Hang On

jackrabbit camelback

It’s been an interesting couple of months, to put it mildly. Actually, life has been interesting for longer than that, but the past two months or so have been particularly momentous, seeing the culmination of a number of things long in the making.

Coming Out to My Daughters
About two and a half months ago, I guess, I came out to my two daughters and my wife, from whom I’d already been separated for four years. We were still legally married  because we were too broke to pay for the divorce, and mostly in order to facilitate our younger daughter staying within and graduating from her school district. I’d stressed terribly over how, and when, to come out to them. I’d already been out to a number of friends and colleagues, but coming out to family is a whole different thing. If a friend, even a good friend, doesn’t take the news well, and they cut ties with you, it’s a disappointment. Having that same kind of reaction and rejection from a family member is the great terror that robs gay men of cumulative months of sleep as they envision every possible coming-out scenario in their waking and sleeping hours.

Ultimately, the timing of my coming out was determined by unexpected events unfolding, and not by grand plan. My boyfriend had come for a visit, and we’d planned to drive down into southern Ohio and do some hiking and sightseeing in the beautiful Hocking Hills region. We had just left my place, and had set out on the 45-minute drive, when I received a text from younger daughter, asking to borrow my large suitcase for her imminent departure to Switzerland, where she’d soon be starting her undergraduate studies. Beyond the fact that I actually needed the suitcase for my own upcoming move, I realized that when she arrived at the house to “borrow” it, she’d be curious about the strange car parked in the driveway. But your kid is your kid and you’d do anything for them. I figured I’d just pick up a second-hand suitcase for myself in a thrift store, so I told her that it was OK for her to stop by and pick it up. A little while later, as I’m driving, I get a text:

“Dad, are you seeing someone?”

Wow, I hadn’t expected that – but I figured I could brush it aside easily enough.

“LOL! No, my friend George from Toronto came for a short visit and I decided to show him the Hocking Hills.”

“Yeah, are you seeing him?”

Wow. “Are you seeing him?”, not even stopping along the way at “Are you gay?” Had she had suspicions about me for some time? Had she put things together in her own mind before I could make my own announcement? I didn’t think so, but I also know that we human beings can often delude ourselves in the worst way. How am I supposed to say something, via text, while driving, that in even my best-case scenario would be a sit-down conversation of at least an hour? Try keeping the car on the road while processing that. Hell, try not wanting to deliberately drive off the road into a concrete abutment just to avoid the whole thing.

I realized two things. First, I was too big of a coward to actually tell the truth in that moment, in that way. Second, I had to text back quickly, because a long delay in answering the question would automatically give an answer I wasn’t prepared to give. So with a knot in my stomach and with my hands trembling, I typed as quickly as I could.

“Um, no. But in any case, the suitcase is in the downstairs hallway, make sure that you don’t…..”

I deflected. And then, for the next couple of days, I was sick to my stomach. I’d just lied to my daughter. I’d lied about something that was very important, and lying to her about anything just ran contrary to everything I believe about parent-child relationships. After a very stressful and not at all enjoyable day of hiking, I decided that I was going to have to come clean to my daughters, and quickly – which would also mean that I was going to have to come out to my soon-to-be-ex wife, and to my parents, and to the rest of my immediate family, in rapid succession.

I arranged to have dinner with the girls at a favorite local casual restaurant. We had a great time together. After we’d eaten, I started in with the younger, texting daughter.

“You know, you sent me some texts the other day that really took me by surprise. But I’m curious; I wanted to ask you: How would you feel if I were seeing someone?”

“Omigosh! Are you?”

“Well, just answer the question first. How would you feel?”

Slight pause…

“Well, I don’t know. Would it be a woman, or a man?”

Zing. She has to suspect. I actually feel encouraged by this. Maybe it isn’t going to be as  big a thing as I’d been fearing.

“Well, how would you feel if it were a woman?”

“It wouldn’t bother me. I’d be OK with it.” (Older daughter concurs at this point.)

Deep breath…

“OK… and how would you feel… if it were another man?”

Momentary awkward silence.

Older daughter chimes in: “Well, if that were the case, I just want to say I’d be OK with it. I mean, I’d have to get used to it, but we’re all who we are, and if you’re gay, that doesn’t change anything between us.”

