“Where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them.”Matthew 18:20
Growing up Sanctified Brethren, for a young Garrison Keillor two or three would have to be enough. His older self reports:
“We met in Uncle Al’s and Aunt Flo’s living room with plain folding chairs arrayed in a small circle. No clergy in a black smock. No organ, no piano. No upholstery that would lead to complacency. No picture of Jesus, he was in our hearts. The faithful remnant would sit down at the appointed hour and wait for the Spirit to move until someone might speak or someone might sing a hymn out of the Little Flock hymnal. The idea of reading a prayer out of a book was a sacrilege to us.”
“Christians do not go in for show,” Uncle Al used to say. The members of the little congregation were all related to one another except for Mel who was rescued from alcoholism when he was down and out long ago. Not just anyone could worship with the Sanctified Brethren: “We were ‘exclusive’ Brethren, a branch that believed in keeping itself pure of false doctrine by avoiding association with the impure. Some Brethren assemblies, mostly in larger cities, were not so strict and broke bread with strangers – we referred to them as the ‘so-called’ open Brethren – the ‘so-called’ implying the shakiness of their position whereas we made sure that any who fellowshipped with us were straight on the details and rules of the faith just as they were laid out in 1865 when the Brethren broke away from the Anglican Church.”
“Unfortunately, once free of the worldly Anglicans,” Garrison says,
“these firebrands were not content to worship in peace but turned their guns on each other. Scholarly to the core and literalists everyone, they seemed to argue over points of belief and practice that were very trivial indeed. Including the question: If believer A is associated with Believer B who has somehow associated himself with believer C, who not only holds a false doctrine but has been misbehaving, must then believer D break off a friendship with believer A to avoid the sin?“
Well, according to the little congregation the correct answer was a rousing YES.
“And once having tasted the pleasure of sanctified purity and defending true doctrine, they kept right on breaking up at every opportunity until there were dozens of tiny Brethren groups, none of which were speaking to any of the others.”
“’Where two or three are gathered in my name, I will be in-the-midst of them,’ Jesus said. And that is all that might be left — just two or three.”
Now today’s gospel is often quoted in a touchy-feely context, but today’s gospel is really about a literal come-to-Jesus meeting — calling on sinners to confess and reconnect with the Body they injured and left behind. Not just with the Body gathered on Sunday mornings at prayer but also with the Body on Monday mornings at work. The church you see is not intended to be an exclusive country club but an inclusive and forgiving community.
And this is what Jesus says about those unforgiving members, “let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.” And here folks, is the hidden good news.
Do you recall Jesus ever meeting a Gentile or a Tax Collector or any kind of sinner whom he did not love? Is there anyone who repents whom Jesus would not forgive seventy times seven?
Now this is Labor Day weekend, so I would like to share with you the story of the patron saint of labor who lived today’s Gospel day after day, practicing the sacred works of mercy: none other than the Blessed Dorothy Day. She died just over forty years ago, but she hit her stride in the 1930’s during the Great Depression. She was a journalist, a radical, and she launched her newspaper The Catholic Worker with just $57 on May Day 1933, selling the paper for just a penny a piece. She editorialized that Jesus would identify with the unemployed:
“It is cheering to remember that Jesus Christ wandered this earth with no place to lay his head.’ The foxes have holes and the birds of the air their nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head’. And when we consider our fly by night existence, our uncertainty we remember that the disciples supped by the seashore and wandered through cornfields picking ears from the stalks wherewith to make their frugal meals”.
Dorothy went beyond just publishing a paper, she founded Houses of Hospitality for workers and their families, and especially for the unemployed. The first Hospitality House was her very own apartment on East 15th Street in New York City. With the Catholic Worker’s success, she opened the St Charles House in Greenwich Village with room for staff, and workers, and guests, a meeting place, an office, a kitchen, and a free clothing room. And she called upon all faithful Christians to do the same, to have a Christ Room to welcome the down and out.
“Every house should have one. It is you yourself who must perform the works of mercy not some agency. Maybe you can only give enough money for a meager meal or a cheap hotel. Or maybe you can literally take off a garment to warm some shivering person. But we must act personally and make a personal sacrifice.”
Now if we stop her story here, this would all sound very idyllic and really rather impossible and Dorothy Day would agree with you. You see she was no social worker, no therapist, no employment counselor, just a Christian with a bully pulpit, and some loose change she put to good use. She wanted to offer spiritual hospitality and not just physical help but the time for the residents to sit down and talk and be listened to was scarce. Members of the community helped out with chores and bedded down wherever they could. Spiritual solace came hard when you are feeding 500 people a day.
Dorothy’s biographer Jim Forest writes,
“The Worker way of life seemed to be one of permanent crisis not only because of its gargantuan focus on injustice. but because of daily collisions with human need and brokenness within the house; fights on the food line, injuries, sickness, mental breakdowns, hysterical and despairing individuals, drunkenness, clashing personalities, ideological combat, empty bank accounts, theft and destruction of property, fires, evictions, demands from the city, absent co-workers, and even death itself. A day without at least one crisis was rare.”
Though Dorothy was often overwhelmed she never closed the doors. In her diary she confesses,
”Always there are so many problems, so much unrest which seems to center around me since everyone wishes me to settle their problems but I need time alone, time to pray to get some peace and perspective to deal with myself and others. I am impotent and impatient. More and more I realize how good God is to me to send me discouragements, failures and antagonisms. The only way to proceed is to remember that God’s ways are not our ways.”
And here is the GOOD NEWS for our daily life and work — with all of our own “discouragements, failures, and antagonisms” Jesus can help us work it out. We can work it out – whatever our beloved community’s challenges might be in God’s great big Hospitality House. It may not be easy, it may not be pretty, it will be far from perfect, yet regardless of what we have done and what we have left undone, as Christians we are connected by sinew, muscle, and bone, and we remain members of the Body of Christ.
I would like to end by sharing the words of a song by Porter’s Gate – an artistic liturgical project made up of musicians of all kinds. It’s called Wood and Nails.
O humble carpenter, down on Your hands and knees
Look on Your handiwork and build a house
So You may dwell in me
So You may dwell in me
The work was done with nothing but
Wood and nails in Your scar-borne hands
O show me how to work and praise
Trusting that I am Your instrument
O loving laborer with the sweat upon Your face
Oh, build a table that I may too may join You
In the Father’s place
Oh, in the Father’s place
The kingdom’s come and built upon
Wood and nails
So send me out, within Your ways
Knowing that the task is finished
The dead will rise and give You praise
Wood and nails will not hold them down
These wooden tombs, we’ll break them soon
And fashion them into flower beds
The curse is done, the battle won
Swords bent down into plowshares
Your scar-borne hands, we’ll join with them
Serving at the table You’ve prepared
With wood and nails— Porter’s Gate
The Rev. Joani Peacock, Editor for Emmanuel Voices: A Parish Blog