“Swimming Lessons: A Relay Race”
Sunday, March 9, 2008
Matthew 18: 15-22
We have been talking this Lent about spiritual Swimming
Lessons – going more deeply into our faith, thinking about spiritual
practices and habits.
This is the last message in this series and this morning I want to think about how being part of a congregation is a spiritual practice. Being part of a congregation is a spiritual Swimming Lesson.
I am not talking now about listening to sermons, although listening carefully and attentively to sermons is surely a wonderful and spiritually edifying thing, but it is not what I mean here. I am not talking about singing hymns or partaking in the sacraments or doing mission or any of the particular activities that people in congregations do. All of these are great things, but what I am talking about is simply being present as part of a people who make up a congregation. I am suggesting that showing up is a spiritual practice.
Matthew quotes Jesus as saying: “Where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.” Whenever and wherever two or three or more people gather because of Jesus in the name and spirit of Jesus, the resurrected Christ is there present: no matter what they do or if they do anything at all. It is not the doing of any particular thing that causes the resurrected Christ to be present; it is the gathering itself – simply being here.
So, one way of finding Jesus is to be where two or three are gathered in his name.
In his book Testimony: Talking Ourselves into Being Christian, Thomas Long says that “a gathered congregation is an odd thing.”
“Almost every congregation,” he says, “includes an unusual mix of people.” He says, “Look around you the next time you are in worship, and you will almost surely see at least several people you would not choose to be with in any other setting.” Perhaps “others could look in your direction and say the same thing.”
Look around in the average congregation. There is the spacey kid who waits on you at Blockbusters or the friendly guy who fixes your glasses at Blink. There is a couple you recognize from seeing them in the audience at Arena Stage, or from Trios, or JR’s. There is a lawyer or a politician you’ve seen interviewed on TV. There are lots of people you don’t know at all – strangers. Maybe there are some people you know all too well, like the therapist who knows too much about you, or the teacher who flunked your kid in 10th grade math, or the homeless guy who asks you for change every day, or maybe even an old boyfriend or girlfriend.
“We are an odd bunch in here,” Thomas Long says. “But in worship [we] are invited to look at this gathering of people in new ways. [We] are reminded in worship that we did not gather these people: God did. It wasn’t [us] who pulled together such an unlikely group of people. It was God’s idea, and [we] are called to see everyone present here as a brother or sister in faith.
We are invited, Thomas Long says, to see the kid from Blockbusters, and the guy from JR’s and the lawyer and the therapist and teacher and even the former boyfriend or girlfriend as “the very beloved of God, a royal priesthood, citizens of a holy nation…without forgetting for a moment that they are, at the same time, as ordinary people as we are with all the real life struggles and problems we all have.”
Thomas Long says that “worship trains us to have [a] sort of double vision about other people; to see people, including ourselves, as flawed and broken but also as created and chosen and beloved by God.”[i]
Just being here in the presence of two or three others in the name of Jesus is a spiritual practice. It is the practice of learning to discern Christ in this odd gathering that is a congregation. Christ is here. Can we not see him, feel him, hear him, feel him? Just showing up week after week is a spiritual practice.
What I particularly like about this verse of Scripture about two are three gathered in his name is this – this sweet, idyllic verse is parked right between two sections of Scripture that remind us of how unpleasant congregations can be.
Just before this verse Matthew gives us instructions as to how we should handle it if another member of the church sins against us. Then just after this sweet idyllic passage he reminds us that there may be members of the church whom we will need to forgive of something or another as many as seventy-seven times. Good heavens.
The Bible is never sentimental. It understands that congregations are not places of pure love and the lightness of being. As someone said to me not long ago, the church is not Barnes and Noble.
Congregations are not glass bubbles where people are angels and everybody is always profoundly sensitive and caring and self-sacrificial. Congregations are communities where people sin against each other, and where we sometimes need to talk to each other about it. Congregations are communities of people who to forgive each other seventy-seven times.
Christ is not present here because we are so good and perfect and polite and nice that he craves our company. He is present here in the midst of our sins and our mistakes and insensitiveness and crudeness. He is present here even though he knows we sin against one another.
Did you hear what Matthew says about how we ought to handle it if we feel another member of the church has sinned against us? Notice it does not say to send him or her an angry e-mail. I know I am being anachronistic, but it doesn’t even say to send them a letter or to complain to the pastor or lay leader about them. It says to go to the person – directly – and to have a private meeting and point out the problem. Why is this? Because if we are not willing to take the time to sit down and talk it out it is not a big enough sin for us to worry about, and we ought to just let it go. If it is not a big enough problem to have a face-to-face conversation about, just let it go.
Then it says that if you have a private conversation and the person who you feel has sinned against you still doesn’t get it, bring one or two others with you to talk it through. Why? Because the sin has to be clear and obvious enough that other people can see it. If you can’t get one or two other people to take it seriously, let it go.
Then if that doesn’t work, take it to the entire congregation, and if it is not that big a deal to go to the whole congregation with it, then just let it go.
Well, just how often do you expect me to let it go? Apparently seventy-seven times.
It doesn’t say that Christ is present whenever two or three perfect Christians are gathered. It is our gathering in his name as flawed and broken people who are also the very same people who are created and chosen and beloved by God that manifests the presence of Christ.
Just being here, as the flawed and broken people we are, is a spiritual practice.
Then our Scripture lesson this morning invites us to go just a little deeper. It says that where two or three are gathered in his name, Christ is there. But it also says that if two of us gathered in Jesus’ name agree on earth about anything God in heaven will do it. I mean, if we really agree – profoundly and substantially – about anything on earth, God will do it.
Our being together gathered in the name of Jesus brings us into the presence of Christ. The power of Christ is in agreeing about something in a real and substantial way.
I am hoping that we can come as a congregation to really
agree that we can end homelessness in
If we can really and profoundly and substantially agree on this in the name of Jesus God in heaven can make it happen through us.
But agreement doesn’t happen easily – this is why it is so powerful – it doesn’t happen without sharing and conversation and prayer and probably not without working through our disagreements.
Thomas Long says this is why we gather at least weekly. We can’t get double vision or agreement through a one-time experience. It takes practice, training and repetition. So every week we have this gathered moment.
I want to ask us to try an experiment this week…a swimming lesson. How many of you waste a minute or more in a normal day?
Please turn to someone sitting near you and I want to ask you to share a concern on your heart. Take only one minute each to do this. Don’t over-reveal. Don’t go into a lot of detail. Take one minute each to share a concern on your heart and then I want to ask you to take a minute a day for the next seven days to pray about each other’s concerns.
[Sharing within the congregation.]
One minute a day for seven days. You might see the person again next Sunday or a Sunday after and you might want to touch base, or perhaps you shared with a visitor and may never see them again. This is okay. Let’s pray for each other a minute a day this week.
Another question: How many of you waste two minutes in a
normal day? I want to ask you to take a second minute every day during in the
months of March and April to pray for our homeless neighbors of
Let’s have a moment of prayer together now:
We lift up to you, O God, the concern entrusted to us by
another. If we don’t think we know how to pray, help us just to think about
each other a minute a day and you will receive it as prayer. Help us to think
about and pray for our homeless neighbors. Help us agree to end homelessness
[i] Thomas G. Long, Testimony: Talking Ourselves into Being Christian (Jossey-Bass), 44-45.