Romans 13:8-14 & Matthew 18:15-20
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As I was driving the other day, I saw a bumper sticker that was probably handmade and captured the overall – shall I say theme – of our cultural struggle right now. It was one of those very familiar bumper stickers, with different religious symbols spelling out the word “coexist”, only this one the owner had covered, on a diagonal with a single word in black lettering on a white background. It was the President’s last name. I thought – hmmm, there it is, the clash of cultures, the struggle with was has been and what will be, the conflict between people wishing to retain their privilege, and those wishing to assert some justice. There in a bumper sticker was a visual symbol of the “reassertion” of one ideology versus another – a statement, as difficult as this is for me to imagine – against the idea that we ought to coexist…not work together, not be united, but a rejection of the idea of even coexisting.
When you boil things down, whether we are talking about Charlottesville or Terence Crutcher, DACA or the ACA, the last election or the stalemate in Congress, all roads, in my opinion, lead to the singular issue of change, and, ultimately, who we think God is and how God operates. The demographics are clear, the science is in, and the road ahead is set…things are going to change. What was – if it ever was – will be no longer, and what will be is yet to come. And that change has always brought with it anxiety, as change does. So, whether we call it “maleness” or “whiteness” or “the status quo” or whatever, change has always brought conflict and conflict has been around since, well at least whenever Matthew wrote down this passage from the 18th chapter of his gospel. For here even Jesus has to address this age old problem – can’t we just all get along – which he answers by telling us how God works.
In Paul’s letters to the churches he helped to found, he covers this issue a lot. Galatians is a rant on his part, trying to understand why the church in Galatia doesn’t get along better. Even in Romans Paul has something to say not only about how we as this body of Christ work out conflict, but also, and perhaps more importantly, why. He couches this in a metaphor – flesh versus spirit. It is a metaphor with which his Greek speaking audience, fans of the constructs of duality, would be very familiar. Even in Greek philosophy, the flesh is considered limited, mortal, vulnerable, where the spirit is eternal and strong. Paul then says we ought to not gratify the desires that are temporary, but remember that our eyes are set on God and the goals that are sustainable. In more modern Freudian terminology we’d say there’s the id, the ego and the super-ego, all vying for our attention, all making their own case for what we ought to do in any given situation.
So go with me for a second way back in time, far back in the chronological record of history to the ancient year of 1990. The internet was just being developed for wide-scale use and, as strange as this seems today, people did not have access to it everywhere. They had to go to certain places, often academic institutions or government offices, and a few times a year, like when students came back from summer break, everyone dialed in – oh yeah, you dialed in back then, too. And there were always, in those big sessions, many people who were joining the cyber-community for the first time.
So, classes were taught. People would remember to educate online, during interactions, because they needed to establish the “netiquette”, the way you were supposed to act in this online community. The net users had discovered what we have seemingly forgotten – if you take away the other social clues of community – like actual people standing right in front of you – you can enable for people a certain anonymous freedom that feeds their worst impulses. Today we see it this way – people say the most awful things on social media, things that they probably would not say were they sitting in a room full of people because they think they aren’t. It’s cyberspace, not a real community. The response in the mid 90s to the rise of such troubling behavior online was a retreat, a desire to make cyberspace available to only those who could use it responsibly, and so people created t-shirts that said, “The Internet is Full. Go Away.”, and started limiting access. But no one told the commercial industry and then AOL was born, and the genie was out of the bottle.
Jesus also opens his passage trying to teach his disciples about being community. Please note that this instruction, which does include some degree of exclusion, comes after Jesus has shown, in word and deed, that his circle is inclusive, that all are welcome in the kin-dom of God. It’s why we are inspired to say, at the beginning of every service, no matter who you are or where you are on life’s journey – you are welcome here. However — here’s where things get complicated. There are still boundaries. For all are welcome, but we are also trying to become something – we are trying to learn how to be the body of Christ, to live in the kin-dom of God, to become the beloved community. And we are still very much people of flesh, reaching for high spiritual ideals, but living them out with our limitations, our prejudices and our fears.
