The Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost: September 10, 2017
The Rev. Kate Flexer, Rector of St. Michael’s Church
Many many years ago I worked a summer as a camp counselor. I was fresh out of college and not sure what to do next, so when a new friend invited me to come on her staff for 8 weeks in Montana, I agreed. We were a small staff and at first had a great time together, in that summer camp kind of way. We just loved each other. But it rained that summer, pretty much every week, and the camp turned into a mud pit. One after the other, each of us on staff got sick with some kind of chest infection (which we called the staff infection). Two staff members dated, then broke up, and reformed as couples with other staff members. One counselor never showed up to do the kitchen work when assigned. We got sick of singing the same camp songs week after week. In the first half of the summer, we talked about moving to Missoula and renting a house together at the end of camp. By the end of the summer, half of us weren’t speaking to the other half, and we all left in a huff.
Maybe you’ve had an experience of community like that. Studies in group dynamics talk about a stage in the life cycle of a group where everyone is on their best behavior, really into each other and the community – what some call pseudocommunity. But then in time the group descends into chaos and conflict when people’s true feelings and behaviors begin to come out. The healthy group can work through that into true community – but many groups don’t. Instead, often people just leave the group and go to form a new group, where they can live in happy pseudocommunity again – until chaos and conflict take over there too, and they have to move on yet again. My summer camp staff was a happy and bubbly pseudocommunity for most of the summer – but then things got ugly, and we never were quite able to move through that to something more real. (We were, after all, only in our early 20s, all of us.)
So human nature is just kind of like that. Which is why in the gospel reading today we hear Jesus giving advice to the early church about how to deal with conflict. At first, it seems, the whole Jesus enterprise was just wonderful, everyone coming together for worship and breaking bread and singing songs and having just a lovely time. But then, humanity took over, and quarrels began to spring up – and Matthew was at pains to tell his community that it was natural and inevitable and they could work through it. Reassuring words for us to hear too, when we get all rosy about what community means and then find ourselves disillusioned. So many people move from church to church, always looking for the perfect community – and never really find it.
But it’s sort of an interesting text for us to begin our year with on this Welcome Back Sunday, isn’t it? Here we are, with all the dewy freshness of a new year, the hopeful optimism of back-to-school. Some of you may be here for the first time ever today, or here for the first time after a summer of being elsewhere (doing what? I’d like to know). But some of you may have been here for years or decades, with a long history already with others in this community. And of course even though it’s a new year, we’re also just beginning another year in a long history of community, 210 years of community at St Michael’s Church and 2000+ years of community as Jesus people. So maybe to start off talking about managing conflict and forgiving one another isn’t so bad – there’s a history there, as they say.
But, no. That’s not really the focus for where I want to go today. What strikes me most, actually, is that at the end of all the instructions about how to deal with differences, Jesus says, ‘where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.’ ‘I am there among them’: Not just, when two or three agree, I am there; or, when two or three are happy and smiling together, I am there. Jesus just simply requires that we gather – that we try – that we give it a shot, this being in community. Even when being in community will inevitably lead to periods of crankiness and differences of opinion we’ll have to work through. Being in Christian community, a community gathered because of Jesus, is in itself an experience of the presence of God. That’s pretty powerful news for us as we begin this year.
It’s good news, on the one hand. We desperately need the reassurance of the presence of God, especially with news as bleak as the world’s news is these days. Horrendous natural disasters – earthquake, fire, and flood – throughout our continent have people talking about the end times, and even the New York Times is trying to reassure us that it’s not that, really. Then there’s the political news, the tightening of immigration law to shut our doors even to children who have grown up here; ongoing investigations and exposure of corruption in our government; cyberhacking of all of our personal information…it just goes on and on. There’s a heaviness and a bleakness to people’s looks and affect over these past several months. We need God here. We need to know that Jesus is present with us. School is tough, the streets are rough, our workplaces aren’t kind. We come together in a community like this one to begin a new year and here, at least, even if we are all too human, we can find and experience the healing and love and presence of God that we all so desperately need. That’s what we come to church for. That’s what we can find here.
But that good news can also be a challenge for a community like ours. Wherever two or three of us gather in his name, Jesus is here with us. No matter what it is we’re doing. Wherever two or three pray together, Jesus is there. Wherever two or three have a meeting about church finances or ironing the altar linens, Jesus is there; wherever two or three sip coffee and complain about a fourth person, Jesus is there; wherever two or three are moved to act to counter injustice in the world, Jesus is there, and wherever two or three sigh and say, oh well, what can you do? Jesus is there also. Jesus is here, with us, in every way and every time we gather. Which means that there’s always a question for us to ask ourselves, as a community of faith: Does what we say and do measure up to what Jesus would have us do? Does everything we say and do measure up? And if not, what do we have to change?
And moreover, the idea of Jesus present when we gather is a challenge when we aren’t quite sure what we think about Jesus. This is a community gathered in Jesus’ name – but maybe we Christians aren’t always so comfortable with that identity. We gather with this community because the people here are people we’d like to be with, sure; we gather with this community because the politics or the stance on the issues aligns with ours; we gather with this community because the music is good or because it’s a good place to raise our children. But Jesus? Well. And yet, there he is – the reason we’re here in the first place. And it may be the biggest challenge of all for us to acknowledge that, and make sense of what that really means for each one of us here. Am I right?
Well, there’s help for all of this here. We have some good things planned for this community of St Michael’s. We’re beginning our first full year of Godly Play, a new storytelling curriculum that allows our children to engage with the deep stories of our faith. We’re offering a range of adult classes for everyone from first-time inquirers to uncertain skeptics to those ready to dive headfirst into the depths. We’re celebrating the funny event of the 210th anniversary as a way to learn some of our history and make plans for our future with planned giving. We’re carrying forward the work begun in our Renewal Works process last spring into greater clarity about our mission and identity as a church. And we’re welcoming our new deacon, Deacon Richard Limato (Yay!), who will help us step out further in outreach and service to our neighborhood and beyond. We will gather and gather and gather again in twos and threes and twenties and fifties and hundreds, in Jesus’ name – and here Jesus will be among us. To reassure and heal; to challenge and inspire; to ground us in love greater than what we can create for ourselves. That’s what we’re about as a church; that’s what we’re here for.
So right, maybe there will be a little conflict along the way as we go deeper into what that all means. Maybe sometimes our humanness will bump up against itself and cause a snit here or there – and then we’ll do something like what Matthew outlines in the gospel and talk our way through it together. But really the deeper point is that Jesus is with us, among us, and that God has us in hand. In all our humanness, all our grief and worry and anxiety about the world, in all our failures to live righteously and our struggle to believe, Jesus is with us. As our opening prayer today says, so we pray: Grant us, O Lord, to trust in you with all our hearts. All our hearts. And may all of us, all God’s people, say Amen.