Where two or three are gathered...
A sermon preached by the Rev. Kit Lonergan on September 4, 2011
Sermon for Pentecost 12 (Proper 18)
September 4, 2011
Christ Church, Andover
Romans 13:8-14; Matthew 18:15-20
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts together always be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, our strength and our redeemer. AMEN.
I remember meeting up with a friend in college one evening, shortly after she had attended what she called a ‘house meeting’ with her then roommates. It was five women, all seniors in college, almost all of them friends of one another. That is, until they lived together. After a good long rant about the ‘meeting’, which included complaints about the dishes in the sink, loud music, driveway privileges and the mysterious orange juice finisher (who never bought more to replace the empty carton), my friend sighed. “I really thought”, she said, “that all of us living together would be a lot more fun than it’s turning out to be.”
Today’s readings in scripture are not just insights about living in community or why community is good—they are about what happens when communities need to engage in the non-ideal moments, the rough patches, the conflicts that will inevitably come to surface when two or three are gathered together. Today’s readings remind us that churches, the gathered faithful, can be powerful harbingers of good and love and transformation, but we, the gathered faithful, can also be each other’s most powerful critics.
Our Gospel today is one of Matthew’s teaching discourses—throughout the narrative portions of the story of Jesus’ life, we find extended teachings to the disciples and to the crowds. Written for a Jewish community who had left the synagogue and had started meeting in their own houses to worship Jesus, the writer of Matthew presents Jesus as a pedagogist—a prodigious teacher, not only presenting his own life as instruction, but offering specific ways of living in community as well. You might remember Jesus telling his disciples that they should not forgive their brother up to seven times, but to seventy times seven times! This nascent community—looked on with suspicion by the authorities, alienated from their former synagogue communities, and learning how to be Christians in the early years after the death of Jesus—you can understand why they might have a few issues to sort out as to how to live in community together. Jesus’ words and instruction around how to engage with each other must have proved valuable to them then—and to us as well, two thousand years later when we are still working out how to engage each other in our own churches with love.
The prophet Ezekiel is given a tough command from God in our Old Testament lesson: “You, mortal, I have made a sentinel for the house of Israel”. The pronouncement could be to all who were listening, and not just to Ezekiel—who is given the responsibility of telling Israel—disobedient, unlistening Israel—that they have transgressed the ways of God. At stake in his warnings to Israel is not only their future, but Ezekiel’s: the fate of the prophet himself is tied to his willingness to call on Israel to repent, to turn back to God. If he does not warn them to repent, his own soul will be at stake.
But listen to the second part of the reading. Israel, once called upon and called out by the prophet to repent—is aware that they have transgressed and wish to once again ‘live’, as Ezekiel recounts. God, in his reply through Ezekiel says, “As I live, says the Lord GOD, I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that the wicked turn from their ways and live.” God’s pleasure, indeed God’s own life, is not in the role of callous judge, gaining satisfaction from the punishment of those who go astray. God wills, wishes, wants repentence. God wants us to live, and living in this context means in right relationship with God’s word and will. Forgiveness of those who have transgressed is God’s will, and bringing them back into right relationship with God would mean life—not just for Ezekiel, but for Israel.
Matthew’s gospel echoes the role of the sentinel when it outlines how to engage with another brother or sister who has ‘sinned against you’. Jesus does not offer a verdict of condemnation, but in his teaching offers a vision of reconciliation. If someone sins against you, tell them individually, to their face. We are an incarnational people—what we do together, as a messy community of humanity, matters, and it is clear from this pericope that Jesus believes this as well. The directive here is to not wait for God’s justice and punishment to eventually reign down on the person who has transgressed, but go after them to offer them a way of repenting; of saying I’m sorry. The opportunity of mending the relationship is God’s will for us as a community. That means not giving up and walking away in a silent huff. Not simply ‘de-friending’ on facebook without a word to the person. We are to be sentinels of God’s everliving word of redemption, not the harbingers of God’s justice. God wills us to repent, not to die. We can only offer each other the chance to repent, to apologize, to continue to hash it out and struggle with how difficult it can be to be in relationship with one another, because that is what God does for us. And because we will inevitably encounter conflict.
Paul’s word to us reminds us to leave behind the fleshly concerns and conceits and to “put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires.” If we had our way, we would be right all the time. But we are not. We are messy human beings who yearn for God’s life, but often miss the mark. When we do, the last thing our proud selves can handle is to be called out on that. When we sin, we wish to hide it. To put on Christ, to leave our fleshy desires behind, is to leave behind our own willingness to be right all the time, and to live instead into that difficult word, repentence. When we repent, we admit to God, to ourselves, and to our neighbor, out loud, that we have wronged one another and we are willing to change, to be changed.
Today’s readings can be difficult for a community to listen to because they outline just how hard it can be to live in community. We are given the superhuman task as a Church to be forgiving and just and loving and “nice” and pious and perfect and without a haggle to be seen, either within our own ranks or by our denominational neighbors down the street. But that isn’t what Church is about. That was never the purpose of bringing people together to worship God—to be a shallow vision of piety. Church community, to me at least, is reminiscent of Shel Silverstein’s short children’s poem:
There's too many kids in this tub
There's too many elbows to scrub
I just washed a behind that I'm sure wasn't mine
There's too many kids in this tub.
Community is messy, tight, uncomfortably intimate and most often unsatisfying to those who wish to get in and out quickly and without much hassle. Those who have been in church communities and wished to have such a quick experience of transience, have probably been disappointed in their church experiences at times. We rely on the ‘be nice’ version of church, or the ‘this is how we’ve always done it’ ideal, or the ‘if we do it that way, we’ll fail’ fear factor. When we fall into those traps, we limit ourselves and our ability to grow in community diminishes. That’s when conflict arises.
However, Jesus tells us that when two or three are gathered together in his name, he is there among them, among us. That can seem a difficult truth to accept. However, it is real, because whenever two or three are gathered together, there is a chance for conflict, and also for reconciliation. There is a relationship that can grow and nurture, and Jesus was human enough to not require that those two or three agree on anything. All they need to do is to show up and not give up when things begin to get tough. Conflict, according to scripture, is not a sign of failure. It is a chance to extend God’s reconciling love in a world which silently (or not so silently) roots for punishment over forgiveness.
We find God in community because it is in community that we are reminded that we are NOT God. That the world does NOT always revolve around us or our wishes or wants or particular needs. We worship a God who IS constantly in relationship with Godself—God, Jesus, the Holy Spirit—interacting and unfolding in new and unexpected ways with one another. We too know that to grasp the fullness of God, we must be able to see Christ in those who seem the least likely to embody Christ, who are most often those who don’t agree with us and our vision. We could probably be very religious and spiritual by ourselves. Trust me, I think it would be easier. But it’s lonely. God’s voice begins to sound like our own. Even worse, our voice begins to sound like God’s.
When two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them. What would it take for us to believe in this so much that we let go of our human pride, and got into the overcrowded, orange juice stealer-infested tub, and knew that this was part of God’s will for reconciliation?