Unfortunately, younger daughter, whose line of questioning had started this chain reaction to begin with, was not anywhere near as conciliatory. She was taking it hard.

“But you’re the one that asked if I were seeing a man!”

“I was kidding!”

No you weren’t, I thought to myself. But this wasn’t the time to argue about that.

“What about the church that you just took the new job at? Do they know? Are you going to have to quit your job?”

“No, the church knows; I told them the very first time we talked.”

“Oh… wait… so they knew before we did?!!”

This was not going well. The remainder of the meal was tense, on at least one front.

Coming Out to My Soon-to-be-Ex-Wife
Two days later, I came out to their mother over lunch. When I got to the big declaration, her response was to smile and say “I knew it! Honestly, I’d have never suspected it, but after you went up to Toronto to see your friend twice so soon, and then you said you wanted to see George Takei at the Pride Parade, I really started to suspect it.” Of course, she had a number of questions, and maybe she’ll have more as time unfolds, and I tried to answer them as best as I could, even while I try to work out the answers to some of them myself.

A major factor in deciding to come out when I did was that younger daughter was leaving the country for school – remember the suitcase? I knew that I’d be coming out once and for all in very short order, and I wanted to do so with her in person, rather than via phone, Skype, or blog post. I’d deferred the start of the new pastoral position so that I’d be able to see her off at the airport when she left. Unfortunately, that was not to be. After our dinner, she got word to me via her mother that she didn’t want to see me, or talk to me, or hear from me, or have any contact from me. This has been the single negative reaction that I’ve received over my coming out (at least the only one actually spoken). It hurt, and continues to hurt, in a way beyond description. Before, I’d been Pops. Now, I didn’t even exist.

But, she’s eighteen. I remember being eighteen, and so black-and-white certain that I knew how the world worked and that I had all the right answers, well past eighteen. Just as I’d hurt other people with my own actions, I’m getting some of it back now, and just as those people had been patient with me until I came around, I can only do the same in the hopes that she will. I think she will, but it’s going to take some time. So I wait.

Coming Out to My Parents
In the midst of all this, I was shuttling back and forth between Columbus and New York, making final arrangements for the new job. During one of those trips shortly after coming out to the girls and their mother, I doglegged through Pennsylvania and did the same with my mother, and my father and his wife. It was grueling. Telling them was difficult – not, as I explained then, because I’m ashamed of who I am, but rather, because I knew that this news had the potential to cause them pain, and that was the last thing I’d ever want to do. As it turned out, those conversations ended up going about as well as I could have ever hoped – and far better than they did in the nightmares that had awakened me in the middle of countless nights. After the initial awkwardness, Dad’s response was “Well it sure isn’t the kind of news I’d ever wanted to hear, or expected to hear. But as far as I’m concerned, it doesn’t change anything. You’re my son, and I love you, and I’ll always love you, and nothing can ever change that.” He went on, “The only thing I worry about is that you’ve just had such a tough time of things for so long now, and I want things to be good and go easy for you for a change, and I just worry that this is going to continue to make things difficult for you.”

Telling Mom went differently, but ultimately just as well. After the initial shock, and running through the religious issues she had with the news, she thought very carefully about what I was saying. She ended up asking me some incredibly good questions, very thoughtful questions. I’d given Mom and Dad both copies of Matthew Vines’ book God and the Gay Christian, since I knew they’d both have reservations on religious grounds. At one point, Mom said “Well, I guess it’s just the way I’ve always said – hate the sin, but love the sinner.” Realizing that even that was a step in the right direction, I said, “Well, I hope that at some point, you get to the point where you don’t believe there’s any sin in this to hate.” She said, “I guess the first time I really saw this out of the abstract, as a real human issue, is when I saw the movie Philadelphia.”

“Well, if you’d like, I could recommend a few other movies that might help you as you think through all of this. Would you like me to send some to you?”

“Yes, I think I’d like that.”

In my nightmares, I’d envisioned having to dodge things being thrown at me, and being banished from the house. Don’t imagine that coming out to your parents is any less scary when you’re in your fifties than if you did it in your twenties. In reality, I was amazed at how accepting of this new reality they both were. I thought that the ability for me to be amazed by my parents had long passed. I was wrong. I’m sure that there will be bumps along the way, but my parents are amazing.

