Called to Gather

Christians do not have a strong history of working things out. Well, at least not over the last 500 years. Ever since that October 31 in 1517, when Luther started asking the wrong right questions in Wittenberg, we have developed a habit of splitting. Argue about fault and cast blame all you like, any way you slice it, the history of the church since then has been a history of divisions and splits. Among Lutherans alone, there are 62 different denominations listed on Wikipedia, many of them the result of a long chain of mergers and splits. Some estimates say that there are as many as 33,000 Christian denominations in the world. 33,000. Of course that includes a lot of traditions that might not be called Christian by everyone, including 9 denominations that are classified under the title, “hidden Buddhist believers in Christ.” Seriously, how do you wind up with 9 different denominations of “hidden Buddhist believers in Christ?” Well, in many instances, it is because of this passage that we have heard today.

On the face of it, this passage sounds like instructions for a disciplinary committee. It sounds like for dealing with toxic people that you find in any community:

1) talk to the offender one-on-one;
2) take one or two others along to confront the offender;
3) tell it to the church;
and if the offender still won’t listen, then and only then,
4) “let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.”

But we’re not very good at following through on this. Because it involves awkward conversations. Remember those “hard conversations” I talked about last week, the conversations that we mostly avoid having, because they’re awkward and uncomfortable and lead to conflict? The conversations about race and sexuality and gender and privilege and death and grief and shame and economics and every thing else we ever disagree about, which is everything?

For some reason, instead of following Jesus’ instructions in Matthew 18, the church often just pretends like everything is fine, and go along to get along. Until we find something really innocuous to argue and split over. And so the church has the reputation of either being a schismatic, judgmental group of hypocrites, or of being a bunch of pollyannas who avoid dealing with the real nitty gritty stuff of life. Lately my non-church-going friends have been posting comments asking when Christians are going to stop sending thoughts and prayers, and start actually taking some action – on anything. Don’t stop praying, they say, but don’t stop at praying. Do something!

But of course, we can’t agree on what to do. So we don’t. We send our thoughts and prayers, and keep our opinions to ourselves, because we don’t want to rock the boat. We don’t want to ruffle feathers. We don’t want to do that most un-Christian of things, to disagree, to argue, to have conflict.

Except that conflict is not unchristian. Given the history of the last 500 years, it seems obvious that conflict is in our DNA. Churches argue over everything!

Do you know that one church actually split over a piano bench? But of course, it wasn’t over a piano bench. It was over something else, probably something really important, that no one wanted to talk about, because it would have been too awkward. So instead of having the awkward conversation about whatever was really going on, they split over a piano bench. It’s not the conflict that’s unChristian. It’s that we often forget who sits at the table with us. So maybe we ought to revisit exactly what Jesus is telling us about conflict.

First of all, there’s the Greek. In Greek, there are several different kinds of “ifs.” There’s the causality if. “If X, then Y.” And ifs that imply something unlikely. “If pigs had wings, they could fly.” There are ifs that apply to a single situation. “If I find out, I’ll let you know.” And there are ifs that are for a thing that happens all. the. time. “If it rains, the streets will get wet.” That’s the if that assumes that something will happen because it always does. You know that it’s going to rain again. And you know that the rain will cause the streets to get wet. There’s not really any doubt implied in this statement.

And that is the “if” Jesus uses in this passage. In the Greek, what it says there is “If another sins against you,” which they totally will because you people always disagree about everything, “then the next thing you do is to go and point this out to them.” This whole passage assumes that we are going to disagree, because that’s what communities do. Disagree. But it also assumes that we’re going to talk about that disagreement. That we’re going to do the hard work of having the awkward conversations. And then, when those awkward conversations go off the rails, we are going to do the hard work of following up on them.

Not “kick ‘em out.” That’s not what this is about, though this passage has been used to justify excommunication and worse. This is the passage the piano bench church used to justify splitting. But this passage is not about schism. It’s not about Kick ‘em out.

After all, it comes right on the heels of the parable of the lost sheep. Jesus has just finished describing how God rejoices more at finding one lost sheep than at the ninety-nine who never strayed. And then, just after today’s passage, Jesus tells Peter that if (when) a member of the church sins against him, he is to forgive the offender not seven times, but seventy times seven times.

