Sermon: Where Two or Three are Gathered…

 In Convention 2016, Featured

Sermon preached by The Rev. Carrie Schofield-Broadbent at the 148th Convention of the Episcopal Diocese of Central New York, November 12, 2016. You can watch her preach this sermon live in these videos recorded during Convention worship.

Text: Matthew 18:15-20 “…[W]here two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.”

 


It was a time when tensions were high and a lot was on the line.

The whole group of us was a bundle of anxiety. There were about 50 people in our first year of seminary. It was around this time of year and we were all gearing up for our first mid-term, in Old Testament class. We started the day like every other day, in chapel, and after the service ended, we made our way across the campus to the lecture hall en mass. The room was set up in stadium seating with long tables; we found our seats. We glanced down at the table where the professor sat and stared at the pile of blue books that awaited us. Some of us quietly took a last-minute look at our notes. Some of us quietly quizzed one another and speculated on what would be on the test. A lot was riding on this. Most of us had left our homes, our jobs, some had even let their families to go to seminary to study for ministry. The story I was creating for myself out of my anxiety I imagine was shared with others: Am I cut out for this? Can I handle the academic world again? What if I fail the test? – what if I fail the diocese? — what if I fail God?!?

We were so absorbed in our own little worlds of anxiety that no one really noticed the commotion brewing behind us in the hall until the double doors on either side of the room flung open in unison.

We craned our necks to see streams of people flowing through the doors and making their way down the side aisles; upperclassmen (middlers and seniors), faculty and staff all flowed into the room until they circled us.

And then we heard this chord: G … and we heard (sung to the tune of “American Pie”)…
Bye, Bye, kiss the midterm goodbye.
No more crammin’, now you’re jammin’
And you’re ready to fly.
And good ol’ Jake was wrestlin’ with Adonai,
Singing, “was the Red Sea really that dry”??
“Is this Zion or Sinai?”…….

And there we were weepy, laughing, and broken open by the community that literally encircled us – holding us, holding our anxiety, being the vessel of the grace of God for us. In that big, small act of kindness and generosity, they released the tension in that room and replaced it with love and grace. By their presence, in that circle, they were physical reminders that we were not alone, that the big picture is so much bigger than a mid-term exam and that God’s Kingdom is real and here – no matter how we did on that exam.

In our own, little worlds we couldn’t have broken out of the anxiety ourselves. It took the gathered community to be bearers of God’s grace for us, and it made all the difference.

For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.

*

When I was in 7th grade, my parents dropped me off at a diocesan youth conference. I remember it was my parents’ idea. I remember my mom bribing me to go with a new nightgown. I was easily bribed. There I was: 12 years old, not knowing any one else there, getting ready for a weekend of church — penny loafers on my feet, acne that was only moderately controlled and a brand new Little House on the Prairie-style nightgown packed deep in my bag.

I wasn’t an expert on much in that phase of my life – but I was an expert on being able to tell who was “in” and who was “out”. If my suburban middle-school education taught me anything, it was that. You could just tell by the way a person carried themselves, by the clothes they wore, by how high they could get their bangs to go….
We all came from different schools, different churches, but we all knew within a matter of mere minutes who was cool in their school and who was not.

At my school, the cool kids were the inner circle –well, actually they were the only circle – and the rest of the kids were just: on the outside. It took me a little while to catch on that in that community, at the youth conference, they handled that information way differently that the kids at my school did. In that community, in that setting, there was only one circle and all were welcome.

The kids there made it their job to make sure no one was excluded, and if someone wandered off from the circle, feeling insecure, insignificant, or just with a large dose of drama, a member of the group would pull them back into the circle, letting them know that not only did they fully belong in the circle, but in fact, the circle was not complete without them.

We can’t find belonging by our selves, we can only do that in community. We know that God knits us together in community to make our selves better, and also as a way of showing his love for us through the grace, generosity and love of others.

For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.

*

I became rector of St. Matthew’s, Liverpool ten years ago. I came into that position carrying with me experiences from other positions I’d held. In some of the work environments in which I served, there was kind of a “culture of blame” that influenced me a great deal. Perhaps some of you have had experience with that too…. When something went wrong, the system rushed to figure out whose fault it was and who needed to fix it.

There was a different spirit present at St. Matthew’s, but it took me a while – and it took really being in that community — to really learn that.

We have a man in our parish who happens to share a name with our presiding bishop. Our Michael Currie and our presiding bishop are both beloved of God, have deep prayer lives, and are a beacon of God’s love and light to those who meet them. But, that’s where the similarities end. Our Michael Currie is large, white and uneducated. He can’t read or tell time. He lives independently, but just barely. And he has a firm, unshakable faith in God, Jesus, Mary, Santa Claus, and Elvis. I love him; we love him. He is the face of Christ for us every week.

