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“Come Together”– Matthew 23:1-12– Nov. 5, 2017

I’ve gotten a number of heart-warming responses to the article I wrote in this month’s issue of the magazine Spirituality and Health. It was entitled, “If You Came to My Church.” We sent out a copy of the article to our church e-mail list, and there’s a copy of it posted in Webster Hall, in case you haven’t seen it. Mostly the e-mails and posts to our website have been words of appreciation for lifting up a progressive Christian viewpoint, in contrast to the more widely-expressed fundamentalist perspectives.

But a letter we received last week in the mail was the most humbling and heart-warming of all. It’s a handwritten letter, addressed to Second Congregational Church, so I thought I should read you your mail–

Dear Rev. Mary-Lee Clark/Second Congregational Church,

Hi my name is Karmen. I first am hearing about your church from an article from the magazine Spirituality & Health. Your article “If you came to my church”–first I loved it. It made me happy to just know there is a place for everyone no matter gender or race or just anything. The whole article really just spoke to me. I am a believer in Christ. But I’m more lost than anything. I’m trying to find my Spiritual Path. See I am in prison. I am in 19 months on a 5-year sentence. I’m not sure how me writing will go. But I needed to reach out…

Your church sounds amazing….I live in Ohio. And one day I will be coming to visit your church. When I got done reading your article I knew I had to come visit. I’ve been trying to find my place with a church for some time. I’m 32 years old. I have a son who will be 15 in Dec. He’s a great kid. I want a better life. To tell you the truth I’ve never had something touch me the way this has. I’ve been trying to figure out where I fit in for a long time. Now being sober I’m able to think more about it. I am here because of Heroin… I’m sure you may have not ever had someone from a prison from a different state write y’all. But I want to learn from your church. This I guess is me feeling like I’m reaching out to what I believe. I’m sorry if this is weird. But I needed to reach out. Thank you for taking the time to read this. Thank you. Karmen, OH

In case we needed a reminder that what we have to offer can literally be life-giving, life-changing, here’s the reminder. One of you, after reading the article, thanked me and observed that I had described us “at our best,” which, of course, we aren’t always. And after reading Karmen’s letter and her intention to come visit us, I’ll admit I had a moment of panic. What if, on the day she visits, for whatever reason, we’re not at “our best” ? What if, on the day she visits, she doesn’t find the welcome that I’ve portrayed? Maybe we’re a little leery of someone with prison tattoos, if she has them, or simply the look of a 37 year-old who’s seen and lived more than most of us who are twice her age? What if the trip from Ohio to Vermont has depleted all her resources and she needs housing and food and time? Will we be extravagantly welcoming, as the UCC – and we– claims to be? Will we have the endurance and persistence to stay with someone with the life experience of Karmen? If she came to my church, our church, would she find what I described?

See, I read this passage from Matthew this week, where Jesus says to listen and learn from what the religious scholars and Pharisees have to teach about the law, but not to follow them because they don’t walk the talk–and I was acutely aware of the necessity of practicing what we preach. “They talk a good line,” as Peterson paraphrases Matthew, “but they don’t live it. They don’t take it into their hearts and live it out in their behavior. It’s all spit and polish veneer. Instead of giving you God’s Law as food and drink by which you can banquet on God, they package it in bundles of rules, loading you down like pack animals.”

The Pharisees’ original intent was “admirable,” one writer says, which was “to enhance inward faithfulness to the law in daily life.” [Alyce McKenzie, cited by Andrew Prior in onemansweb.org] The Pharisees wanted to “‘make a fence for the law’–in other words, to protect it from infringement by surrounding it with specific rules of interpretation and application to daily life.” But, as so often happens with fences, the Pharisees became more “fence-fussers” than “law lovers.” “They talk a good line, but they don’t live it,” as Jesus said.

“Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?” the Pharisees had asked Jesus in last week’s reading. “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and soul and mind. This is the greatest and first commandment,” Jesus had responded. “And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”

Those fences you put up around the Law–the law to love god and your neighbor like yourself? Those walls you put between yourselves and people with addictions? People with different life experiences? People from different political parties or perspectives, backgrounds or religions? They’re really fences of fear, fences to protect you from what is the real cost of loving God and loving our neighbors, fences to protect what too often is our privilege. If Karmen comes to visit us, will we put up more fences?

“Do you want to stand out?” Jesus asked his disciples. “Then step down. Be a servant. If you puff yourself up, you’ll get the wind knocked out of you. But if you’re content to simply be yourself, your life will count for plenty.”

“The command to love God and our neighbor is not an imposition,” Andrew Prior writes. “It is grace. It is an invitation to begin the path to freedom. For when the fences are removed, I make the great discovery that there can be no pride….We are all brothers and sisters…When I face the fear and pull down the fence, I find the fear losing its potency. I find there really is security in trusting God. There is healing. It’s almost as though life is finally beginning.” [Ibid.]

I wrote back to Karmen this week, thanking her for her letter, expressing my gratitude that my words had gotten her in touch with her longing for a spiritual home that is worthy of her life experiences. I told her that there are, indeed, other churches like ours, who welcome people regardless of gender orientation, race, economic condition, or “just anything,” and discovered that there is an Open and Affirming United Church of Christ in Marysville, OH. I gave her the name of the pastor–Rev. Linda Meredith, and the address and phone number, and I also told her that she would be welcome here at Second Congregational Church, should her travels ever bring her to Vermont. I’ve put a card out in Webster Hall for you to add your words of encouragement and welcome, to let Karmen know that Second Congregational Church is much more than me, the current pastor, and that who we are–a generous, compassionate, concerned, curious conglom-eration of folks seeking to be faithful–who we are will be enough and can count for plenty.

“Do you want to stand out?” Jesus asked his disciples. “Then step down. Be a servant. If you puff yourself up, you’ll get the wind knocked out of you. But if you’re content to simply be yourself, your life will count for plenty.” That seems to be wisdom for us as individuals, as a congregation, and as a nation. Fuss less about the fences, love the law more–the law that hangs together on loving God and loving our neighbor as ourselves. Come together. The Welcome Table is spread before us. Thanks be to God!

Rev. Mary H. Lee-Clark

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