How, then, can we read this passage in between as permission to kick someone out of our community? How can we read it as permission to enforce the same rules as society. Where we are expected to hide our imperfections in order to prove that we are better than our neighbor. Where justice has more to do with revenge than with reconciliation.

“Let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector,” says Jesus. And for so long, we in the church have read that as a command to cast those who sin and fall short into the outer darkness. Yet throughout the book of Matthew, Jesus has dined with gentiles and tax collectors; throughout the gospels, Jesus has gone out of his way to welcome people like Zacchaeus, a tax collector; like the Canaanite woman, a gentile; like lepers and blind men and bleeding women and centurions; like Matthew himself, who was a tax collector. Jesus has gone out of his way to seek out people who are broken and scarred, inside and out; to find people who have lost themselves in their search for acceptance; to welcome people who are not perfect, not insiders; not upstanding and righteous and sinless; but people like you and me.

That is what makes a community in Christ different from other communities, if we will take him seriously and have the awkward conversations. If we will remember who else is sitting at the table with us. If we truly gather in His name, Jesus is at the table, too.

It’s not just rhetoric, just throw Christ’s name around, and use it in vain, all the while acting like He is not sitting there with us.

It’s taking seriously what that name stands for: healing, reconciliation, love. Taking seriously the promise that Jesus is with us in our gathering, and that because he is right here with us, whether it’s in the sanctuary or the kitchen or the narthex or the nursery, we want to do better. Knowing he is there, ready to bring the fulfillment of the law, love, to be the heart of the conversation; knowing that Jesus is willing to place himself in the middle of any gathering, we can go ahead and do the hard work of making ourselves truly available for one another. Even, especially, when we disagree.

Because Christ’s name is a name that means that you are gathered, not in spite of your brokenness and need, but because of it. Christ’s name means that you are welcomed as you are, in all your sinfulness and in all your saintliness. Christ’s name means that your community comes after you when you stray, not to punish you or to make you feel shame or to ostracize you, but to remind you of God’s promises, and to welcome you back when you are ready.

That is the name that we gather in. And that is what makes us different from other gatherings. We gather in the name of reconciliation in the midst of a world that calls for revenge. We gather in the name of hope in a world that thrives on fear. We gather in the name of unity even in our differences in a world that bullies those who are different. We gather in the name of life, in a world that has made fortunes and nations by glorifying death.

I recently read a quote from a theologian, who said, “Sin makes you dead, not bad.” In other words, our brokenness cuts us off from the abundant life that God wants for us. It doesn’t make us bad people, it doesn’t even make us different. We are people. We are broken people, looking for community. When we sin and fall short, we are not being bad. We are being human. When we close in on ourselves it is because we are afraid, afraid to be vulnerable, to be open, to be shown for who we are; we are afraid, and our fear kills us, it cuts us off from those around us just as surely as if we were in a tomb. Sin makes you dead, not bad.

But this theologian then went on to say, “God wants you alive, not better.”

“Sin makes you dead, not bad; God wants you alive, not better.” Not better. But alive!

God wants you alive – God wants you to have life and to have it abundantly. God knows that you and I are broken people in a broken world, and that we are going to screw up. We are going to find ourselves cut off time and again, and not know how to get ourselves back out of that tomb.

And so God goes into the tomb after us. God in Christ dies, and dying, overcomes death, and draws you and me back out of that tomb and puts us right back into the world of the living, into the world of reconciliation and healing, into community that meets us right where we are, and then challenges us to grow into what we could become.

God calls us into a community gathered in the name of Christ, and knowing that we cannot make such a community ourselves God sends the Holy Spirit to help us. To help us be the authentic community that our world so badly needs.

It is not our doing, but it is our calling. To be a community that gathers in the name of the healing and reconciling Christ; a community that sees past the sin and brokenness, to the beloved child of God, and draws that child into the light; a community of broken people, gathered because of their brokenness, not in spite of it; a community gathered to show their scars, not hide them; a community of sinners and saints, bumbling our way into the light of the new life we have received in Jesus Christ.

