Wednesday, December 12, 2018

Reversing Excommunication

I haven't ever excommunicated someone. I've thought about it, but there's paperwork involved, and it hasn't ever felt worth it. In the Episcopal Church, clergy can excommunicate (i.e. deny Communion to) someone "who is living a notoriously evil life" or people "who have done wrong to their neighbors and are a scandal to the other members of the congregation" or when they see that there is "hatred between members of the congregation" (BCP p. 409). In fact, the rubrics require me to do so, using the word "shall" several times in the instructions. If I excommunicate someone, however, I have to speak privately to the individuals involved, explain my reasons, show what must be done for readmission to Communion, and write the bishop a letter within fourteen days. Like I said, it's a lot of work. I haven't done it, but I know of colleagues who have. Appropriately, it's an extreme measure, but it's one that offers benefits to the individuals and the wider community not because of its punitive nature but because it anticipates readmission. It's the coming back--the repentance--that matters.

In Sunday's gospel lesson (Luke 3:7-18), John the Baptizer makes it his ministry to readmit those who have been excluded from the community of faith--excommunicated. The crowds have come out into the wilderness to be baptized by him. John's baptism was a sign of repentance, renewal, forgiveness. In the Jewish tradition, water is used to cleanse and purify. Traditionally, those who wish to be admitted to the faith or readmitted to the community of faith because of ritual impurity as a result of things like menstruation, childbirth, and ejaculation must go through the mikveh--full immersion in water to achieve ritual purity. It's not the same thing as John's baptism, but it's close. And, back in John's day, most people who needed this sort of cleansing could find it a lot closer to home than the wilderness and the River Jordan. These crowds, however, didn't go to their local synagogue or to the temple, and I suspect it's either because they sought a kind of renewal not offered in the institutional religion or because that institution would not accept them.

Who was in the crowd that day? Some of them were tax collectors and soldiers. These were people who were not acceptable to the religious authorities. They had no access to the community. Their livelihoods had cut them off from the faithful both ritually and socially. No one wanted to spend time with a tax collector or a soldier. These were men whose job it was to support the evil Roman empire by squeezing every last penny they could from their own people or by roughing up anyone who dared to cross the political authorities. They couldn't get readmission to the community of faith anywhere else. John offers them a path into God's reign through a baptism of repentance that happened outside the bounds of religion.

And what did he ask of them? Not that they give up their occupations but simply that they lived within modest bounds: "collect only what is due, do not resort to extortion, and be satisfied with your wages." This is not the "anyone who sets hand to the plow and looks back is not worthy of the kingdom of God" that Jesus will declare later on. This is a low bar, a gracious invitation, an easy buy-in. John wants everyone to know that they, too, can be part of the reign of God, and the path that leads to God's reign is low and flat and easy.

What is the message of John today? The path into the kingdom must be as simple as the straight way John made in preparation for the coming of God's anointed one. In order for transformation to take place, what we ask of the sinners among us must be as gentle as John's request. In time, of course, God will take hold of us and complete that transformation. For now, this week, this Sunday, the good news is aimed specifically at those who will not feel welcome in our churches. That means the preacher can't let the message be contained within the walls of the building. Instead, the preacher must equip the saints in the pews to carry the message of admission or readmission to the community of faith to those who thought they weren't invited. That will be the measure of a good sermon this week.

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