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Sermon Archives

A Spiritual and Religious Community

Rev. Daniel A. Smith
Sun, Sep 07

Text: Matthew 18: 15-20

I begin today with a poem written by a contemporary Jewish Rabbi named Harold Shulweiss. We’ve used parts of it to begin meetings or small groups but I thought it made sense to share it in worship today, given the scripture Taj just read in which an ancient Jewish Rabbi named Jesus tells us: “Wherever two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.”
Hear these words from Rabbi Shulweiss:

God is not in me
nor in you
but between us.

God is not me or mine
nor you or yours
but ours.

God is known
not alone
but in relationship.

Not as a separate, lonely power
but through our kinship,
our friendship,
through our healing and binding
and raising up of each other.

To know God is to know others,
to love God is to love others,
to hear God is to hear others.

More than meditation,
more than insight,
more than feeling,
between us are
claims, obligations, commandments;
to act, to do, to behave our beliefs.

I seek God
not as if God were alone,
an isolated person, He or She,
a process, a power, a being, a thing.
I seek God
not as if I were alone,
a thinker, a mediator, a discrete entity.

I seek God in connection,
in the nexus of community.
I pray and celebrate the betweenness
which binds and holds us together.

And even when I am left alone,
I am sustained by my
memory of our betweenness
and the promise of our betweenness.

God is not in me, or in you,
or in God's self,
but in betweenness
and it is there we find the evidence of
God's reality and our own.

If this is your first time with us at First Church, welcome once again and know that most of our sermons here don’t dive quite so quickly into the deep end of theological ideas! But what draws me to this poem is that it cuts through whatever abstract or metaphorical notions we may have about God – God as some power, or person, a He or a She – and instead it points to an everyday experience of God, and to a yearning for God that we know through our relationships and through community, in its truest sense, as in “wherever two or three are gathered.” The poem rings true, does it not? We cannot know or love or hear God without knowing or loving or hearing each other! God is in the between-ness of you and me, of you and the person next to you, whether stranger or friend. God is in the very nexus of community, as Shulweiss puts it so well.

This yearning and searching for relationship and community is as old as religion itself! What I love about today – this Regathering Sunday, and any Sunday for that matter – is that this is our chance to act on those ancient desires for connection, right here and right now. Today, we choose to come together, not just two or three, but more like two or three hundred! Today, and every time we gather and regather, we participate in and reconstitute and celebrate a community that is bound together by a love that is not only the space between us, but that spans generations and millennia. We are bound by a common understanding that we are not made to live alone, that we need each other, that we are mutually interdependent! We are also bound by those claims and commandments about which Shulweiss spoke, commandments to welcome strangers and love our neighbors, to name just two.

Think about it! Some two thousand years ago, a rabbi and teacher named Jesus understood that human yearning for connection as he went around building up and binding together a spiritual and religious community for his own time and place. He taught people that they could know and hear and love God by listening to and loving others, especially the poor and outcast. It was barely called a church at the time, though our scripture from Matthew is one of two places in all four gospels that uses the word church – ekklessia.

Before I go further, I should say that our passage from Matthew is usually trot out when churches are in the midst of some ugly conflict, when people are behaving badly towards one another! Did you hear its weighty beginning “if another member of the church sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone!” If that doesn’t work, then pull together a few witnesses and try again! The passage can start to sound like a first-century course in conflict management, and it’s not bad advice. But seen in another, broader light, this passage can also give us a good sense of what were some of the hallmarks of that very first church that that was gathered in Jesus’ name. See how the list that emerges compares to what you’ve known of faith communities, including this one!:

1. “Go and point out the fault” Apart from the specific context, the take away is “be honest with each other.” Tell someone when they've hurt you, or by extension, when you are hurting in any way. Be vulnerable with one another and share your burdens!

2. “Go to the person alone” at least at first. In broader terms, practice discretion and healthy and respectful communication and a generosity of spirit that bears with it at least effort to forgive. Don’t go and gossip or triangulate! Try to reconcile directly.

3. Though it’s not spelled out here, it makes sense that this kind of honesty and respect would be called for when someone has helped you as well, or when you are feeling good. Go and point out a strength as well. Don’t hold back if you have something nice to say! Tell someone when they’ve helped you. Share your joys! Say thank you!

4. Listen! Listen! Listen! Listen! The word comes up four times in our short passage. The take-away here? Be present and listen deeply and tune into one another’s story, their pain or joy, and especially those who might be different from you. In our passage, the onus of listening falls on the accused who is asked to listen to the person that has been hurt, but I think I’ts safe to extend the message. Listen to each other, one on one at first. If need be, in a smaller group! And when the issues are really tough, then listen as a whole community. It’s no wonder our Puritan forebears, when they were trying to discern where God was leading them, would not settle for merely listening to a Pope, or a King or even a minister. Instead they would listen for God’s spirit made known through the gathered community. It’s why we are called a Congregational Church! Its not only that all of your voices and “votes” matter, but your ears too, and your hearts which listen for the murmurs of the Spirit that only emerge in the between-ness!

