I was back in Holbrook on Sunday. And while they are still a delightful, sweet, and welcoming, little congregation, let me give you all a primer on congregational politics.
Here is a church of roughly 15 people, all over the age of 50, in a severely economically depressed and isolated town.
The congregation, being so small, is run, not by committees, but by the one or two strongest voices in the group. A patriarch or matriarch as the case may be. These individuals see the church aging, shrinking, and dwindling, and their town dying.
Conflict ensues with their pastor. Their pastor decides to quit. (It’s hard to effect transformation in a place with set-in ways this deep, and this few people. Committees can change–a person has a harder time.)
When they call the Wider-Church-Structure (all the way in Phoenix, mind you), they are told that there’s no help coming. Times are tough, no one can afford anything, and interim pastors are expensive. They won’t be getting one. And probably not a full-time pastor either. Frustration builds.
And then, here comes this former pastor, who’s been away in Far Away Parts, doing God’s Own Work! (They forgot how much they loved him-but he looks so nice now.) And he tells them tales of growing foreign churches! And places that aren’t aging/shrinking/fighting/starving for money. And it sounds so very nice.
And he tells them that All This Can Be Theirs!
If they just do as he says, and vote to leave.
This is the story out in Holbrook (as it is many places), because really? Church splits have next to nothing to do with theology, or who hates who or guys in purple in New Hampshire. I bet you money that this church will leave the denomination and it’s not because they’re hell-bent conservative. They actually like my (pretty progressive) preaching quite a lot.
It’s because they had some ineffective leadership. They’re feeling abandoned, and now they’re scared. For my money, pride was never the original sin. Fear is.
Anyway, here is what I said in the sermon part.
Ordinary Time, Proper 18 Matthew 18: 15-20
When I was a kid, I read all the time. Anything I could get my hands on– history, fantasy, mysteries, classics, you name it. I’d read in class, at my brother’s sporting events, at the grocery store with my mother, in the car, whenever I could. Which was great– with one small problem. I half- learned a lot of words. And by that, I mean that I learned what words looked like on the page, and what they meant, but I had no idea what they sounded like out loud, how to pronounce them. No actual person of my acquaintance used words like those in my books, past a certain point. And this led to some problems. Like when I started saying “mel-ak-ony” instead of melancholy. Or “sub-tootle” instead of subtle. In my head, it made sense! That’s roughly how those words looked to me, and I had never heard anyone say them, that I could remember, so what did I know? It sounded right in my head. Sadly, I discovered early on thatjust because something sounds good inside my head, doesn’t mean the rest of the world is on board.
We require community. We require other people. Not just to correct our pronunciation, but to acquire language at all– remember that movie Nell? It’s part of the way that we become fully human.
And as Christians, we need other people as well. We need community in our life of faith– we can no more be solo Christians, devoid of a community to support and guide us and ground us than we can fly.
Because community is all about relationships, and what else but relationships teach us about God? Think about how you first learned about God, about Jesus– who first told you the story? Your parents? A trusted friend? Your brother, your sister? Our human relationships point us towards God, because in them, we see a glimpse of God’s love. After all, God is all about community! — God who came to be in relationship with us in Christ forever.
So it’s no surprise that today’s gospel sets up a section of Matthew about what it takes to live in community on earth. And more specifically, what do we should do when this community gets messy and frustrating. Jesus is nothing if not practical when it comes to advice giving.
If a member of the church sins against you, here’s the procedure, says Jesus. And he lays out what amounts to a mediation handbook for life in community– go and talk to the person in private, then with one or two others, then with the whole group. In other words, you keep trying, and if these steps do not work, then “let them be as a Gentile and a tax collector to you.”.
That’s a fascinating phrase–be as a Gentile and a tax collector! Especially here in Matthew’s gospel. Because while it sort of sounds like the newest in biblical insults, let’s remember that Jesus has just spent the entirety of the gospel up to this point telling his disciples to be kind, to be welcoming to who?
Gentiles and tax collectors.
Matthew himself was a tax collector. And Matthew was hardly shown the door.
In other words, he’s not saying, try three times to get along, then feel free to kick people out if they don’t do what you want them too. Christian community has to run deeper than that. He’s saying, if you try to find common ground, and it’s just not working,
Then you’ll probably need to let it go. Treat the person like any other beloved child of God, and give it up. Because if you bind it here, it will be bound in heaven. You hold onto it here, it will weigh on you forever, and nothing weighs as much as a lifelong grudge.
Now, let’s be very clear. There’s a difference here between forgiving and forgetting, for lack of a better term. If someone is abusive, if someone is ill or damaged to the point where they can’t stop themselves from hurting you, then forgiveness, then letting it go needs to be from a safe distance.
Notice what Jesus says here to his mainly still Jewish audience– He doesn’t say pretend nothing happened. Jesus says treat them like Gentiles, whom we love! And we welcome! But they’re still Gentiles– we don’t let them do the grocery shopping, because they’d bring home non- kosher bacon. Jesus says treat them like tax collectors, whom we welcome, and we pray with, but we don’t give them the common purse to keep, because they’d hand it off to Rome.
But when it all comes down, Jesus asks us to stay in community, despite our falling short and our hurting one another, as best as we can. Despite it’s messiness, despite our falling short , the community of faith that Jesus calls us to in the church is designed to handle all that.
All the messiness of our communities can endure, so long as we remember that what keeps us there. Because what binds us together as members of the Jesus- club, what keeps us in this most important of relationships here in the church, has nothing to do with how good we are, or how perfect we can be, or how many mistakes we avoid. What keeps us in that primary relationship with God, is God’s unfailing love for us through Christ. And if God abandons no one, throws no one out, then how in the world can we?
This is really interesting commentary, and I like the sermon too. And it makes me think about a somewhat similar situation in political contexts–not all poor folks, black folks, older folks, etc., who are conservative/Republican are so because they’re dummies voting against their own self-interest or something. They have their reasons. They’re frustrated too, and very legitimately so. (And I’d bet that, for a lot of folks, it’s at least partly because of the very real superiority and contempt that a lot of young rich yuppie progressives express towards folks who are not young rich yuppie progressives. Which I say as a young rich-ish yuppie progressive.)
But I digress, as is my wont.
Next time we chat, remind me to tell you some of the stories I have about a local church here that recently ran its pastor out of town. Lotsa dysfunction, lotsa secret power players, lotsa drama with a capital D. Real sad.
I agree with you, very much. And not just because I have occasionally experienced the soap-opera side of churches. And, even more oddly, after telling me this long saga, the unofficial leader of the church gave me $20 ‘to buy yourself lunch! or dinner! because you’re so nice.”
I find it so very strange and sad.
People are funny, strange, complex little creatures, aren’t they?
Well done my friend.