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


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.