Frankincense, Gold, & Har Gow

(sermon 1/5/20 – Epiphany Sunday)

har gow

Matthew 2:1-12

In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, asking, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.” When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him; and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. They told him, “In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet: ‘And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for from you shall come a ruler who is to shepherd my people Israel.’” Then Herod secretly called for the wise men and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared. Then he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, “Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage.”

When they had heard the king, they set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.

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Right after Christmas, George and I hit the road, taking off on a long road trip to visit family and friends. Beyond it just being nice to catch up, this was even more special for George because this was the first opportunity to return to Canada, since he was prohibited from leaving the country while his green card was in process. First, we visited George’s parents in western Ontario, near London. Then, we drove east to catch up with his brother and his family, and to see our nephew playing in a hockey tournament. After that, we went on to Toronto for more visits. Then we turned south, back to the U.S., going to Pennsylvania to visit with some of my relatives, then to Ohio to visit with some more of them, and finally, heading back home to Louisville.

While we were in Toronto, we also made arrangements to reconnect with some of George’s relatives in Richmond Hill – a city of about 200,000 people a half hour or so north of downtown Toronto. Toronto itself is a wonderful racially and culturally diverse city, maybe more so than any other city I’ve been in, and the full range of excellent restaurants there reflects the full breadth of that diversity. But to those in the know, if you want the best authentic Chinese food in the area, you go to Richmond Hill. So, as we’d done in the past, we all got together at a restaurant in Richmond Hill that serves the most amazing, authentic dim sum I’ve ever had. If you aren’t familiar with dim sum, it’s a traditional style of dinner that originated in Hong Kong, where you order a lot of small orders of all sorts of traditional Chinese snacks – barbecued pork steamed buns, soup-filled dumplings, deep-fried squid, meat or shrimp-stuffed rice noodles, and on and on – that are meant to be shared around the table.

So there we were again on this trip, in this huge banquet facility that had at least 250 people in it, and probably more. As I glanced around, I could see that I was one of probably only three of four non-Asian people there, which was fine – I felt completely at ease and welcome sharing this good time with extended family. I only mention that to make the point that this was a very authentic Chinese place, serving an almost exclusively Chinese clientele, which means that the menu was written almost completely in Chinese – what English translations were there were sparse and ambiguous, to put it mildly. So I didn’t really know what a lot of the dim sum dishes on the menu were, as all the Chinese speakers at the table were picking out small plates to order from the menu.

I’ve had dim sum enough to have a number of personal favorites that I think are delicious. But the palate is definitely a culturally conditioned thing, and honestly, I’ve had some dim sum dishes that, to my admittedly limited and deficient Anglo palate, tasted something like grass clippings wrapped in congealed wallpaper paste – but I also knew that the very same plate was delicious to George, who grew up with those tastes and textures, and it brought back all kinds of warm memories of family gatherings from his past.

Don’t get the wrong idea, though – those less-than-favorites dishes for me are actually pretty rare – I really like most of them. And as my own palate is evolving – improving – over time, I’m appreciating more of them all the time. And eating those dishes with the extended family sitting around the table makes it all the better. Still, since I don’t always know what’s coming, one of my favorite parts of these meals is when the food starts to arrive, usually in little covered bamboo steamer baskets, and they’re placed on the table, and the lids are ceremoniously removed, revealing what, for better or worse, is inside.

Even sitting there in that wonderful moment of the big reveal, though, the pastor’s brain is never completely on vacation, and as odd as it might sound, I was still aware that this Sunday, Epiphany Sunday, was coming up – and sitting there waiting to see what was going to be inside when those little bamboo steamers were opened up made me think about the magi, and the treasures, the gifts, that they brought with them and presented to the Christ child.

