I love church signs. You know, the ones you pass on the road that catch your eye with some pithy saying. My grandmother was one in charge of putting up the sign at Egypt Missionary Baptist Church, and she would scour other church’s signs in the area. One of my favorites has always been the sign that said, “Stop, drop and roll don’t work in hell.” It definitely catches your eye! There was another where a Roman parish and a Presbyterian Church battled it out on their signs as to whether or not dogs go to heaven. When the Presbyterian Church put up “Converting to Catholicism does not magically grant your dog a soul,” the Romans posted back, “Free dog souls with conversion.”
While on my way to Highlands to officiate at Louise DeLong and Johnny Ladson’s wedding, I passed a sign that caught my eye: “If God is your co-pilot, switch seats.” It got me thinking….
“Jesus said, ‘If another member of the church sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone.” Then, it escalates from there, it seems, with instructions to take a group, then bring them in front of the church, then ask them to leave should they not see the fault in what they have done.
This is one of those texts that is so emotionally loaded, because we can all think of times in our lives when we have lived through seasons of disagreement.
No church community is immune from disagreement, because churches are full of people. And people are people, it seems…
When I was a child, the Baptist church split over something, forming another daughter church which then split in a few years itself. Mother, daughter, granddaughter church…the family tree became so complicated!
And, I have heard stories of one particular church who went through a bad season of disagreement. Rather than have the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back be the reason for the ultimate split, it was a piece of fried chicken that was the spark.
Disagreements are ubiquitous in church communities, and they will always be present. I always think this is what is meant by the text that comes later in Matthew’s Gospel: “There will be wars and rumors of wars.”
Disagreements will always happen, but that doesn’t mean that we can’t do anything about them…that doesn’t mean that we simply resign ourselves to their existence, dig our trenches and prepare to fight out the battle.
Today’s Gospel text may make us a bit uncomfortable at first. It seems to lay out well-defined process for dealing with instigators. Go to them first, then take a couple of more (your backup you might say), then bring them in front of the whole church (as if they would be so willing to do that), and then kick them out if they refuse to listen to you.
Easy to follow steps on making sure that the community behaves itself.
But it’s not that easy, and it doesn’t help to approach disagreement in church with a perspective of punishment right at hand. We’re not called to cultivate spiritual community with the motivation of, “I’m glad we’re all here, but if you can’t get your act together you’re going to have to leave.”
No, this is one of those texts that I think is better to read from finish to the start. It starts out with this process for holding accountability, but it then goes to a much deeper level.
“Whatever you bind in earth you bind in heaven, and whatever you lose on earth you lose in heaven.” What an enigmatic phrase. It’s been understood within some circles that this deals with the forgiveness of sins. If sins are forgiven here on earth, you reap rewards in heaven, or you are not bound by those sins when we reach heaven. Original sin, baptism, confirmation, confession, absolution….all these have their root in one way to read this text.
But there’s another lesson in this text that says our actions here “on earth,” among each other have spiritual consequences. Our day to day lives, working, playing, paying bills, living with one another, these seemingly mundane acts actually have enormous spiritual consequences. We see that we are, in reality, integrated people. There is no place that God’s Presence doesn’t reach—even though we may not be conscious of it—or seek to develop an awareness of it.
What we do “on earth” of course is connected to our spiritual reality.
Then, Jesus goes on to say, “If two of you agree on earth about anything, it will be done for you.” I think Jesus said this because he knew this was ultimately impossible! He didn’t feel like it was a risk at all!
But, at this point in the text, we start to see the deeper meaning: two or three people agreeing…community forming…an awareness of one another’s desires, frustrations, ambitions, fears, hopes, dreams…
“For when two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.”
And there it is….the deeper truth underneath the whole text. This is why we should begin at the end…because we are reminded that the meaning of spiritual community, the force that binds us together, the greater reality that forms our true identity is within a spiritual community that cultivates an awareness of God’s Presence.
What does it mean to be gathered in Christ’s name? It means to let go of our own egos and agendas, our own loaded expectations and ambitions, our own fears and anxieties…and open up in a vulnerable space that seeks to trust. We learn that we can trust one another because it is God that has brought us together in the first place.
“If God is your co-pilot, switch seats.” Indeed…. We assist God. We participate in God’s mission. The church has no mission, we realize….we only seek to participate in God’s mission for the world.
Spiritual community is not ultimately about having systems of accountability and enforcement. Its roots are in its awareness of God’s Presence within it and among it. Disagreements are inevitable yes, but we learn that most if not all of them come from the times when we try to squeeze over and push God out of the driver’s seat.
But this is hard! This reality is hard in families, it is hard in friendships, it is hard in civic communities, it is hard in government (Lord, help me to pray)… and we wonder if it is possible sometimes…maybe most of the time.
But shouldn’t we set this as our standard?
Our Anglican Benedictine roots remind us that we are called into community to share a life. That’s why we don’t do private baptisms: because the vow we all make to support the newly baptized is so vitally important…
We either do this together…..or we will fail. And, our failure will be experienced as a loss of community, a loss of the richness of what can be realized through God’s Presence…
But God keeps trying…don’t worry! God doesn’t give up on us….that’s why we’re always being called back in and back in again…into deeper relationships.
“When two or three are gathered in Christ’s Name, he will be in the midst of them.” When we come together as a community—in a spirit of prayer, vulnerability, trust, hope and faith—we realize that Christ has been there all along.
St. Paul was right. The point is not all the laws: thou shall not commit adultery, murder, steal, covet. That’s not the point. That’s not grace; that’s fear-based consequences. The key commandment is “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Love does no wrong to a neighbor, St. Paul says, and everything flows out of that reality of Divine love…
That’s what I wonder about Grace…..are we working more and more toward this vision of spiritual community? We are well on our way, I think…..I wonder what God has in store…
The Rev. Stuart Craig Higginbotham
Proper 18, Year A
Romans 13:8-14; Matthew 15-20
September 7, 2014