting for everything to get perfect before it’s blessed, just blessing it all anyway. In church, well, we’re ok with a little mess.
In the rest of life, we’re less ok with mess. We may give participation trophies to our kids – great job for participating even if you came in last! But that’s not the way we run our businesses, or our private lives. That little competitive voice inside of us – that little judge, or chorus – you’ve got them inside of you too, haven’t you? That little voice whispers that those people are doing it better than us, and we really should have upped our game. Or that the grass is greener and much more beautiful over there, and this is really quite lacking. We should have got the application in on time, we didn’t write the grant well enough, we should have bought the tickets earlier, we missed the sale. This group or party or class or church isn’t quite the best one to be part of, we chose the wrong line or the wrong lane across the bridge, the finished dish looked better in the photos online than what we’ve made, actually everybody else looked better online. We really should have polished our shoes, also lost five pounds, also got into a slightly better school and made a better LinkedIn profile. And we really should find a better apartment. Discontent – it’s what fuels us. But it also fuels our unrest and unhappiness. We focus on what should be better – not on blessing what is. It’s hard to sit with what is.
I hear something about this in our gospel today. On the surface, Jesus is simply focusing on how communities resolve conflict. Little things become big things that become conflicts; discontents become complaints that become rifts. Jesus tries to nip all that in the bud. You have an issue with someone else in the community? Talk to them directly; if that doesn’t work, then ask others to help. Keep working on it. It’s always amazed me that right from the earliest days of the church, they’re having to deal with what to do when the community isn’t behaving well. Human beings get things wrong, inevitably. But it’s ok, says Jesus – you don’t have to be stuck there. Try to resolve what isn’t working, and then if you can’t make it better, he says, well, ‘let such a one be to you as a tax collector and a Gentile.’
Here’s the thing, though – the more I sat with that phrase, the more confused I got. It’s like, just like that, we went from Jesus’ helpful book of advice to something more like a parable. First there were instructions, all of it made sense, and then there was this twist at the end. We thought we knew what he meant, we were nodding along with his wise suggestions, and then all of a sudden, we’re brought up short. Let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector? What’s that supposed to mean?
Parables, remember, are these little stories Jesus tells, stories that seem to lead to a moral but never quite do. Or more accurately, they lead to a moral that’s the opposite of what we expect. They tend to take our assumptions and shake them upside down. They’re Jesus’ main way of communicating. He didn’t communicate very directly, if the gospels are to be believed – he told stories. And he didn’t actually give much advice or guidelines in the gospels, try though we may to find it. He more often told stories that open doors, reverse expectations, point to new possibilities. I wonder if he’s doing something like that here.
Because at first we think, Aha! There it is, permission to be perfectionist. Work to make the community perfect, and if someone keeps being an issue, well then, throw them out. You tax collector – out with you! But then – wait a minute. How is it Jesus taught us to treat tax collectors and Gentiles? This is Jesus talking, the guy who was charged with eating with tax collectors and sinners. Who welcomes Gentiles into the kingdom of God. He doesn’t seem to be throwing those people out of community at all. And this is in the gospel of Matthew, a gospel that came together in the community gathered around the apostle Matthew – who was a tax collector whom Jesus included in his inner circle. Suddenly what Jesus is saying sounds like something altogether different. Can’t resolve your problem with someone? Sit down and eat with them. Bring them to the table with you, even when they’re being a total jerk. Bless them anyway.
But if we’re actually in the land of parables, then maybe we’re not just talking about conflict resolution in the community, important though that is. Maybe we’re also talking about dealing with what isn’t right and perfect in other parts of our lives too. Maybe what Jesus is suggesting is that sometimes we just have to bless things anyway. Even when we’ve tried and tried and we just can’t get it the way we think it should be. Even when we’ve totally failed.
The deep secret in that, of course, is that all our best efforts can’t get everything right. Sometimes – a lot of the time – we try and try at things and just never quite get it. We never achieve perfection. Seen in this light, Jesus seems to be saying: give it your best shot. But if it isn’t happening, it isn’t happening. Accept what isn’t perfect. Make peace with it anyway – whatever it is. Because at God’s table, it all gets redeemed and made whole. God can do the work on it that we can’t. After all, God makes community out of all kinds of sinners – tax collectors included. All kinds of people who just can’t get it right.
So maybe starting off in a mess this year is ok. We’re starting afresh, we have high hopes and plans for this new year, we want to grow and deepen and become better. We might wish it’s all shiny and new around us to match this desire. But the mess is a reminder that we’ll fail, we won’t be perfect this year either – and it’s ok. God blesses us anyway. God redeems us, always. And maybe together this year, we can be that blessing the world needs.