Sunday, September 10, 2023

Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost

“Getting Together” — Rev. Brent Gundlah

Jesus may have given Peter the keys to the kingdom of heaven, but you all gave me the keys to this church, and that’s pretty good too.

At a purely functional level, it makes sense for me to have them; I need to get into this building in order to do certain aspects of my job.  

But a personal benefit of these keys is that they enable me come here and sit alone inside this beautiful and peaceful sanctuary, to pray and talk to God alone in here, whenever I feel like it. And there definitely are times when I need to do that.

Don’t get me wrong: I love you all, but every now and again I can’t help but think that church would be a whole lot easier without all the people. And I doubt that I’m alone here; we might not want to admit it — especially not in church — but we’ve all probably thought that thought at some point.

And so wouldn’t it be nice if we could just walk in here all by ourselves, say what we have to say to God, listen to what God has to say to us, and then be on our merry way? Wouldn’t it be great if church could be like that?

The truth is, we don’t tend to think this when things are going really well, when all appears to be moving along swimmingly, when the direction of the church seems crystal clear, when there is no disagreement among us.

We tend to think this when the going gets tough, when things suddenly change, when the future of church seems uncertain, when we don’t necessarily see eye-to-eye. We tend to think this at times like the ones in which we happen to find ourselves living right now.

And in times like these, this place can seem like a sanctuary in both senses of that word: a holy place of worship, on the one hand; and a safe place of refuge on the other. Everybody needs to get away from other people from time to time; heck, even Jesus was known to wander off and pray all by his lonesome on occasion.

But that isn’t what church is all about.

Throughout the eighteenth chapter of Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus tries to make his disciples appreciate that church is a community endeavor. He wants them to understand that its not a solitary spiritual practice, but rather what happens when two or three are gathered in his name; for this, Jesus says, is when he will be there among them.

There are, of course, obvious reasons for what Jesus says to the disciples here. He senses that soon he will be gone (even if the disciples don’t get this quite yet), and he knows that they’re going to need to lean on one another in order to get by without him, to survive in a world that grows more hostile to them and the work that they are doing with every passing day.

But Jesus also knows how things tend go when you get groups of people together to do pretty much anything. Yeah sure, he’ll be there among them when two or three are gathered in his name, but so will all sorts of human tendencies like envy and anger and frustration, which inevitably lead to conflict among those two or three people. And so, in today’s passage, Jesus gives his disciples a roadmap for dealing with conflict within the church because it’s inevitable. I know this may come as a surprise to you, but it’s true.

I know that it came as a surprise to me. As someone who grew up in a very secular household, my initial understanding of church was based entirely on information about it that I’d received from other people. And, more often than not, these people were encouraging me to be a part of their particular community.

Now, if this were all the information about church that you happened to have at your disposal, you might conclude that it was a place where everyone smiled, got along with each other, and ate a lot of baked goods. And some of that is true.

They say that a picture is worth a thousand words, so go have a look at your garden variety church brochure or website. There’s a good chance that you’ll find photos of one or more of the following scenes there:

The outside of the church building itself, depicted in some kind of seasonal glory — surrounded by newly-fallen snow on the lawn in the winter, behind flowers in the garden in the summer, amidst colorful leaves on the trees in autumn. If there are any people in the photo at all, they invariably look happy — either because they really are happy, or because the photographer told them to smile for the camera.

Or the inside of the sanctuary filled with people — say on Christmas Eve or Easter, when the place is all decorated and attendance is really good. And the aforementioned people are either listening intently or singing joyfully.

Or a group of people working on some sort of project or taking sort of trip together. They might not be nearly as well-dressed or well-scrubbed as the people are in photo taken out in front of the church, but they still look pretty darned happy, even though they are probably also really tired. One of them might be mad because someone took the bunk they had their eye on back at camp, but you’d never know that from the photo.

Or Sunday School kids and adult volunteers standing on the chancel steps after another successful Christmas pageant. Once again, everybody looks awfully happy, though the adults look a little tired (and relieved) too.

Now, here are some things you probably won’t ever see photos of in any church brochure or on any church website:

A Church Council passionately debating the best uses of the congregation’s limited financial resources.

Or an outreach committee’s argument concerning whether this year’s focus should be on helping people in a far-off place or on caring for people who are closer to home.

Or kids fighting about who gets to be the sheep in the manger scene, while an adult volunteer tries to keep one from cracking the other over the head with a shepherd’s crook.

And I totally understand why this kind of stuff doesn’t appear in any churches’ promotional materials: It’s because it defies pretty much every principle of effective advertising.

In the free market that is religion in America, where it’s always been far easier to go start a new church or to join a different existing church than it’s been to deal with issues large and small in your current church; where our association here with one another is voluntary, you definitely don’t want to do anything to scare people away. And so it’s not surprising that nobody really wants to hear or talk about conflict.

The problem, though, is that conflict is part and parcel of what happens when you get two or three people together for any reason — even if they profess to be gathering in Jesus’s name.

But Jesus completely understands this truth about humanity (go figure), and so his advice to his disciples is neither to avoid conflict altogether, nor to sweep it under the rug and pretend that it didn’t happen.

Instead, Jesus tells them to deal with it effectively when it happens so that the community can survive and thrive. And while the method Jesus proposes here might not be easy in practice, it ain’t exactly rocket science either:

If you have a problem with someone, go talk about it with them. If that doesn’t work (or if you don’t feel comfortable having that conversation alone), take other people along with you to help facilitate the conversation with them. If that doesn’t work, bring the issue to the community as a whole to discuss it. The common thread here being this: if you have a problem, talk about it honestly and directly.

If that doesn’t work (and there are, unfortunately, times when it either won’t or won’t as quickly as we want it to) then step away for awhile so that everyone can cool off and reckon with their own thoughts and feelings before reconvening to try again. And maybe that won’t work the next time either, but always remember that no one is ever beyond the community’s loving embrace and the possibility of reconciliation. When Jesus tells the disciples to treat the recalcitrant person like a “Gentile or a tax collector,” it’s worth noting that Jesus loved Gentiles and tax collectors too.

If there are differences among us that seem irreconcilable right now, we should always leave the door open to talk about them again at some point in the future. 

What Jesus is saying here is that church is not about praying alone inside a building or our personal relationship with God, either inside or outside that building. Church is about our relationships with one another, for it is in them that we find God.

Look, conflict will always exist whenever people get together — that’s just the way it goes; it’s how we choose to deal with it, for better or for worse, that defines who we are as a community. I’m not sure how we’d explain this in a brochure or on our website, but it’s important for us to consider nonetheless, for it is one of the most important ways for the world to know that we are truly followers of Christ.

To be clear: It’s not simply about getting along, it’s about learning to work together through the good times and the less-than-good-times.

Because, when all is said and done, these may be the keys to this building, but we are the keys to this church.