Coming Out to Everyone Else
With the immediate family now having been told, I was able to make the final, once-and-for-all coming out announcement, via a blog post,  to everyone else who hadn’t already been let into the circle of trust, to borrow a phrase from Meet the Parents. I did this the day after leaving the Columbus congregation – they’re dealing with a lot of other turmoil and transition at the moment; I didn’t want to add this drama onto them as well – and the day before starting in New York, so that I would be starting here completely out to everyone from the get-go. That single blog post had exponentially more hits than anything else I’ve ever posted here. Still, I’ve been encountering people who had missed the announcement, necessitating a series of re-coming outs. That will continue into the future, I suppose. Here again, the only comments I’ve gotten have been positive and very supportive. Of course, I’m not so naive as to think that the news was met with universal acceptance. I’m sure that there are a number of people who are not supportive; they’ve just chosen to say nothing rather than offer their thoughts openly. That’s more civil, I suppose, but I almost wish that I’d know if someone has written me out of their lives over this. Even worse is the scenario where a person says they’re OK with the news, but they really aren’t, and they gradually, quietly just disengage. There are a few people that I think may be doing this at the moment. I hope not.

Saying Goodbye
My last day of pastoring in Columbus was Sunday, August 17th, and I couldn’t have imagined a more wonderful and heartfelt sendoff from the congregation in my dreams. It was a great service, and a deeply emotional final sermon, followed by a touching reception. This congregation had meant so much to me, for so many years. I was so blessed to have been part of them all of that time.

(Not) Saying Goodbye
The very next day, my younger daughter left the country, without my being able to see her, much less talk with her, hug her. I actually considered hiding behind a column or a plant at the terminal, just to be able to at least see her before she left. As hard as it was, though, I respected her wishes that I not be there, no matter how much it hurt. And it hurt a lot.

Saying Hello
The day after daughter left for Switzerland, I left for Auburn, New York, and the day after that, I was already at work in the new position. A parishioner very graciously allowed me to stay in an unoccupied, but fully furnished home of theirs, enabling me to transition into the new surroundings quickly, and allowing me to make the full-scale transition more gradually. I’ve been living with limited stuff, out of suitcases (including the second-hand one I bought at the thrift store to replace the one that daughter took to Switzerland) and banana boxes. I can’t wait to get into my own place. The new congregation is also wonderful. I’ve spent the past month getting to know the people, the congregational culture, the city. I definitely like it here.

Back to Columbus – The Dissolution
My wife and I had finally gotten our dissolution paperwork filed, and of course, the hearing was set for three weeks after the new job started in New York. So last week, I had to drive a 14-hour round trip to appear in front of a judge for what couldn’t have been more than two minutes, answering Yes, Yes, Yes, No, Yes… to a handful of questions that we’d both already answered in the paperwork. Ah well. After being separated for four years, almost to the day, and with not even a wisp of fanfare, our marriage of 26 years (actually 22 together) was over. We joked in the elevator on the way out of the building. A few hours later, we met up again for a celebratory happy hour drink at the restaurant where older daughter worked. Then, back to Auburn the next morning, and back to work.

And Back to Columbus Again – the Real Move
Tomorrow morning, I drive back to Columbus again. This time, I finish up the last of the packing and start giving the house its final cleaning. The movers show up early Monday morning to pack everything up and, sometime a few days later, deliver it to my new permanent home in Auburn. There are a couple of things I need to drop off, a couple of goodbyes to share, and a set of keys to drop off at the landlord’s. And of course, older daughter and now ex-wife and I will go out for a nice dinner. Then early Tuesday morning, I leave the city I’ve called home since August of 1984.

