To be a community of faith is central to our practice as Christians, to our understanding of God among us. This month, we’re going to follow the lectionary’s Gospel of Matthew narrative that focuses on what it means to be a community and the labor of love that goes into it. We invite you to live into this text along with us as we begin our school year, our program year, our newly staffed-year and figure out together how we can build up the body of Christ for the kindom – the family – of God.
Let us pray.
Holy and Present God, you created the world out of chaos, finding the good in the most unlikely of places. You call us in the midst of this chaos to be, to listen, to work it out so that we might excavate the messiness and come out a stronger and more ready people. Lead us to a listening place, O Lord, and carry us through whatever will come. In the name of the one who calls us to be in community, Your Son, the Christ, Amen.
We sat in silence. No one dared breathe a word or roll their eyes. We all looked down memorizing the thread count of our shoelaces or looked up, memorizing the number of tiles in the basement ceiling. There were about 50 of us – 15 junior highs, 25 senior highs, 10 chaperones and then Katherine. Unlike us, Katherine sat straight up, vertebrae in line, solemn face and attentive eyes. She was unafraid and unbreakable. We know this because we had tried to break her for the last four days. And that, well, that got us here, sitting in an awkward circle on the cold floor as our free afternoon in San Francisco melted away.
It started innocently enough. I, of course, had no part of it except that I was a passerby and a freshman and therefore, too busy for the happenings of the sixth graders and too intimidated by the happenings of the seniors. There was a scream and then a loud “eeeewwww” and a mob of scurrying feet towards the boys’ sleeping bags until we found that the sixth grade boys had been “creamed” as in shaving creamed. They stood there, pajamas sopping wet in fragrant Barbasol. Some laughed; some huffed and mumbled about they can clean it up themselves. Some hid their faces and some stooped down to start cleaning. And the sixth grade boys just stood there, their eyes almost as sopping wet as their pajamas.
When they gathered around to talk about it, about how to be a community, Jesus brought them this wisdom: “if another member of the church sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone.” Talk face to face; bring up the hurt; deal with it; don’t go run your mouth to everyone and their momma. Jesus, in being fully God and fully human knew from his own life and what would come in his life that people, when they get together, they hurt one another. Jesus knew that this was true for the people he was with, too. The disciples were not a beautifully-functioning community without sin and without pain. They were people who screwed things up and said things without thinking and lied and turned their backs and so Jesus, wanting them to understand that being community, being his followers, was going to require labor and time. It required sitting in silence until someone had the courage to talk. It required honesty and it required the hearts of all involved. Being a community required gracefully calling someone on their fault, on their misstep, on their sin, and sitting with them until the two of you can get back up and continue being the community you were made to be.
But see, talking to someone when they hurt you, that’s really, really hard. It is really hard to build up the courage or the strength to even look that person in the eye – the one who done you wrong, who sinned against you. So the sixth grade boys let it go; they washed their hands of it. But we were all witnesses to the bullying, to the ruined sleeping bags and damaged egos. There was no regaining of the church members to one another, no joining of hands or absolution or admittance and such denial, such avoidance began to course through our groups’ veins. Tensions began to rise and rumors spread like rapid fire, especially among church folk living together on a mission trip. So and so is going to do this to him / did you hear what she said / I’m going to call my mom and tell her what they did to me / wait until his parents find out. That poisonous chatter bred poisonous actions. People began saving seats for their new friends but not for their old, notes were passed and sleeping bags rearranged. Buddies became soloists and adults chose favorites.
Knowing that our words can become muddled in conflict, he said…“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 witnesses. If the member refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church.” When someone’s actions damage the relationship at hand, it often time takes more than one conversation between two people to solve the issue. In his encouragement of communal discussion, Jesus is not suggesting to put someone in the hot seat or the chopping block to be ridiculed and shamed, but instead Jesus is suggesting to bring others along who might be able to add to the conversation. Working through whatever dirt someone dragged in takes more than one person wielding a mop. It takes a cleaning crew; it takes everyone together to work it out.