Michael didn’t grow up in the Episcopal Church and he lacks the capacity to pick up on the subtle, unspoken norms of Episcopal worship. He doesn’t understand that the movement to the altar rail for Communion isn’t a race. He doesn’t understand that the children’s sermons are really intended for the small humans. He doesn’t understand that we keep our prayers silent, or from the book from most of the service. (I would, and have, said all of this in front of him. We like to laugh together.)

One Sunday, in my first year of ministry at St. Matthew’s, Michael was particularly verbal during the service. Nothing inappropriate – just out-loud prayers where we normally wouldn’t offer them. It was clear that he was nervous and worked up and was working that out in community through prayer – and really wasn’t catching on to our unspoken norms.

After the service, I braced myself for the fall-out. As I headed back to coffee hour, I steeled myself for the onslaught of criticism. The story I was telling myself was that I was going to get raked over the coals for this. I was scripting it in my head, “Mother Carrie, did you HEAR Michael today?!? What are you going to do about that? How are you going to fix this??!?”

At coffee hour, I was approached independently by two men. The first one came up to me and said, “Mother Carrie, I noticed that Michael was a little wound up today.” I braced myself.

“What can we do to help.” He graciously offered.

And then another man approached me, and this time I was ready – you don’t get two free passes right in a row.

He said, “I noticed Michael seemed pretty upset today.”

“What do you think we can do to help him out?”

After I caught my breath and successfully choked down tears of gratitude and relief, we talked about having parishioners sit right next to Michael and lead him through the service, to speak the silent nuances aloud when appropriate and he wouldn’t feel so alone. We still do that, even all these years later.

We learned, together, how to care for God’s beloved Michael in our midst, who understands the world so differently than we do. We learned together how to make our community a little closer to the Kingdom of God, where all are welcome, all are honored, all are loved, and all are fed.

At the same time, I learned the lesson that I would have to learn many more times after that, that the Church isn’t always a place of blame and fixing. The community of St. Matthew’s has given me a glimpse of the Kingdom of God where we all work together for the common good.

For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.

I’m sharing these stories from my own life –not because my life is more charmed with God stories – it’s not. I’m sharing my stories in the hope that the Holy Spirit is stirring up in you your own memories and experiences of how God shows us his grace and blessing through community.

In this community of faithful Christians, I imagine us all lifting up to God, in gratitude a multitude of stories about how God uses community to show forth his grace.

I think of St. Matthew’s, Moravia – who have come together in ministry using the gifts that God has given them to lead their church in vitality and faithful service. They are a living example of the Body of Christ.

I think of St. Paul’s, downtown Syracuse who finds God in the diversity of their congregation where Sudanese refugees, local Syracusans, and many others are praying together, learning each other’s languages and songs to serve the Kingdom better together.

I think of Grace, Cortland and Grace, Syracuse whose congregations have come together after fires in their buildings and found in their communities a place of refuge, hope, and courage. At the same time, rising from the ashes with even more passion and spark for ministry.

I think of the countless congregations in our midst that live out the loaves and fishes miracle week after week, month after month, year after year and turn a few scrappy volunteers and meager budgets into rich feasts where all are fed and welcome.

I think of the good people of New Berlin, South New Berlin, and Norwich who have endured the deep pain of the tragic, sudden loss of their priest and leader and have taken what they’ve learned, inspired by the Holy Spirit, to continue together in faith and hope, through the blessing of community.

I think of the faithful people of St. Thomas’, North Syracuse, St. Paul’s, Watertown, and the churches in Phoenix, Utica, Jamesville, Cleveland, Syracuse, and in many other places that have had the courage to leave their buildings when the buildings no longer served them, or they couldn’t afford to keep them, and through the power of God in community found the same steadfast God in new places, different buildings and with new communities.

Community is the basic unit of Christianity. Of course, we have our individual pieties, beliefs, and faith journeys, but there’s something about the gift of community that helps us draw closer to the Kingdom of God.

Community is the only container I know that can hold the depths of human suffering and within it resides the capacity for healing.

Community is the best design I know of that can help us sit with the disillusionment of our times.

Parker Palmer, Quaker author and activist said, “I think that complexity can only be held by community.”

Community us also the way we can do great things. Together we can do wonderful things for the Kingdom that we could never do alone.

It’s a time when tensions are high and there’s a lot at stake. For some of us, the stories we hear in our head are ones of fear and anxiety about the future – the future of our churches, the future of our country, the future of our world. It’s in times like this I’m grateful for the gift of community that surrounds us with loving presence and reassurance. I’m grateful for the gift of community that draws us together in the Body of Christ so that we can serve the world in Jesus’ name. It’s in community that we can heal and be made whole for service.

For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.

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Comments
  • Melissa

    Just what our country needs to hear right now. Just what our world needs to embrace right now. Tears of joy, hope and pride are streaming down my cheeks where tears of anxiety, fear, and anger flowed just days before. Thank you, Carrie.

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