I started to imagine the scene: Jesus is being cradled in Mary’s arms as she and Joseph, as they welcome these strangers from far away. And did she and Joseph wonder, as I wondered about the dim sum steamers, what would be revealed when they opened the lids of the gifts they’d brought? No doubt, they were grateful for the gold. But did they really appreciate the frankincense? The myrrh? I mean, a little bit of either of them goes a long way. Would burning the frankincense trigger Mary’s asthma? Did they worry that baby Jesus would get ahold of the myrrh and choke on the little crystalline nuggets? All things considered, would they have rather gotten a child seat for the back of the donkey and a Pack ‘n Play? We all know that when you open a gift, you never really know what’s going to be in store when it’s opened.

The journey of the magi from the region that we now know as Iran and Iraq, regardless of how many of them there really were, and regardless of whether they were all men or not, and regardless of even how wise they might have been, has become one of our most beloved aspects of our sacred story of Jesus’ entry into human history. But to take the story further, what meaning can it have for us now?

Their coming to worship and pay homage to the newborn Jesus, the anointed one of God, and offering him gifts, can certainly be seen as a forerunner to our own worship of him – our own offering of our lives, our devotion, our talents, our resources, all in a spirit of gratitude.

But I think the reverse is also true. The magi presenting of gifts to Jesus can also be seen as a reflection of God’s offering us gifts – first, the gift of Christ himself, but so much else that follows, too. Sitting here at the beginning of a new year, we’re receiving gifts from God, whether we imagine them as treasure chests, or bamboo steamers, waiting to be opened up to reveal what’s inside, or we imagine them some other way.

What will this year bring for you? What will it bring for me? For each of us, the year will bring times of joy and contentment, as well as times of challenge. We might experience real happiness and fulfillment arising out of our relationships with family and friends. On the other hand, those same relationships might bring stress, pain, or grief. We might enjoy good health, or we might face difficult, maybe insurmountable, health problems.

I want to be very careful here – I don’t want to leave the impression that everything that happens to you, or to me, during this year will be God’s choice or will. I don’t believe that God literally deals with us in flippant or uncaring ways, as, for example, the story of Job would indicate, where God takes away everything from Job, health, family, fortune – everything – just over a stupid bet God supposedly makes with Satan. I don’t believe that God sends us troubles, not even with the intention of testing us or making us stronger. And on the flip side, I don’t believe that every good thing that happens to us is a sign of God’s favor, either. So many times you’ll see the survivor of some tragedy, a plane crash, a fire, whatever – and the person will thank God for their survival, saying it’s a sign that God loves them – but didn’t God love the ones who didn’t survive, too? Did God love this survivor more than the others? To be honest, whether we ascribe all of the good, or all of the bad, in our lives to God is actually pretty flawed theology.

The gifts that I think God gives us in our lives aren’t necessarily the actual good thing or the bad thing that we experience – but rather, what’s in the treasure chests that God gives to us – what’s waiting to be revealed inside those bamboo steamers – is God’s own love, and grace, and strength, and guidance to deal with both the good and the bad in ways that please God, and that strengthen our lives of faith, that deepen our relationship with God and our relationships with one another. Another of these gifts is the gift of community, the church, this congregation, to help us in the good and the bad. The greatest of these gifts that God serves up to us is the reassurance that through the life of this Christ child, the one worshiped by the magi, God has chosen to stand with us, to walk with us, to let us know that we are loved beyond our wildest dreams, and that whatever may come, good or bad, we will never face it alone.

There will be ups and downs, and no shortage of surprises along the way this trip around the sun, for you and me both. But whatever comes, we can be assured that there is nothing that can separate us from God’s love. We can know that once God has invited us to the great, eternal banquet of the Kingdom of God, there is nothing that could ever keep us from it. And we can rest assured  that at that banquet in addition to the finest bread and well-aged wine, as the scriptures say, and the choicest of meats filled with marrow, there will also be plenty of xiao long bao, cha siu bao, and har gow.

Thanks be to God.

 

Listless

church-pew

I just saw yet another blog post, written by yet another Millennial – the demographic Holy Grail du jour of aging, declining church congregations. It was the latest of a seemingly endless supply of lists titled “___ [Some Magical Number of] Things the Church Must Do to Attract Millennials”. Just do these things, these essays always say, and Millennials will flock through your doors.

Allow me to just say – bullshit.

