Having recently spent a week with my twin six-year-old nephews, I find myself wondering when in childhood we learn to make excuses. Neither of them seems adept at it yet. When confronted with a scold, a correction, or a withering look, it seemed to me that the boys, at this age, tend either to be sorry or not. They don’t equivocate; they are not yet reaching for excuses; not even blaming each other yet. I chalk this behavior up to developmental progress not the disposition of their own characters, but who knows?
I do know how easy it is to look for excuses – I do it all the time. When I have left something undone - a phone call I should have made, a letter I should have written, work I put off till later, etc – I find myself fabricating excuses in my mind, for I am a fairly reliable accuser of myself; it’s good to beat others to the punch! And I’m sure if ever I had done something I ought not to have done I might be tempted to look for an excuse too.
The most common excuse we hear in politics these days is that so-and-so “mis-spoke” – which is a euphemism for “lied,” or “had no idea what he was talking about,” or “made it up completely.” These are never admissions of wrong-doing, these are excuses.
In the newspaper the other day, I read of how leaders of another denomination, much accused, are relying on the excuse that “I didn’t know I was supposed to tell anyone.” Or, “it was better to keep it out of the press.” Or, “I had very little training in dealing with these matters.” These, too, are only excuses.
One of the great ecclesiastical excuses is often mined from today’s Gospel reading: “Where two or three are gathered together in my name, I am there among them.” I know it doesn’t sound like am excuse, so let me try to explain. During the past fifty years or so, we have learned to fashion this short sentence of our Lord’s into a first-rate excuse for failing to build up either his church or his kingdom. And clerics have learned to be indignant at the crass suggestion that their work might be measured by the number of people they can count in their congregations. Why focus, like accountants, they challenge, on such numbers, when all that’s needed are two or three?!? After all, that’s what Jesus said!
There are certainly reasons that it is harder to get people into church these days. There are reasons it can be an uphill climb to build God’s kingdom. But there are also a lot of excuses that find smug satisfaction in Jesus’ promise that he would be in the midst of his people wherever only two or three are gathered together in his Name.
I don’t think Jesus intended this remark as an excuse. I think he intended it as a brand of empowerment. I think he was opening up possibilities that his disciples might have imagined were beyond them. He told them only two of them had to agree on something and ask for it, and God could make it possible. He knew there would be arguments, disagreements, and division – but these would not impede his kingdom. Just bring two or three of you together, and there I will be, with power to change the world!
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Some time in the morning of Wednesday, August 24, three children must have set out along a dusty road in the hills of northwestern Honduras. They were unaccompanied by any parent – I don’t know why. The eldest, was, I think, in his early teens, the others, each a couple of years younger. They must have heard about the Gran Brigada Medicina – as our free medical clinic was advertised – from one of the flyers that were distributed, or by word of mouth. Like many of the families we saw walking the rutted roads of the steep hillsides, their feet were the only mode of transportation available to them.
I first learned of the children when I reached for a slip of paper that was handed over to our makeshift pharmacy for every family of patients. I did not notice the children’s names, I am embarrassed to say, or even their ages, at the time. I saw that no medications were prescribed, except the anti-parasitic that we gave to everyone, and children’s multi-vitamins. This was odd. I turned the sheet of paper over to read the diagnosis. There was a list of complaints – aches and pains of various kinds – but no diagnosis, and no treatment. Maybe this was a mistake? I identified the doctor’s handwriting and went into the adjacent building where the clinic was operating, and he was already seeing another patient.
“Is there some mistake here?” I interrupted. “Is there something we should be doing, something we can give these children?”
He looked at me with sincere eyes. “There is nothing to diagnose,” he said to me. “Their condition is a result of poor hygiene and malnutrition, because they are poor. They walked for two hours on their own to get here. They need food, if we have any.”
If I’d been thinking, I’d have rummaged through everyone’s bags and collected various granola bars and scraps of food that we might have been carrying. But I wasn’t thinking. I didn’t do it, and I didn’t even find the children. I went back to the pharmacy and I grabbed a big bundle of vitamins and a few children’s Tylenol, and I handed them over to be distributed when the three children’s turn came. And I cannot tell you any more of what became of those three kids who walked so far to get so little.
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While I was in Honduras, one of my dogs had to go to the vet, for a not especially expensive visit that cost about five times what it cost us to see one patient in Honduras. I feel as though I need to make an excuse here, but I can’t even define what exactly it is for. Except that what else can I do in the face of three children who walk for two hours to a free medical clinic that cannot treat them because their illness is poverty and their hunger I had not the wherewithal to feed.
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The Christian Church these days is something of a mess. It is marked by scandal, hypocrisy, abuse, name-calling, foolishness, hatreds, self-absorption, and a too-often anemic enthusiasm for the Good News of God in Christ. She consoles herself with excuses, and with the regular reminder that where two or three are gathered together in Christ’s name, there he is in the midst of them.
But every morning there are children who wake up with no one to care for them, no way to feed themselves, no access to clean water, and no way to find a doctor of the kind found by the dozen across the river at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. Unless we decide to go to them, as the doctors and nurses, and non-medical folks who went to Honduras in the name of this parish did two weeks ago.
It would be misleading to be self-congratulatory and tell you what a marvelous job we did – although we did a marvelous job. It would be a mistake to believe, even for a moment, that all is well because of our week’s work in Concepcion del Norte.
But it would be wrong to miss the importance and the power of two or three or fifteen people agreeing on a mission of love and care and healing. It would be blindness to miss the clear evidence of Christ’s presence among the men and women who you sent to do that work in Honduras. And it would be tragic to fail to recognize the power of God to transform lives and even the whole world when we gather together by our twos and threes, our fifteens and fifties, our hundreds and our thousands.
This is precisely why three years ago this parish adopted an empty church in North Philadelphia as our mission. And why we have founded there a school that is to open in two days at Saint James the Less, which seeks to serve children like those who walked to the Gran Brigada Medicina – children who have not enough to survive in this world.
This is why we cannot console ourselves with excuses, and why we must not be satisfied with two or three gathered together, when Christ has given us so much power, by calling his people together here on Locust Street for more than 160 years.
And Christ has given each and every one of us power when we were baptized with his Holy Spirit.
Christ gave you power to build up his kingdom. Christ gave you power to reach out in love. Christ gave you power to change your own life and the lives of those you touch. Christ gave you power to bear with grace the image of your creator. Christ gave you power to conquer darkness and despair. Christ gave you power to heal brokenness and to forgive those who vex you. Christ gave you power to live beyond the grave. Christ gave you power to do whatever you ask in his Name.
Christ has not given you or me an excuse… to be less than he calls us to be, smaller than we should be, timid of hope, puny in our dreaming, stagnant in our work, tight-fisted in our giving, reluctant in our hospitality, reserved in our loving.
Every day there are homes in this city where two or three children wake up hungry, without all they need, and no good parent to guide them in this difficult world. But Christ is in their midst too – those beautiful children of his! And they are walking towards us every day.
What, I pray, do we intend to do?
Preached by Fr. Sean Mullen
4 September 2011
Saint Mark's Church, Philadelphia