Where Two or Three Are Gathered

Lessons: Matthew 18:15-20

If you’ve been around churches even a little you’re probably familiar with verse 20 of this passage, “For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.”[1] It’s usually trotted out when attendance at some church gathering is low. Maybe we’d hoped for at least a dozen folks at a Lenten Bible study, for example, but only two people show up, the same two people who always show up. You can almost guarantee someone will say, “There aren’t many of us here, but, ‘Where two or three are gathered …,’” and usually, they don’t even need to finish the verse. It’s understood.

This is a fine way to use this verse, and yet, there’s more to this passage. The verses leading up to verse 20, including the formula for handling church disputes, are more challenging. Confront someone? Uh-oh! We’re Presbyterians after all; confrontation doesn’t come naturally to most of us. We think it’s none of our business, or that we should bear everything in silence and turn the other cheek. We figure why not just focus on God’s love and move on, and if you have to talk about it, then talk with folks who agree with you, and maybe even over in the parking lot.

Then there’s that bit about shunning those who refuse to listen, treating them like a Gentile or a tax collector – which doesn’t sound at all like Jesus, the one who ate with tax collectors and sinners. And I just don’t know what to do with that wild promise at the end that if two people agree on something, God will do it.

But when I read the passage carefully, I recognize that Matthew’s deep concern in this passage is community – honest-to-goodness, authentic Christian community. Now, community is one of those feel-good words we tend to idealize. Maybe we imagine the TV show, “Cheers,” a place where you’re accepted for who you are, where you’re never lonely, and where, of course, everybody knows your name. But the really difficult thing about community is that it’s made up of people. And people – not any of you or me, of course, but other people – can be difficult, challenging, selfish, and unreliable. Community is messy. I can honestly say, with a deep sense of gratitude, that First Presbyterian is not a community wracked with division and turmoil. Our spirit of unity and graciousness is not only a precious gift, but, as I’m learning now that I serve on our presbytery’s Committee on Ministry, not something to take for granted. Even so, our community, like all churches, is made up of human beings, and wherever two or three human beings gather, Christ might be there but there’s also the potential for hurt feelings, misunderstanding, or miscommunication.

Authentic community not all butterflies and unicorns. It takes work. That is the point of this passage. Authentic community takes commitment, honesty, humility, cooperation, compromise, collaboration and even courage; sometimes the courage to tell someone you’ve been hurt, sometimes to hear that you’ve hurt someone else. I have said to a number of you: I’d rather you tell me to my face that you disagree with me, that something I did bothered or hurt you, than that you keep it to yourself or worse yet, talk amongst yourselves behind my back. I don’t pretend to be perfect but I can’t address your hurt or your concern if you don’t tell me.

There’s another crucial piece of the work of authentic community, and that’s showing up. I had a conversation with the folks at centering prayer a few weeks ago, in which people listed the good reasons to come to church on Sunday mornings. I said there’s one more, an even more important reason, and that’s because everybody else here needs you to show up. We do not go to church just for ourselves. We go to church for each other. If this is a surprise to you, you’re not alone. The folks at centering prayer had never thought of it this way, either. We tend to think we go to church for our own personal reasons, because we get something out of it, because it’s where we reconnect with God, because it’s a good start to the week. There’s nothing wrong with these reasons. AND – everyone else here needs you. The other families need your child so their children feel more at home. The adults need the hope that your presence, and only your presence, conveys. There are many reasons folks can’t make it to church on a given Sunday – I know that – and the last thing I want to do is wag my finger and make you feel guilty about not being in your spot in the pew. But maybe you didn’t know that when you’re not, we notice. Not because we’re thinking you’re bad or sinful or whatever because you skipped church, but because you contribute to the body of Christ. It is true that where only two or three are gathered, Christ is there, too. But all together, we are the Body of Christ. We encourage each other in our walk with God, in following Jesus. We show up for each other.