Authentic community is hard work. Sure, we can stay superficial, making this a glorified social club, with really good potluck meals and a great choir. That’s safe. But the beloved community is found in something more meaningful, I think, something riskier and more intimate, something that is quite a bit harder to accomplish. And it means that we will necessarily have boundaries, for we know that when we say we welcome everybody, we don’t actually welcome everybody. We welcome a lot of those who have been rejected by the church in the past, but if someone walked in here with swastikas tattooed on their bare arms, what would we do? I’d like to think that we’d welcome them, perhaps timidly, and then maybe seek to have some dialogue because we are open & affirming, but we’re not open to everything nor affirming of everything. We do have limits and they are important because we all need reminders about what it is exactly we are all reaching for and never quite achieving – this isn’t a social club.
Let us note that when Jesus offers this formula – in conflict, first go to a brother or sister yourself, then with a couple of pals, then with the larger community and only then do you make them “as a Gentile or a tax collector.” In other words, they are “out”, but not really out for we must also remember how Jesus treats Gentiles and tax collectors. He eats and drinks with them, speaks to them, loves them, learns from and teaches them and even heals them. So when we have conflict with a particular person, even conflict that we can’t work through, we might need to be separate from them and that is an OK thing, as long as we understand that our need for separation does not separate them from the love of God. Our feelings do not necessarily come in the voice of God. No one, Jesus asserts, is beyond the reach of God’s love and we must not confuse our very human need for boundaries with God’s capacity for love and inclusion.
The readings from today are full of hows – how to view love within the church community, how to handle conflict, even how to understand that what we create here, in the flesh, has connection to what is created in the spiritual. What we loose on earth is loosed in heaven, or, as the stoic hero of the movie Gladiator, General Maximus said, “What we do here, echoes in eternity.” But there is also a lot of why. Why do we practice love in this way? Why do we seek to address conflict within community in this manner? Why do we set boundaries even as we say that “all are welcome?” We do so because we are trying to create something, we are trying to enact, to embody the Spirit of Christ in the world, which means there is an etiquette, a way of acting and being…AND we are human beings, with our own needs for etiquette, for boundaries and for safe space. That’s why we have the hows, so we can have some practical steps for creating good community and why it is important to know our whys…for our whys are the ideals, the goals, the things for which we strive, the finish line that we never cross but always run towards.
Later today I will meet with parents of kids from two different communities – Fellowship and College Hill Presbyterian – to discuss confirmation class. Confirmation class is kind of like church etiquette, it is the program by which we try to connect our young adults to their faith, through exposure to the traditions, to the scriptures, to the histories and stories and ingredients of our particular tradition and, in this case, the tradition of the Presbyterians, too. We teach them the hows and the whys of being a follower of Jesus. And we do this with another church because in the land of bumper sticker theology, we are in the “coexist” camp. In fact, I’d like to think that we’re in the beyond coexistence camp most of the time but at least we want to learn to be tolerant of everyone else, to live together in the same spaces and to learn how to manage our conflicts while running towards that elusive goal of expressing God’s incredible love without exceptions.
I sometimes think that we adults need confirmation classes. We need reminders in an age of social media and partisan politics that too often appeals to the lesser angels of our natures that we tare supposed to have our eyes set on higher goals, on loftier tasks. For our job is not to win, but to love.
We need to have a reminder – some confirmation, if you will – that we follow the one who taught us that we are meant to be together…to live together, fight together, struggle together and reconcile together. We are best together, all of the “others”, every single one of them, for he really doesn’t say to us that he’ll be there just for us, sitting alone in our room. No, his claim of presence is for two of us, or three of us, for “us” gathered together, trying in this wild, chaotic world, in our own imperfect ways, to be the body of Christ.
Pray for Florida, for Georgia, Alabama, the many states that will be affected by Irma. Pray for the islands in the Atlantic which have been devastated and now await the arrival of Jose. Pray for Mexico, with an earthquake on one coast and a tropical storm on the other. Pray for the storms that are not so natural, the rains of division, the wind of hatred and racism, the flooding destructive power that is the illusion that we are separate…for that is the theological assertion made by Jesus to his disciples. Work for community. Risk for community. Learn to love in community, for we are made to be together.