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Awkward Grace

images-2So. That was awkward. One minute Peter is on fire, calling Jesus the Messiah, getting praised by the Son of God himself, even getting a new name, “You will be Peter and on this rock I will build my church.” You can only imagine how excited Peter is feeling. He’s on the rise! And then Jesus just pretty well blows it for him by going and talking about awkward things like suffering and death and persecution.

So Peter, you know, the rock, he’s ready to bring the awkward conversation to Jesus. He pulls Jesus aside to let him know that he’s making the guys uncomfortable and could he maybe lay off that stuff for a while, because he’s really bumming them all out. But Jesus just dials up the awkward! “Get behind me, Satan!” And he starts going on about the cross and how it’s not just for Jesus himself, but that the disciples will have a cross to carry, too, and this is all just really, you know, uncomfortable. Awkward.

But Jesus and the disciples are at a cross-roads in this story. This is the first time in Matthew that Jesus mentions the cross, and from here on, everything kind of rolls into slow motion, as Jesus turns toward Jerusalem and takes step after painful step toward what now seems to be the inevitable ending of his story – the cross. So this is the cross-roads in this story of Jesus; and it is a crossroads for the disciples, because now they must make a choice. This is the moment when Peter and the rest of them realize that what they thought was going on here was not really what was going on. Last week, they were on such a high – here is the Messiah! here is the founding of a new church! here are the keys to the kingdom! this is so exciting!

And now, it turns out that whatever they thought Messiah meant, what it really means is going to Jerusalem to suffer and be cast out of society and be killed as a common criminal. To carry a cross, the mark of the most abhorrent of Rome’s death sentences – to ally themselves with outsiders and insurrectionists and thieves and bandits. To die.

And now they have to decide. Are they ready to follow through? Are they getting on this bus? Are they ready to deny themselves and take up their cross and follow Jesus? It makes for an awkward moment. An awkward conversation. It’s time to shift their thinking and to push forward with God’s plan instead of their own plan,

or to admit that they don’t really want to follow Jesus.

They’re at a crossroads. And crossroads are awkward. That moment when you have to make a decision about how things are going to go, to have the awkward conversations you’ve been putting off. Until something happens that forces the conversation, and you have to deal. You have to set aside the fear and anxiety and just talk.

We are in a season of awkward conversations. We are at a crossroads, as a culture. Over the past months and years, some old wounds have been opened, and some awful things have happened, and our country is at a crossroads. We are figuring out together what we want to be as a nation, what we can be as a nation; as a culture; as a people.

And that means that we are having awkward conversations. About race, privilege, white supremacy, sexuality, the environment, immigration – so many awkward conversations.

This week alone, I have been involved in awkward conversations

And that’s not even getting into the important personal conversations we all have or don’t have. Conversations like the one I haven’t had yet with my dad, about dying well and saying goodbye. We all have these conversations at some point, about who hurt who, and how the kids are doing in school, and how we are going to live without our friend, our spouse, our parent. Or the day-to-day awkward conversations we all have about which way the toilet paper should face and whose turn it is to do the dishes or take out the garbage.

So in the middle of this week of awkward conversations, I got an email from one of my favorite authors, Glennon Doyle. It was about the release of her book Love Warrior, which is, as she puts it, about “awkward conversations about love and sex and infidelity and divorce and leaving the church and finding the church and learning how to trust yourself and do the next right thing.” And in this email she went on to say, “I am starting to truly believe that the willingness to have awkward conversations –imperfectly and over and over again — is a key to healing our hearts, our families, our communities and our country.” She continued, “The Bad News is Awkward Conversations are Hard. The Good News is We Can Do Hard Things.”

So this week is brought to you by the word awkward. It usually evokes an image of physical blundering, someone who is ungainly or just not comfortable in their own body is called awkward.

What’s the opposite of awkward? Graceful.

Awkwardness and grace stand in opposition to one another in our language. But in my experience, awkwardness and grace are actually beautifully intended for one another.