I hope you noticed our fresh new bulletin design and the new “logo” or identity mark in the upper corner on the cover. Someone’s bound to ask, “Why doesn’t it say ‘First Presbyterian CHURCH’?” so I’ll address that first. We are not giving up on the word church. We proudly claim the identity of church; it’s just a punchier, cleaner, more contemporary design without a long string of words. “Church” is implied. No one is going to make the mistake of thinking we’re First Presbyterian Savings and Loan, or First Presbyterian Nail Spa.

You also might wonder about the little swooshes. There are three, which points to the Trinity: God the Creator, Christ and the Holy Spirit. They suggest energy, movement, vitality – good things for any community. But what I like best is that, for me, they represent the movement of the Christian life and faith. We move into community, into church, for healing, formation, instruction, practices, and inspiration. Then we move out into the world to join with God in the work of God’s kingdom. In, and then out, throughout our lives.

Why talk about community today, when it seems, this week, as though much of the world is crashing down around our ears? The Gulf Coast is under water, the West is on fire, Florida is bracing for Irma with Jose on its heels; the Dreamers are under threat and white supremacy and fascism have been given a voice; practically every day I’m tempted to quote humorist Dorothy Parker, who, whenever she heard her doorbell, would say, “What fresh hell can this be?” The challenges we face can be difficult even to think about. And that’s why we need community. Here, we contribute just by showing up, and showing care for those who show up. Here we can find our voice. Here we can feel supported; here we have a foundation for the resilience that helps us adapt to changes, recover from setbacks, and find the strength and hope to move toward the future to which we trust God is calling us because Jesus has us pointed the way.

So on this day we call “Homecoming Sunday,” when we gather again after being scattered over the summer, it’s a good day to ask: Just what kind of community do we want to be? There are plenty of communities outside the church: Social-media communities, work-related and school-centered communities, fitness groups, political action groups, the folks in the dining room of a retirement residence, and so on. What kind of community do we want here? Do we want to be largely social, like a club, which is certainly safe? Do we want something more meaningful, where people are more vulnerable, which is riskier and harder? Do we want a place that can both encourage us and hold us accountable? Do we need everyone to agree about everything? Are we looking for a place where we can be honest about our hopes and dreams, doubts, fears, and anxieties? Do we want somewhere we can just blend in or are we looking for a place we can really make a difference? Do we want to try to figure out how to be, as I described it last month,[2] a “school of love,” a community that prepares us to live lives of love in this world so desperately short on love?

And what does it take from us – each of us – to help create the community for which we long?

I invite you to turn to one or two or three of your neighbors for the next 5 or so minutes, and talk about this. In community. What do you hope from our community? What are you willing to do or to risk to have that kind of community? As you consider this, know that Christ is right there, in the midst of you. After I call time, I’ll close with a few more comments.

[Discussion time]

There’s a story about an odd, old woman who lives on the outskirts of town. Some children decide to trick her. A boy holds a small bird in his hands, behind his back where the old woman can’t see it. The children ask her if the bird is alive or dead. The trick is that if she says it’s alive, the boy will crush the bird, and show her she’s wrong. If she says it’s dead, he’ll let it fly off – and again, she’ll be wrong. The woman is silent for a long time. Finally, she whispers, “I don’t know whether the bird you are holding is dead or alive, but what I do know is that it is in your hands. It is in your hands.”

Authentic Christian community is work. And, my friends, it is in your hands. But it’s worth it. It’s like discovering a little bit of heaven on earth. When we gather in this way – with honesty and integrity, even when it’s hard – amazing things, holy things can happen because, just as he said, Jesus is with us, right here in our very midst, forming and being formed by the community we share.[3]

May it be so for you, and for me – for us. Amen.

© Joanne Whitt 2017 all rights reserved.

[1] Matthew 18:20.

[2] Joanne Whitt, “The Summer of Love: The Broken-Open Heart,” August 20, 2017, http://www.togetherweserve.org/the-summer-of-love-the-broken-open-heart/.

[3] David Lose, “What Kind of Community Will We Be?” August 28, 2011, http://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=1601.

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