Don’t get me wrong, Millennials. I agree with virtually every criticism you lodge against the institutional church. Overall, the church absolutely has to be more of all the things you want more of, and less of all the things you hate about it. It must be more committed to issues of social justice. It must be more authentically spiritual. It must do more to be truly missional – working to directly, positively bring real betterment in people’s lives. It must be far less inward-focused and self-serving.

But here’s a little secret: there are already, even in your absence from the pews, a lot of people who think the exact same way you do (mind you, I’m speaking particularly of Mainline, progressive denominations here in the U.S., such as the Presbyterian Church (USA), where I find myself). And these people who agree with you aren’t all running around in large-print gingham shirts and sporting lumberjack beards or man buns. That man with the thinning grey hair, the little pot belly, and the out-of-fashion sweater vest? He was a Freedom Rider in the 60s. That grandmotherly looking woman laughing and chatting with the person sitting next to her? The original organizer of the local chapter of the National Organization for Women. The guy sitting over there who looks like an insurance salesman? He leads a Spiritual Formation and Meditation group, after an extended residence at Thomas Merton’s monastery in Kentucky. The couple sitting beside you? They met while spending a year working together at an orphanage in Honduras and got married when they returned. The man sitting alone up front? He was arrested after he dumped his partner’s ashes on the White House lawn as part of an ACT UP protest.

I’m not exaggerating here. Scratch the surface of virtually any Mainline congregation and you’ll likely find people who have walked the walk in countless ways before you appeared on the scene. There are a lot more of them here than you probably think. And pretty much all of them share your attitudes about the institutional church and how it needs to change.

The difference between them and you is that they’re actually here, trying to make the changes needed, and you aren’t. If you’d just join forces with us, you’d find a lot of willing allies in seeing the church become what it needs to become.

I’m sorry Millennials, as a progressive, recent “Missional Church”/”Emerging Church”/”Altermative Church”-savvy seminary graduate (despite my grey hair) who really is on your side, I have to say that the continual barrage of these kinds of essays just starts to come across as a self-absorbed whinefest – a list of demands for some imaginary, pristine version of church that you insist has to be in place before you’ll grace us all with your presence. Remember, I say this as an ally, someone who’s working in the trenches, within the system, trying to accomplish precisely the things you point out – but really, grow up a bit.

*I need to be very clear: I’m not talking about all Millennials here. We’ve all heard the old cliche, “Some of my best friends are (fill in the blank).” In this case, more than half of my friends and colleagues in ministry are themselves Millennials. I am genuinely blessed and humbled to know them, to minister with them, and to call them my friends, and I’m a better person and minister because they’re such an important part of my life. As a group, they are perhaps the greatest strength in the institutional church today. But that’s just the point – they’re in the church, actively a part of what the church needs to be and do. My thoughts here are directed toward those Millennials who won’t be part of the church just because it doesn’t perfectly fit their idea of what it should be like – to which, I say, join the club.

The reality is that the church is never going to be perfect – it wasn’t for anyone who came before you, and it won’t be for anyone coming along afterward – and it’s unrealistic to expect it to be so. So you have a choice: you can follow the lead of those people sitting in the pews, many of whom worked to set the stage for all the progressive aspects of this society that you currently enjoy and who even now are trying to affect change in the church from within; or you can come up with another list of five, or seven, or ten things that the church has to do in order to be worthy of your being part of it. Perhaps the answer is to blog less, and actually get off your asses and be part of the solution instead of just bitching and moaning. We don’t need another list telling us what needs to be done. Many of us already know that; what we need is the strength in numbers to actually accomplish it.

There’s a lot that the church needs to do in order to reform itself – to correct its past abuses and problems, and to make it more truly an institution reflective of the Kingdom of God that Jesus both taught about and personified. As a pastor, I try to work within the system as it is, in order to help steer it, and its members, in that direction – the direction that so many of your lists describe. Frankly, it would be a hell of a lot easier if you’d show up and help. But I’m going to continue trying to do it, with your help or without it.