This past week, a parishioner here commented that she was staggered, thinking of all of the upheaval and changes that I’d navigated in just the past couple of months. I thought a lot about that comment. The real truth is that – as my Dad had alluded to – there have been a near-continual string of major disasters and problems, which won’t be detailed here now,  that I’ve had to get through in my life, running back to probably about 2001. As much as I’d never wish any of those truly awful experiences on even my worst enemy, I really think that going through them taught me how to endure all these multiple, very stressful things in recent times. As difficult as so many of these things are, I’ve taught myself to compartmentalize them, and to be able to continue in a reasonably normal, sane, even good-natured way, even with things being very different while inside each of those various other “compartments.” I do also know this, and I know that there’s a risk of sounding superficial or corny, but I know that there’s no way that I could have gotten through all of this anywhere nearly as well, by simply relying on my own strength or smarts. The collective pressures and stresses that all of these things placed upon me could easily have crushed me like a Dixie Cup, and yet, somehow, I’m still here. Yes, I attribute that to God. Some people might think that clergy have a lot more about God figured out than the average person. I doubt that, actually; I think that we’re just taught a larger and better vocabulary to camouflage the gaps in our understanding. I think that the net result of my education has been that I’m less sure about what I think I know about God than when I began – and maybe that’s the whole point. But I do know that somehow, inextricably embedded within the deepest depths and the highest highs of our experience, there is an incredible, mysterious Something that is so real that you can feel the Something on your skin, hear the Something in your head, feel the Something in your heart, as real as anything you’ve ever experienced in your life. Others may call the Something something else; I call the Something God, and if the past two months, and the past decade, has taught me anything, it’s that I really can do all things through the Something that I also call Christ, who strengthens me.

So, I wonder what’s going to happen next month? I can only imagine. All I can do is just hang on, and enjoy the ride.

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Fuzzy Math (sermon 9/14/14)

abbott costello math

Matthew 18:21-35

Then Peter came and said to him, “Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?” Jesus said to him, “Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times. “For this reason the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his slaves. When he began the reckoning, one who owed him ten thousand talents was brought to him; and, as he could not pay, his lord ordered him to be sold, together with his wife and children and all his possessions, and payment to be made. So the slave fell on his knees before him, saying, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.’ And out of pity for him, the lord of that slave released him and forgave him the debt. But that same slave, as he went out, came upon one of his fellow slaves who owed him a hundred denarii; and seizing him by the throat, he said, ‘Pay what you owe.’ Then his fellow slave fell down and pleaded with him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you.’ But he refused; then he went and threw him into prison until he would pay the debt. When his fellow slaves saw what had happened, they were greatly distressed, and they went and reported to their lord all that had taken place. Then his lord summoned him and said to him, ‘You wicked slave! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. Should you not have had mercy on your fellow slave, as I had mercy on you?’ And in anger his lord handed him over to be tortured until he would pay his entire debt. So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart.”

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There’s been a lot of talk in the news recently about the new “Common Core” education standards being implemented in the public schools. I don’t know much about Common Core – next to nothing, actually. But it’s definitely stirred up a lot of controversy. I’ve seen that a lot of people are upset, for example, about the new way that Common Core would teach kids math. They say that Common Core teaches kids methods that are more complicated than they need to be; methods more complicated than the old-fashioned way – which, of course, was what back in the day was called the “New Math,” and which faced the exact same criticism, almost verbatim, that we’ve heard about Common Core. Again, I don’t know if they’re right, but the critics of Common Core say that it’s too focused on trying to teach kids underlying mathematical concepts than on actually getting the right answer – that it’s too much of a touchy-feely math; or to borrow a phrase from the political realm, it’s “fuzzy math.”

Well in today’s gospel text, the disciples are trying to nail down some math of their own, as they’re talking with Jesus. Last week, we looked at the passage just before this weeks, and I said that that passage, which dealt with church order and discipline, actually had more to do with our willingness to extend grace and be more forgiving than it had to do with the supposed offender. This next passage seems to bear that out, since in the story, Jesus moves directly into this discussion about our need to extend grace, and mercy, and forgiveness. Here they were, the disciples and Jesus, getting into the nitty-gritty of the subject. And Peter obviously recognizes that Jesus is stretching what they’d all understood about forgiveness up until then. So to challenge Jesus, Peter asks him, “OK, but just how far do we go with being gracious and forgiving? I mean, really, we have to have some limits. At some point, we have to say enough is enough, don’t we?”

There’s some evidence in Jewish tradition that maybe forgiveness was called for up to three times, or maybe if you were being extremely gracious, maybe four times. We see some of that “three strikes and you’re out” viewpoint in the scriptures: in the Old Testament book of Amos, it’s after the fourth time the nations of Judah and Israel sin that God snaps and brings the boom down on them. In the book of Job, Job says that God is so great, forgiving twice, even three times.