And then, as if out of the blue or out of the shadows of whatever mess we had made in our avoidance of dealing with one another, we were told to sit down and that we weren’t going anywhere until it was all worked out. “What? All worked out? What’s going on?” we bellowed and moaned to which our seminarian Katherine said: “This. This community. This body of Christ that has been broken and needs to be put back together again.” Silence. Not a word. Counting shoelace threads, ceiling tiles. Not a word for an hour until someone, quite timidly, spoke. We could hear in her voice the hope that someone else, too, would take the risk and confess being hurt and confess hurting another. With her confession, our fears began to relieve for we saw that she was welcomed and given grace. ~~~ Such courage began to seep into our once poisoned veins and soon we all were claiming our faults and claiming our hurt, apologies and mercies flowing until it was all out there for everyone to see. The mess was big and tangled and awful but it was out there and now, piece by piece, we could begin to unpack it and hopefully, be made whole again.
I think Christ liked the big mess we made on the floor of the church basement. Christ himself liked a little mess. Instead of leaving the people that would one day deny, deceive, and desert him, he sticks with the disciples and spends his every waking moment trying to be fully part of their lives. Jesus’ example of the company he kept reminds us that he liked a little mess, a little conflict. I can almost hear him saying, “Hey kids. Get in the mud here. Stay a while. You know that person that’s making you angry? That hurt you or your kids? Talk to them. Stay with them. Figure it out. Ask them what happened. Bring some friends. Bring those you trust. Bring those you don’t trust. Keep on talking until you find a way to regain one another as friends, as family, as mine. What’s that? Oh, it’s too smelly? Who cares if you stink. We all stink. Let’s stink together.”
Being with one another in the thick of whatever our relationships unfurl is to be the fullest sense of community and the fullest celebration of a life in Christ. Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a man many of you have read and pondered over. Living in Nazi Germany, Bonhoeffer held his sisters and brothers in the Christian faith accountable, leading to his death. Some might say that because he chose to continually confront Nazism, hatred, and genocide, because he continued to try and be in conversation with those that sinned against him and those around him, he was killed. Yes, that is true. But it is also true that those who killed Bonhoeffer killed him out of fear of the stink he was stirring up – the stink of how together they could all live as Christ’s disciples in a confusing and changing world. Reflecting on the difficulty of community, Bonhoeffer writes: “Wherever Christians live together, conversing and dealing with one another, there is the Church, there they are in Christ.”
At the end of his explanation of how to solve conflict within a community, Jesus says this: “If the offender refuses to listen even to the church, let such a one be to you as a Gentile or a tax collector.” It would be easy to hear this and think it a free pass to finally let go the one that has dragged you through the mud for so long. Thank you, Jesus! But then we can hear another story we know well seeping into our hearts…a story that tells how Jesus felt about the Gentiles, the tax collectors, about whom he spent his time with and whom he kept going back to over and over again in the hope that one day, they could be community together. In his teachings on how to be a community, Christ tells us pointedly keep talking to those who hurt you and even when they don’t want to talk, keep going back until it sticks. Keep on going and bring your friends along and don’t leave one of ours behind.
Madeleine L’Engle tells an old legend that after his death Judas found himself at the bottom of a deep and slimy pit. For thousands of years he wept his repentance, and when the tears were finally spent he looked up and saw, way, way up, a tiny glimmer of light. After he had contemplated it for another thousand years or so, he began to try to climb up towards it. The walls of the pit were dank and slimy, and he kept slipping back down. Finally, after great effort, he neared the top, and then he slipped and fell all the way back down. It took him many years to recover, all the time weeping bitter tears of grief and repentance, and then he started to climb again. After many more falls and efforts and failures he reached the top and dragged himself into an upper room with twelve people seated around a table. “We’ve been waiting for you, Judas. We couldn’t begin till you came.”
It takes everyone involved to be the full body of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. We need the ones who hurt us and the ones with whom we disagree and the ones who are afraid the church is going to split and the ones who are going to split because the mess is too much for them and we need the annoying sibling who won’t leave us be or the parent who burdens us with their worries. We need the ones who deny us and drive us away. We need the ones who might one day betray us and the ones that have. We need to sit and talk it out and hope and pray that we can untangle the webs we weave. And while we are sitting there, living in our communal ickiness and humanness, dealing with one another, we can hopefully hear Jesus there with us too saying: “For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.” Amen.