Tenth after Trinity
Isaiah 56.1, 6-8
Rev. Cheryl Collins
May I speak in the name of God, who is Father, Son and Holy Spirit
What is the church?
That’s a very popular question at the moment.
My inbox is full of invitations from people who want to give me their answer to that question? On my bookshelves, a quick look revealed plenty of titles telling me what kind of church I should be leading- Slow church, Barefoot church, Imagine church, Mission-shaped church, Church for the poor, Anxious church, Deep church...and I’m sure there are hundreds of other titles with the same sort of theme.
Part of this is driven by anxiety- church attendance is declining, we must be doing something wrong, what do we need to tweak to put things right?
Connected to that is the question of money (funny how wherever money is anxiety is usually there too!). What kind of church can we afford? Do we need all these buildings/ full-time clergy/dioceses?
There’s also the matter of our context, the way the world seems to be changing faster and faster, the response demanded of us by the pandemic- how should all this affect church?
It’s a complicated question.
As you can imagine, I was relieved to find a consensus among theologians, stretching from Ignatius of Antioch writing less than a hundred years after the death of Jesus to Rowan Williams in the present day. Although they phrase it differently, the common thread running through their ideas is Jesus- the church is what happens when we meet Jesus and respond to him together.
I like to think of it as ‘If God...then we...’ In other words, our experience of God in Jesus Christ is always the place to start when we are thinking about what the church is or how we should be church. When we realise that the way we are being church doesn’t fit with who Jesus is, that’s when we’ve got a problem.
And our best guide for this is the Bible, the story of God’s love for us as demonstrated by Jesus’s life, death and resurrection. So, let’s spend some time with today’s readings with the question of what the church is to be in the back of our minds.
Our reading from Isaiah addresses some questions about the community of faith which are still relevant today. The context of this passage is the return from exile, a time of rejoicing but also of questioning. How can we prevent anything like this happening to us again, what kind of community does God want us to be?
Isaiah is a prophet of fresh beginnings, of second chances if you like.
Right from the first verses of this book of prophecy there is new hope. That hope comes from who God is, the one who is faithful and steadfast in loving creation and keeping God’s promises. And God has the power to ensure that God’s intentions will come to pass, despite every debilitating circumstance. Our present passage picks up these themes to offer guidance about the kind of community God expects us to be.
It speaks of justice and of doing what is right. It speaks of God gathering together all who want to follow God’s way of living to bring them joy and acceptance, even in the very place where God dwells. God is the one who ends all exile and brings everyone home.
The observant among you will have noticed that there are some missing verses, 2-5. These deal with another group of people who it might have been tempting to leave out- eunuchs. There is some suggestion that the unkindest cut of all was a good career move in the Babylonian Empire. So, this group might include those who were regarded as collaborators with the enemy.
But God promises that in God’s kingdom no one is barren. We will all bear fruit as we abide in God and seek to follow God’s way of living. Isaiah tells his hearers that this means enacting justice, serving the needs of our neighbours and giving everyone the opportunity to be included.
People make the most of that opportunity when they keep the Sabbath and choose to do God’s will as far as they are able.
To keep the Sabbath is to declare that we know and understand that everything we have is a gift from God. We do not need to work 24/7 because we trust that God always has more than enough for us. It’s the same with welcoming the stranger, this is another way of declaring our trust that God has more than enough for everything we need so we are able to share it with others. We do not need to drive ourselves on a treadmill of endless busy-ness or to fearfully defend our borders.
If God grants us a day of rest, then we can accept it joyfully.
If God brings us strangers who are the friends we haven’t met yet then we can welcome them, just as God has welcomed us.
It’s a recognition that since ‘all things come from you and of your own do we give you’ we are not ‘better’ than others, but together we make up the clay jar into which God always pours the treasure of God’s loving presence at the heart of our community.
This leads us on to our gospel passage and the encounter with the Pharisees.
One of the words we use to describe the church in the creeds is holy. This word has its roots in the idea of being set aside from common usage to be used in worship. Sometimes, like the Pharisees, our anxiety about holiness can make us judgemental. Or as Matthew Henry puts it ‘those most defile themselves , who are most forward to censure the defilement of others.’
In many ways, Jesus turned ideas of holiness on their head by accepting invitations to eat with notorious sinners or converse with outcast or pagan women. He showed us that our holiness is dependent on God coming close to us and our receiving of God’s presence, not in separating ourselves from others. Not only that, but in this passage he does away with notions of unclean and unclean in the natural world and declares everything that God has created to be clean.
Jesus’s encounter with the Canaanite woman could be seen as a definition of what it means to be Catholic, another word describing what the church should be. Jesus has crossed over into Gentile country after his encounter with the Pharisees who failed to see who he was. It is this pagan woman who shows her faith in him by calling him Lord and Son of David.
The disciples don’t get it either, wanting to shut her up and get her to go away. They want the boundaries to be clear. For a moment Jesus doesn’t answer her at all; and his statement about the lost sheep of the house of Israel sound almost like thinking aloud. Then he realises that God’s will is that all who respond in faith should receive God’s gifts of healing, wholeness and life. People are more important to God than clear boundaries and orderly rules.
What is the church?
The church is the place where all of us are welcomed.
It is where all of us are invited to let God draw near to us.
It is where we have abundance and joy, whatever our material circumstances, because our joy is a response to God’s love.
It is where we welcome others to share our joy and broaden our horizons.
This is the church Jesus sends us out to be. Thanks be to God.