So to push out beyond that “three strikes and you’re out” mindset that Peter and the disciples would have been familiar with, to go where Peter thinks would have been beyond any reasonable point, he asks, “would I even have to forgive someone up to seven times?” and of course, Jesus gives his famous answer, not seven times, but seventy-seven times. And maybe at this point, we can feel Jesus cringing as soon as he’d said that, you can almost see his eyes rolling, because he knows that there will be some people who will take things so literally that they’d listen to his words words and say “OK, OK, it will be tough, but I’ll forgive someone up to 77 times – but on the 78th time, I’m going to really let him have it!”

So Jesus backs up and tries to make his real point again, and he says, “OK, you want to talk numbers? You want to talk quantities? Here’s a story for you. The Kingdom of Heaven is like….” And he launches into this story about a man who owes the king “ten thousand talents.” A talent was actually a unit of money, equal to 130 pounds of silver. One talent was equal to about fifteen years of pay for an average worker. So a debt of ten thousand talents would have been equal to something like 150,000 years’ wages. In other words, this was Jesus’ version of the term “bazillion” – it was an outrageous amount, so large, so off-the-charts, that everyone could realize that this was an imaginary situation, and that Jesus was talking about a quantity really beyond measure. It was a debt that couldn’t ever be repaid. And yet that’s exactly the magnitude, the kind of forgiveness, that Jesus says the Kingdom of God is all about. It’s a forgiveness that goes beyond numbers and quantities and balance sheets. That’s the fuzzy math that Jesus says that God offers, that the Kingdom of God runs on. Jesus is saying here that if we’re still counting and keeping score about how much, or how many times, we’re supposed to forgive, then we’ve never really forgiven a person to begin with – we’ve missed the whole point. Forgiveness is a thing of the heart. The preacher David Lose once wrote that in order to get that point more easily, it helps to flip Peter’s question around and ask how many times are we supposed to love our neighbor as ourselves.

As important as this passage is in terms of how we understand forgiveness, though, we know that it’s a hard thing to always apply to our own lives. Plus, this passage has sometimes been used in ways that have hurt a lot of people. There have been many times where a victim of domestic violence, someone with an abusive spouse or parent, was counseled by a pastor somewhere that the proper Christian response to the abuse was to just forgive the person repeatedly and just go on, without any change to the situation. And abusers who have confessed their actions have had pastors offer them forgiveness, without taking any additional steps to prevent the abuse from continuing in the future.

It’s very possible that some of us here have gotten that kind of counsel in situations of domestic violence. Others here have no doubt experienced the same kind of advice regarding similar, but smaller problems. That way of thinking has caused a lot of pain and suffering, and in extreme cases, even death. Something that causes that kind of suffering can’t possibly be Jesus’ understanding of forgiveness.

Forgiveness is crucial to us as Christians. It’s critical as the start of the healing process for the person who’s caused the harm to us. But maybe more importantly, it’s crucial for our own spiritual and emotional well-being. To forgive someone is to release any power that the other person has to influence our lives. Forgiving someone isn’t pretending the wrong or the hurt didn’t happen. It’s refusing to allow that person and their past actions from controlling us and how we’ll experience life now and into the future. And forgiving a person does not mean that we have to stay in situations where the wrong, where the harm, is likely to continue. Forgiveness does not equal volunteering to become a perpetual victim. Forgiveness is an outgrowth of love, and there are many examples where, out of love, it’s best to be separated from someone rather than being together with them.

That’s a very important distinction to make when we think about Jesus’ words this week. But on a more general level, Jesus is telling us that we need to be way more forgiving than we typically are, way more forgiving than we want to be, even way more forgiving than a person deserves – which, of course, is the whole point of the concept of grace – extending love and mercy to someone beyond what they deserve – just as God has done with us.

Many of you probably remember an incident that occurred in 2006 at the small school in the Nickel Mines Amish community in Pennsylvania, when a mentally deranged young man shot ten young Amish schoolgirls, killing five of them, and then turning the gun on himself. It was a terrible tragedy, and one that tears at our hearts even now when we think about it. In the middle of that tragedy, though, something truly remarkable happened. Because they believed that God called them to be unlimited in their forgiveness, the very day after the shooting the Amish community reached out not only to support the families of the girls who had been killed, but also to offer condolences and support to the wife of the young man who’d killed them. With some of the financial support that flowed into them from around the world, they set up an assistance fund for the man’s widow and educational trust funds for the man’s small children. They did it, they said, because they realized that the man’s family was just as much a victim of this tragedy as were the families in their own community.

