My plan this morning was to preach on the first part of our Gospel passage, the part where Jesus tells us that Church members should hold each other accountable. I even had what I thought of as a funny story to go with it.
Unfortunately the Holy Spirit kept getting in the way, pushing me in a different direction. I resisted as long as I could. And I am still going to tell my story, even if the connection to everything else in this sermon is a little weak.
So, last week I went on a four-day backpacking trip with my son Benjamin. For four days—picture this; it won’t be hard for anyone who knows me—for four days poor Benjamin had to listen to a constant stream of unsolicited advice about virtually every aspect of his life. That would be bad enough coming from any father. It is ten times worse coming from a father who is also a priest! From Benjamin’s perspective, the low point was surely my repeated suggestion that he find himself a woman and start cranking out some grandbabies.
About halfway through our trip, even I realized that I was being irritating. I apologized to Benjamin for badgering him. Sweet Benjamin replied that I was welcome to give him as much advice as I wanted. He added, a little less sweetly, that he was perfectly comfortable ignoring whatever I said, including specifically anything to do with grandbabies!
My point was going to be that, even if we should hold each other accountable, we don’t want Church to be like me with poor Benjamin, all of us constantly getting in each other’s business.
But I could not get away from the last line of our reading: “where two or three are gathered in my [Christ’s] name, I am there among them.”
I say this a lot, but that’s OK because this is important. We are here now, and I include people who are joining us virtually, we are here now in Christ’s name, and Christ is here with us. That is why we gather. That is what makes us Church.
Christ is always with us, of course. Christ was definitely with me and Benjamin as we went backpacking last week. Christ was with Carrie during our trip, while she was alone at home for the first time after nearly six months during which one or both of our children were with us.
But Christ is especially with us when we gather, in his name, as his Church, for prayer and worship. Maybe it is better to say that we are especially aware of Christ with us as we gather for prayer and worship. The point is, we gather, as Church, with Christ. And in gathering, as Church, with Christ, we come to know Christ a little better. I say again, that is why we gather.
There are lots of other benefits to gathering as Church, of course. It is good to be together, to see people we care about, to pool our resources so that we can do more good in the world. In better days, non-pandemic days, we gather for good food and good fun. But what makes us Church is that we gather in Christ’s name, that Christ is with us, and that in gathering we draw ever closer to Christ.
But what does that mean during a pandemic, when we can’t gather as we would like?
We have our in-person services, like right now. They have been wonderfully sustaining for me. They help to keep me connected to our parish family and to Christ.
We gather in Christ’s name in other ways too. Our zoom Bible Studies include time for prayer and fellowship, which has been great. We gather on Facebook to say the daily office. I know that some folks get together more informally for mutual support and encouragement.
But right now, and for the immediate future, we can’t come together as easily and as naturally as we used to. And that is hard. I see a lot of Saint David’s people each week. But I still miss the casual contact that has been such a great part of our Church family. That is true even for the people I see. And there are lots of people I mostly don’t see, people for whom online contact doesn’t really work, for whatever reason.
Our passage reminds us, in the unlikely event that we need reminding, that not gathering has a spiritual cost. Christ remains with us. But it is a little harder to be aware of Christ with us when we can’t do what Christ tells us to do, when we can’t experience Christ with us in prayer and worship in our old ways.
Conversation with two friends this week really brought that spiritual cost home. Both said, separately, that online worship hasn’t worked for them as much as they hoped and needed. They had trouble experiencing Christ’s presence when they couldn’t gather. I get that.
This week I also received an unusual number of prayer requests. Most of them were for people suffering from things that are tragic but not uncommon. But I was struck by the number of prayer requests. I was also struck by the added distress that comes from the isolation imposed by the pandemic. People need the healing presence of Christ. And, in a lot of cases, they aren’t feeling the healing presence of Christ.
My own challenges are modest compared to many. But in spiritual direction this week, I realized that on the pandemic emotional rollercoaster, I am in a dip. And I am not alone. I saw I the newsppare that a growing number of people are reporting mental distress. The author noted that one contributing factor, beyond the obvious stressors, is simple boredom. I know I miss the fun of just being together.
So, Christ is with me. But I have to look a little harder for Christ these days than is sometimes the case.
And now, of course, students are returning to schools, which makes lots of people anxious. The presidential campaigns are gearing up for an intense couple of months, which makes many of us anxious and also sometimes angry.
Given all that, we need Christ more than ever. And to experience Christ more powerfully, we need to gather in his name. But we can’t gather exactly as we would like. It’s a challenging time.
But I come back to Christ’s promise in our Gospel passage. Christ promises that whenever we gather in his name, he [Christ] is with us.
Christ doesn’t say he is with us whenever we gather in our building, or whenever we do all the things we are used to doing, or whenever we sit side by side. The fact is, Christ is with us when we gather in the parking lot or on Facebook or zoom. In this time, when gathering has become more complicated, it is more important than ever that we make an effort to gather in the ways that we can.
And when we gather, and also when we are alone if we can’t gather, we need to be on the lookout for Christ, who is with us, who always remains with us, who sustains us even when we are not conscious of Christ’s presence.
I come back, again and again, to the promises that structure the entire Gospel of Matthew, the promise that Christ comes among as Immanuel, which means God with us, to the promise in our passage that Christ is with us whenever we gather in his name, to the promise that Christ will be with us always, to the end of the age.
My prayer for us is that we take comfort in Christ’s presence, and that we can do whatever lies in our power to draw closer to Christ, who is with us always. In Christ’s name. Amen.
Rev. Dr. Harvey Hill
Third Order Franciscan