*This paragraph was added to the original post, after a few readers pointed out – correctly – that, as originally written, it negatively painted all Millennials with the same broad brush. This was definitely never my intention, as I hope that the added paragraph makes clear.

Reformation Takeaways (sermon 10/27/14)

 

ReformationsdenkmalGenf1

 

The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah. It will not be like the covenant that I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt—a covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, says the Lord. But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, “Know the Lord,” for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the Lord; for I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more. – Jeremiah 31:31-34

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Then Jesus said to the Jews who had believed in him, “If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples; and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.” They answered him, “We are descendants of Abraham and have never been slaves to anyone. What do you mean by saying, ‘You will be made free’?” Jesus answered them, “Very truly, I tell you, everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin. The slave does not have a permanent place in the household; the son has a place there forever. So if the Son makes you free, you will be free indeed. – John 8:31-36

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During the runup to the recent Scottish vote for independence, comedian John Oliver said that most Americans only know Scotland as being “the birthplace of Shrek, and that accent you think you can do, but actually can’t.” Well this Sunday morning in Presbyterian churches all around the country, a lot of people will be trying out their imitation Scottish accents to try to sound like John Knox, the Scottish Reformer and father of Presbyterianism. And a lot of us will feature bagpipes in our services, and a lot of others will deck the sanctuary out in tartan[plaid paraments, and in some way, regardless of our actual ethnic heritage, maybe we’ll all pretend we’re at least a little bit Scottish in honor of the roots of our Presbyterian tradition.

And a lot of us will hear sermons about the origins of the Reformation, and Luther, and Zwingli, and Calvin, and other great reformers. We’ll discuss some Reformation history during the Forum hour, but today’s sermon isn’t going to be a history lesson. Instead, I want to talk about some of the reasons the Reformation is still important to us today.

One of the truly great, lasting things to come out of the Reformation was emphasis on the idea, captured in the catchphrase, “the Church, reformed and always being reformed according to the Word of God.” The idea that in every time, every place, the Church is to be renewed, refreshed, in accordance with the way people in those times, places, and cultures understand and interpret God’s truth found in the scriptures. This was a relatively new way of thinking: rather than the Church being some permanent unchanging thing that we’re all supposed to circle around and guard, and protect from any outside pressures to ever change, the Reformation said that the Church *had* to change over time. Through this new understanding of the Church and the faith, especially in our Reformed/Presbyterian tradition, this means that the church is to grow, and change, and evolve, with the guidance of God’s Spirit, in ways that the original Reformers might never have dreamt of – *could* never have dreamt of, or frankly, even agreed with. But that was the magic, the beauty of this way of understanding the church that these dead old white guys devised. It’s a simple, beautiful truth: that as time progresses, human knowledge and ways of understanding changes; and those changes will cause us to see and understand God’s truth in different ways. Our understanding of the faith cannot be forever bound by the historical, scientific, and cultural understanding of 16th-century Western Europe, or anywhere else, for that matter. So it’s actually a bit ironic, when we hear voices within the church who would demand that in order to be “true” Presbyterians, we have to swear allegiance to the theology as expressed in, say, the Westminster Confession of 1664; or that we can’t find new understandings of scripture based on our own current knowledge base and cultural location. By digging their heels into the sand that way, those people are actually denying, refusing to accept one of the absolute key, fundamental essential tenets of our Reformed tradition that they claim to be fighting to uphold.

That’s a great legacy of the Protestant Reformation, this new way of understanding the Church as a “living” institution that can, and needs to, change and evolve over time in order to truly carry out the mission Christ established it for. But beyond the big change this meant for the church, what does the Protestant Reformation matter to us today? I mean really, what’s it matter to us? Five hundred years ago, a bunch of people were arguing, and even killing each other, over fine points of theology. What difference, if anything, does it make to us today as we go about our day-to-day lives?

Well, I think there are a couple of things that became re-emphasized during the Reformation that still speak directly to us, and the way we understand ourselves, and you can hear those things in the two Lectionary texts we heard today.