Physical awkwardness can be beautiful, like a newborn colt finding its legs and taking its first tentative steps. There is grace even in that awkward movement. 

Social awkwardness is me speaking when I should listen, or getting worked up into a lather about something and I make every else uncomfortable. But even in that, there is grace, as others make room for my passion and my soapboxing, and go ahead and love me anyway.

This week, this month, this year, this life, has left me with this certainty: awkwardness demands grace. Every life encounters awkwardness, in larger and smaller degrees. And awkwardness demands grace, demands that we act in the name of compassion and grace even when we are confronted with hard truths and crossroads decisions, and what we really want to do is to retreat into the comfort of complacency, return to the way things have always been, so that we don’t have to make any hard choices, and we don’t have to face any of the painful realities. It’s easier to stay the same, even if the same is painful, than it is to have the awkward conversations that come with pain and growth and healing.

Peter did not want to have an awkward conversation with Jesus about suffering and dying, because it meant suffering for himself, too. It meant changing his own understanding of what a Messiah meant, for himself and for his nation. Taking up a cross and following Jesus meant, means, taking risks for the sake of grace, and then trusting in grace to guide us as we risk. It means leaning heavily on grace, because the more awkward the conversation, the more grace is needed.

That’s why Moses didn’t want to go when the burning bush sent him to Pharaoh to set the people free. He was being sent into some seriously awkward conversations. In fact, one of Moses’ main objections was “O my LORD, I have never been eloquent, I am slow of speech and slow of tongue.” In other words, I hate having awkward conversations! I’m no good at it! To which God responded, “I will be with you and teach you what you are to speak.” In other words, God will be with you in the awkwardness. If that’s not the definition of grace, I don’t know what is. God will be with you. Emmanuel. Grace.

This is the grace that we have to rely on to have these awkward conversations. The promise that God is with us. Even, maybe especially, in the hardest, most awkward conversations. Conversations about race and privilege and sexuality and climate and even grief and death and shame. These are all hard things to talk about. And God is not just willing, not just able, to join us in them. God is willing to be the heart of these conversations. God is prepared to put God’s own self on the line, to become the ground on which these conversations are held.

You know from your own experience how fear can overwhelm a conversation. How fear and pain, guilt, defensiveness can quickly derail what started out as a well-intentioned discussion between friends. We quickly find ourselves at a crossroads, especially when things get painful, especially when we are forced to think about our privilege, or our failure, or our own pain. And at this crossroads, I get anxious – about my past, about my future, about my security, about my ambitions, about my stuff. Anxiety about me, about myself, quickly moves to the center of my attention. Embarrassment and shame begin to rear their heads, and begin to feed me. They become the basis of my crossroads decision. Will I turn toward the other person? Will I accept their story as true? Will I acknowledge their pain and walk with them in it? Or will I turn back, turn in on myself, shore up my own defenses and pretend that my pain, my grief, my experience is the only one that matters? At the crossroads, I have to decide, What will become the grounding, the rock on which I build? Will I feed myself with fear? Will I let my shame and my defensiveness and my pain define me?

Or will I trust in grace? Will I place the grace and love of Jesus Christ at the center, and have the hard, awkward conversations anyway?

The Bad News is Awkward Conversations are Hard.

The Good News is We Can Do Hard Things.

The really good news is, we don’t do hard things alone.

Because we have been named and claimed by the God of grace. We are fed and watered by grace, not by fear. You have received grace upon grace. You have been bathed in grace in the waters of baptism, and you are fed each week at this table with the body and blood of grace, God with us, Emmanuel. Grace.

This is not a simple platitude. This is real. This is the Messiah that Peter did not expect. But this is the Messiah that we got. The Messiah who gives all that he is, for you. He is not (only) a Messiah for easy, comfortable times. He is the Son of the Living God, the God who came into this world to be with us in the most painful, difficult, awkward places. To stand with us at the crossroads and ask us which way we intend to go. To have the hard conversations, and to be the grounding of grace and love when those conversations get painful, and to be the hope of reconciliation and resurrection when those conversations go wrong. We can do hard things. But we do not do them alone. Thanks be to God.