I admit that sometimes, I struggle with the concept of forgiveness. I can think of a couple of people who have hurt me deeply, and who, even though I’m still working on it, I admit that even years later, I haven’t completely forgiven yet. I suspect that many of you know that same struggle. As I deal with that, I sometimes wonder the same question as Peter; is there some reasonable limit on just how much God expects us to forgive? Is there some real-world boundary, some line that someone can cross and we won’t be called to forgive them? Ultimately, I guess the answer doesn’t really matter, at least not to me, because if there is such a line, it’s apparently somewhere out past Nickle Mines, and I’m not sure I’m even that far yet. But I know that I can continue to pray, and to ask God to continue showing the way to greater grace, greater mercy, greater forgiveness. And I know that God has promised to work within me, to gradually teach me more and more about those things, and to teach me more about the fuzzy math of forgiveness that God applies to me, and to you, and to everyone else in the Kingdom.

Thanks be to God.

The Sometimes-Irritating Community of Grace (sermon 9/7/14)

unriend button

“If another member of the church sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone. If the member listens to you, you have regained that one. But if you are not listened to, take one or two others along with you, so that every word may be confirmed by the evidence of two or three witnesses. If the member refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if the offender refuses to listen even to the church, let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector. Truly I tell you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven. Again, truly I tell you, if two of you agree on earth about anything you ask, it will be done for you by my Father in heaven. For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.”- Matthew 18:15-20

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This past week, a friend shared an article on Facebook that said that people had assumed that the Internet, with its unprecedented access to global information and interaction, would usher in the dawn of a new era, where all this instant, 24/7 exposure to the world beyond our own thoughts and experience would make us all more balanced, more understanding, more broad-minded. But the reality, according to the article, has actually been the exact opposite. All of the access to ideas and beliefs that challenge our own thoughts come along with access to a potentially worldwide community of people who think and believe the same as us – and rather than taking the tougher route of examining our thoughts and actually allowing them to be challenged, people are just taking the easier route and just finding online communities of like-minded people to associate with and be bolstered by – creating a kind of echo chamber that allows our beliefs to go without serious challenge. The article argues that instead of increasing dialogue across different groups, the Internet has actually served to decrease that kind of interaction, with people becoming more polarized and separate as they moved into their own customized online thought-ghettoes.

Actually, I don’t really think the Internet created this problem as much as it just made it easier for us to be as broad-or narrow-minded as we’re already predisposed. And even if the Internet does bring problems with it, the benefits far outweigh the problems. From my own standpoint, I’d never want to give up having virtually unlimited access to news from around the world, the contents of the world’s great libraries and museums, or the ability to watch that movie that I didn’t catch in the theaters, or funny pictures of cats, or doing my banking and Christmas shopping at three o’clock in the morning in my boxer shorts. That, my friends, is what we call progress.

Still, the article still has some real truth to it. There’s no question that whatever your beliefs, however brilliant or nutty they might be, you can find an online community of websites and organizations and people to support and nurture those beliefs without any serious challenge. And if there’s a website or a person that does challenge you to get out of the echo chamber, and go out beyond your ideological comfort zone, it’s so easy to just not go to that particular website. Block the person. Unfriend them. Problem solved. We live in a time where human relationships can be terminated with the click of a mouse. But in this passage from Matthew, Jesus is describing the way he wants us to be in relationship with each other as his followers, and it’s something very different from that.

On the surface, this passage deals with church order and discipline, and the church certainly needs that. But even at that, we always need to remember that Christ has created his church to be a community of grace – extending the undeserved grace, the mercy and love and forgiveness that God showed to us, outward to others. So while the church needs order and discipline, it needs to be grace-filled order; grace-filled discipline.

But I think that there’s also a deeper significance of Jesus’ words here. Beyond church order and discipline, Jesus is pointing out to us the way we’re all supposed to be connected with each other in the middle of conflicts. Even when in conflict, we’re still all various parts of the one body of Christ. We’re still called to help each other, to be accountable to each other, to love one another – to really, truly, remain in community with each other. It doesn’t matter if we’re Red-Staters or Blue-Staters; liberal or conservative. Doesn’t matter if we’re Presbyterian or Catholic or Episcopal or Baptist or Methodist or Nazarene or Alliance. Male/female, rich/poor, straight/gay, pro-Israeli/pro/Palestinian, Skaneateles or Half Acre, it doesn’t matter. Together, we are Christ’s body. Together, we’re more than we are as individuals; and when one of us succeeds or rejoices or fails or suffers, we all do. So we all have to avoid the temptation of retreating to our own thought-ghettoes and echo chambers, and really hear, and see, and love one another, even those who are very different from us, even those with whom we profoundly disagree, in order for us toreally  be this big, diverse, always-imperfect, sometimes-irritating, community of grace that Jesus called his church.