The first of these things has to do with the idea of sin – that we all sin, and that makes us all slaves to sin, as Jesus says in today’s gospel passage. We don’t generally like that word, sin, so much these days. It’s an old fashioned word from another place and time, and I think sometimes we get a little embarrassed and uncomfortable talking about it. In our liturgies, we’ll sometimes avoid using the word, replacing it with more modern, acceptable words like “failings,”, “shortcomings,” “brokenness.” But uncomfortable or no, sin – our sin – still exists, and we’re still slave to it. There’s a scene in the movie “Glory,” where Matthew Broderick, who’s playing Robert Gould Shaw, the commanding officer of one of the first African-American regiments in the Civil War, is having a conversation with Denzel Washington, who’s playing one of the privates in Shaw’s regiment. The two men are talking about the evil of racism that’s still structurally, systemically a part of the country, and will still be regardless of the outcome of the war. And how, at the end of the war, Shaw, the son of wealth and privilege in Massachussetts, will go back to that life of privilege, but nothing much will really change for African Americans. At one point, Broderick just says, “It stinks, I suppose.” And Washington answers, “Yeah, it stinks bad – and we all covered up in it; ain’t nobody clean.” I always thought that was one of the greatest, simplest ways of stating the Reformed understanding of sin; the understanding that Jesus teaches in this gospel passage. Whether it’s through our own direct actions – our direct sins – of not loving each other as we should, in all the ways that plays out – or whether it’s through the more systemic sin we unavoidably take part in – buying products based on prices only made possible by paying slave wages to factory workers somewhere in the Two-Thirds World. No matter even if we try to do good things – we try to volunteer time and tithe finances and be as compassionate as we can; no matter if we buy Fair Exchange coffee and tea, or whatever, we still end up being complicit in multiples ways in sin. We can never really, totally escape being part of – slave to – sin. We’re all dirty; ain’t none of us clean, and even though we’ll occasionally brush off that thought, deep down in our own hearts, we know that’s true.

That fact, in and of itself, wasn’t anything new to come out of the Reformation. But what those Reformers did re-emphasize, contrary to many of the teachings of the established church at the time, is that there’s absolutely nothing that we can do to extricate ourselves from that. Even if we wear ourselves out trying, we can’t work, or buy, our own way out of sin and into God’s favor. That’s just as true today as it was in 1517.

Well, if that Reformation takeaway is a bit of a downer, the second point, which you can hear in the passage from Jeremiah, makes up for it. In that passage, we hear the absolutely incomprehensible depth of God’s love for us. That even though the ancient Israelites – and by extension, all of us – have broken the covenant God made with us, God still says “I will forgive their wickedness and remember their sin no more.” Did you catch that? God, despite knowing better, will remember our sin no more. It’s what the great preacher David Lose called God’s “intentional amnesia.” God chooses to regard us as if we were perfect and blameless, in spite of the reality.

That is indeed very good news for us. In that scene from “Glory,” after Denzel Washington’s character says we’re all dirty, ain’t none of us clean, he thinks for a second and wistfully says, “It would sure be nice to get clean, though.” We can probably all identify with that at times. Those times when we just feel completely at odds with life, when everything just seems wrong, out of sync, and we just want to feel clean and right and realigned with God and the universe. In this passage from Jeremiah, God says not only that we can, but that in fact, that we already are. We just need to recognize it. This re-emphasis on the grace that God pours over us is one of the great takeaways of the Reformation that still affects the way we live, every day.

But that can be hard news for us to accept. For many of us, it just doesn’t sound fair, for God to act in the way we heard, to just forgive and forget our sins in spite of ourselves. We want to craft a God who operates by our own human understanding of fairness and justice. But we just don’t find that here at all. What we find time and again in the scriptures is a God who knows that we’re slaves to sin – both the kind of sins we can do something about, and the kind of sin that we can’t – and who chooses to extend this gift of complete forgiveness and reconciliation. It’s a gift so big and so great that it’s hard to even accept it sometimes, because we don’t think we deserve it. And of course, we don’t – but that’s exactly the point.

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.