5. If all that honesty and sharing and listening doesn’t help, then Jesus says “let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector!” Many have read this as invitation to ex-communication, and it may be just that. But when taken together with virtually all of the rest of Jesus teachings about Gentiles and tax collectors, the exact folks who he is constantly reaching out to and scandalously sharing meals with, all in a spirit of radical and inclusive love, this final command may well be the same as saying, “Try your best to love that really difficult person anyway!” What's more, it may be an implicit invitation to reach out to love and include those with whom you think you have least in common! It’s like the song we just sang: can’t hate your neighbor in your mind (when you keep) it stayed on Jesus!

In Jesus’ own time, and especially several decades later when Matthew wrote down his gospel, this kind of teaching in how a community lives together and commits their lives to spiritual and religious community was sorely needed. Matthew was writing shortly after the temple, the center of Jewish life and learning, had been destroyed! It was definitely one of those “now what?” moments, when people felt lost and unsure of whom to identify and align with. Into this context, Jesus speaks an entire new way of being to his followers, one that was decidedly communal and non-violent and resistant to the oppressive Roman empire which constantly had its foot on the necks of the Jews. I wonder how much has changed for us!

I don’t know about you but this summer my family watched a lot of world cup soccer. We picked a favorite phrase of British announcers that used about the refs whenever a bad call was made: “This ref has lost the plot,” they’d say. In many ways, it seems our broader American culture, to say nothing of our government, has “lost the plot!” We’ve lost our way in part because we’ve lost a connection to those claims and obligations that we have to care for one another, to listen to one another, to treat each other with mutual respect. If anything our lives are becoming increasingly isolated and we are growing ever farther apart, geographically, socio-economically and spiritually. Our own Brent Coffin has captured it this way: that we becoming “mutually unaccountable cells of private preference!” If that sounds as terrifying to you as it does to me, then you’ve come to the right place!

As we head into a new season in our life together, I wonder what sort of help and guidance our own yearnings and our own tradition give to us as we try to articulate where we stand in this moment. After a summer of horrendous headlines, domestically and internationally, as our country may be starting to reckon with its hangover from decades of individualism, consumption and blindness to socio-economic and racial disparity, how can we better and more collectively orient our lives, our values, our purpose and more clearly define the ways we will offer and embody hope, healing along with reparation and ongoing resistance? In other words, what are the marks or signposts of the kind of spiritual and religious community that we so sorely need today, one that can sustain us and help us do our part in what our Jewish brothers and sisters called “repairing the world.” Put a different way, what is the future that God is already shaping for us, here in this place?

There are already pockets of amazing vitality and spiritual practice in this congregation: a growing and thriving cohort of young families that has begun to share meals and even study together as their kids play together; regular offerings of small group Bible study and meditation, and a variety of adult ed. discussions at our Sunday 10 am hours; chances to make justice and peace, through our Witness Against Gun Violence and Inequality, our Building the Beloved Community work, our Palestine and Israel Task Team, the Greater Boston Interfaith Organization, our Earth Stewardship team; and of course, opportunities to make music together and sing praise to God. That’s to name just a few of the expressions that are keeping our sense of connection to people’s hearts and lives, let alone our connections to headlines, real and relevant. What better a time to identify the common threads, to reveal the particular gifts and charisms of this community, such that we can all more the clearly state to ourselves and the world what it about this place that makes it so special and important to so many of us! We’re exceedingly curious to hear your thoughts on this. There will be opportunities throughout the fall to engage your input and prayerful consideration. Come to our lunch to find out more about those.

For now, allow me (briefly) to plant just a few seeds. After several seasons of cultivating the kind of faith and spiritual practices that have allowed us to “go deeper” in our faith and relationships, I wonder if God is now inviting us to name and claim some of our deepest individual and collective commitments.

For example, are we ready to commit to being a community of

-- mutual listening
-- mutual honesty and vulnerability
-- mutual love and healing
-- and mutual accountability, a place where we can call each other out when we are now walking the talk?

Are we ready to commit to being a community that…

-- stays rooted in our own texts and traditions while also learning from and reaching out to people of other faiths and people of no faith?
-- to being a community that prays and worships in ways that offer God’s healing and beauty and mercy and justice?

Are we ready to commit to being a community…

-- that fosters compassionate and civic engagement in our neighborhoods, in Greater Boston and in the world, speaking out and acting powerfully with others on issues of justice and peace and common concern?

Might we even be ready to own a commitment to being and becoming…

-- a community of spiritual resistance, that is a people that stands up and says no to the wider forces of individualism, and consumerism and often ego-driven ambition that leaves us breathless, a community of resistance that says no to the increasing separation and isolation between the haves and the have not’s, between whites and blacks, between those who are in the circle and those who have been shut out!

These are just some teasers. This is just the start of our asking and discussing together how we might respond to those yearnings for connection and relationships, both now and in a future that is waiting and wanting and needing to emerge in and through us. Whether you are here for the first time or you’ve been coming for decades, know that you are invited into this conversation! For today, let us start with celebration! A celebration that this is our chance, our turn to gather around this table of love, here in this household of God’s grace. A celebration of our between-ness! Wherever two or three are gathered, may we all come to know and love and hear God as we know and love and hear each other. Amen.

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