Now, we all know that this sounds good, it’s easy to say, but in the real world, it’s awfully hard to put into practice. And at least half the time, even when we try to do that, it fails. So why should we even try? What’s the use? What good is going to come of it?

She was a very progressive minister in a mainline Protestant denomination. After growing up in a very affluent home in an exclusive suburb of a major northeastern city, she’d gotten a bachelor’s degree from Vassar, then went on to Harvard Divinity school, went through the battery of difficult and drawn out ordination standards of her denomination. She loved world travel and being exposed to different cultures, and the dividends from her trust fund that supplemented her pastor’s salary enabled her to do that.

He was a conservative pastor in a Fundamentalist Protestant congregation. He grew up in the Deep South, in a lower middle-class family where some months, just making it from paycheck to paycheck was tough. Working at the local plant and going to school part-time, he’d put his way through community college and then on to the state university. He felt a call to the ministry, and so he took a handful of classes online and at a local non-accredited Bible college, and he was ordained by the vote of his home congregation. He’d never had the ability to travel much; in fact, the furthest he’d ever traveled in his life was when he moved from his southern hometown to take on his new pastorate, in the same town where she was the pastor of “that godless liberal church” down the road.

They first met each other at the local ministerial association’s monthly meeting. She was looking sharp in her brand-new outfit from Talbots and the latest hairstyle. He was wearing black loafers, white socks, plain black pants, white shirt with short sleeves, and a skinny black tie. If it weren’t for his flat-top haircut, he’d have looked like one of the Blues Brothers who’d forgotten sunglasses. And they immediately hated each other. She hated his slow southern drawl; her nasal Yankee twang set his teeth on edge. And they hated each other’s theology. He questioned outright whether she could be considered a true Christian. She thought it wouldn’t be proper to think the same thing of his beliefs and wouldn’t ever say it out loud, but in the quietness of her own mind, she actually thought the same of him. You’d think that you couldn’t find two more different people under the sun.

A couple of months after that, they bumped into each other again, but in a very different setting – they were both standing in hip waders in the cold water of a nearby stream. As odd as it might sound, it turns out that they both had a passion for fly fishing, of all things. He’d enjoyed it since he was a little boy and his father would take him out with him; it was their father-son time together and their escape from some of the difficulties of their lives. Her grandfather had taken her out and taught her the joys of fly-fishing in the stream that ran through their summer property in Maine. And it was through fly-fishing that these two first, grudgingly, struck up a friendship. And the friendship blossomed. They ended up spending time together showing each other how to tie their favorite flies, and sharing their favorite “secret” fishing spots.

And once their friendship grew, they discovered that they both also shared another passion – they both sensed a call to reach out to help the local immigrant population. So, against all logic, this theological Odd Couple got their congregations together to establish joint outreach programs for the local immigrant community. And it thrived. They provided material assistance, provided daycare for single mothers trying to work, taught English as a Second Language. The lives of hundreds if not thousands, of men, women, and children were made better through their joint efforts. Once they found some common ground, these two very different people, with very different worldviews, were able to see the humanity in the other – and not just the beauty of their humanity, but through that, they saw the very image of God in each other. They discovered that even while their differences were real, compared to what they had in common, those differences weren’t enough to keep them from what God was calling them to do in Christ’s name, together.

The great writer and Presbyterian minister Frederick Buechner once wrote that “Where people love each other and are true to each other and take risks for each other, God is with them and for them and they are doing God’s will.” Jesus said the same thing in this passage today when he said “Wherever two or more are gathered in my name, I am there among them.” Friends, when we commit to sticking together, staying in relationship and community with each other even when we’re in conflict, there’s no end to what God can do through us, together. But in order for that to work, when we come into conflict with each other, we can’t just throw up our hands, say the hell with it, and click “Unfriend.”

Thanks be to God.