Saturday, September 03, 2005

Proper 18A: God With Us

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If it were up to me, I would give Matthew’s gospel a new title. “The Gospel according to St. Matthew” has an impressive dignity, weight, even majesty, about it, but it just isn’t very catchy. I would re-christen Matthew’s gospel as “The God Who Is With Us”.

Matthew’s gospel begins with the story of Joseph’s mysterious and troubling dream in which an angel prophesied that Mary’s child was the fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy that a child would be born to a young woman and that the proper name for that child would be “Emmanuel”, God with us. (Mt 1.23) Matthew ends with the Risen Christ’s promise to his disciples, “Remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” (Mt 28.20) And in the very heart of Matthew’s gospel is Jesus’ great promise that wherever two or three are gathered in his name, he is there among them. (Mt 18.20)

“The virgin shall... bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel.... God is with us”.

“Remember, I am with you always...”

“Where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.”

The Gospel of the God who is with us.

I want to focus on the three parts of Matthew’s great theme: God is with us.

First, it is GOD who is with us. When one of you enters the hospital for surgery, you certainly want your family to be there, and you would probably like to have one of the parish clergy there. It’s comforting when a friend or family member promises us, “It’s OK; I’m here for you”. But Matthew’s promise is of a different magnitude altogether. It is the Creator of heaven and earth and of all things visible and invisible who promises to be by our side.

But do we really want to take God up on his promise? Having the Almighty at our side might be more terrifying than comforting.

Annie Dillard famously asked, “Does anyone have the foggiest idea what sort of power we so blithely invoke? Or, as I suspect, does not one believe a word of it? The churches are children playing on the floor with their chemistry sets, mixing up a batch of TNT to kill a Sunday morning. It is madness to wear ladies’ straw hats and velvet hats to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets. Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares: they should lash us to our pews.”

The God who promises to be with us is like TNT – a source of infinite but uncontrollable power. The God who promises to be with us loves us unconditionally, but God also invites us to take up our cross and follow him, to lose our lives for the sake of the Kingdom. Along with the comfort and assurance we receive from God comes the demand of discipleship.

Secondly, God promises to be WITH us.

Anthropologists tell us that different cultures have different ideas of the appropriate space between persons. It’s a bit of a generalization, but people in Mediterranean cultures often talk very animatedly almost nose to nose. Northern Europeans (and most North Americans) prefer a little more distance.

The God who promises to be with us appears to be more Mediterranean than northern European. This is a God who does not maintain a polite distance. This God promises to be with us, to be in our midst, to be among us. This is a God we cannot keep at arm’s length. This is a God who is closer than our next breath.

God does not say to us, “I’ll be right over here if you need me. Just give me a shout.” This is not a God to whom we can say good bye at the end of today’s service and leave in church until next week. This is not a God who will leave us alone.

Francis Thompson’s great poem, “The Hound of Heaven” speaks of this God who does not maintain a safe, polite distance:

I fled Him, down the nights and down the days;
I fled Him, down the arches of the years;
I fled Him, down the labyrinthine ways
Of my own mind: and in the mist of tears
I hid from Him, and under running laughter.

And it ends:

Halts by me that footfall:
Is my gloom, after all,
Shade of His hand, outstretched caressingly?
“Ah, fondest, blindest, weakest,
I am He Whom thou seekest!
Thou dravest love from thee, who dravest Me.”

Finally, the God of Matthew’s gospel promises to be with US.

God promises to be with us, with frail, fallible human beings. This may be the most remarkable part of Matthew’s theme.

It would make more sense if God promised to be with the stars in the Milky Way. That would make sense to us. God, after all, is majestic, splendid, all-powerful, and all-knowing. We would expect God to inhabit the vast reaches of space. It might make sense if God promised to be in the crashing waves of the ocean. To paraphrase the prophet Elijah’s great insight, God is not in the earthquake, fire, and whirlwind; God is in the still, small voice, and in that frailest of all vessels – the human heart.

God promises to be with us. Now note something very important here. The “us” God promises to be with in today’s gospel, indeed throughout Matthew’s gospel is plural. That is not to say that God is not with us when we are alone, but the promise, the assurance, the certainty of God’s promise, is to us not individually, but corporately. “...where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.” (Mt 18.20)

That’s a hard saying for many of us, including myself. I tend to be a loner. I want to do things on my own. We live in a culture that is individualist to the Nth degree. But God tells us to come together and promises that when we do come together under his banner and in Jesus’ name, that he will be with us.

The reason that God makes this promise to us corporately is that it is only through others that we are able to receive love from God and offer love to God. Jesus’ great promise to be present wherever two or three are gathered in his name is prefaced by a discussion of what to do when a member of the community hurts or offends another member. Jesus was nothing if not realistic. Even the community gathered in his name and experiencing his presence will be a place of conflict. We know that all too well. But he tells us to come together anyway.

“...where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.” (Mt 18.20) God is among us, because corporately we are Christ’s body, the sacrament of Christ’s presence in the world. Perhaps C.S. Lewis put it best when he wrote: “There are no ordinary people You have never met a mere mortal... Next to the Blessed Sacrament itself, your neighbor is the holiest object presented to your senses. If he is your Christian neighbor, he is holy in almost the same way, for in him also Christ... the glorifer and the glorified, Glory Himself, is truly hidden.”

The message of Matthew’s gospel is so simple, I can sum it up in three phrases: GOD promises to be with us; God promises to be WITH us; God promises to be with US. Amen.