It's worth it
One of the things that the last few years has taught us is the importance of community. During the pandemic, during those long months of restrictions and isolation, community took a big hit. And we were impacted by that, we still are. It challenged our health and our well-being. In fact, there is perhaps nothing more important to our well-being than being part of a healthy community. Authentic, loving community is something we long for. It is a taste of the divine in our midst.
The 18th chapter of Matthew’s gospel, from which our gospel reading today is taken, is all about building community. Is it any surprise that it starts with a disagreement? It begins with the disciples asking Jesus a question. “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” And Jesus, he can see the problem starting already. The disciples, those who are closest to him, think that they’ll be the ones who get to be the bosses in the new community that’s forming around Jesus. Makes sense, doesn’t it, after all, they’ve had the training, they’ve been there from the start, they’ve made the sacrifices. They deserve to be the greatest, they deserve to have power and privilege. Maybe they’ll even get the corner office.
And so when they ask that question, in response, Jesus does some pre-emptive damage control. Jesus is all about building community – but it’s a particular kind of community that he wants to build, one that is to be different from so many other forms of human organization. So he takes a child into his arms and says to his disciples, you need to become like this child or you will never even enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever becomes humble like this child will be the greatest in this community. Example by example, story by story, Jesus starts to lay out his vision for the community that he is trying to build, a community in which there is care for those who are vulnerable, concern for those who are powerless and marginalized, a community whose focus is on searching for the one who is lost rather than the 99 who are doing okay. It’s to be a community built on reconciliation and forgiveness. When Peter asks how many times do I need to forgive someone who sins against me, Jesus’ answer is that you just keep on forgiving, more times than you can possibly imagine.
And then, right there between the bits about seeking out the sheep who has gone astray and the need for forgiveness, is some advice that many of us would rather ignore. Sometimes in community there will be conflict. There will be a need for difficult conversations. Most of us don’t like difficult conversations. Many of us like to avoid conflict. I don’t like pointing out the faults in others, and I like it even less when someone else points out the fault in me. It’s so easy for a difficult conversation to go off the rails, which I think is why Jesus offers us a structured approach for talking when harm is being done, a process for dealing with conflict, so that we don’t simply take the easy way out by ignoring it and avoiding our challenges. He gives us a process but he sets it in the context of humility, forgiveness and reconciliation. Healthy, authentic, loving community is so important that sometimes we need to have these difficult conversations.
One of the ways that we often try to eliminate the need for difficult conversations is by forming affinity groups, communities based on common interests. We look for people like us, who want to do the same things we do, and we form a community. And it’s probably true that if we all think more or less the same way, and we’re all doing much the same things, there will be less of a need for difficult conversations. On my beer-league hockey team, the most difficult conversation we ever have is when someone keeps staying out on the ice too long when they should be coming to the bench for a change. We’re an affinity group.
But the church, including this community of Trinity, is not intended to be an affinity group. We’re meant to be both inclusive and diverse, a community that welcomes people of all sorts, of all ages, backgrounds and ethnicities to come together. We want to be a community where we’re in relationship with people who are different than we are – because that’s how we learn and grow. It also means that, at times, we’ll disagree.
Did you ever notice the people that Jesus brought together in community? Some fishers from the north, a tax-collector, a few wealthy women, lots of poor people, even a zealot, which means a revolutionary or a terrorist depending which side you’re on. Lots of room for disagreement in that group.
There are lots of disagreements in our world too. Sometimes it seems that lately in our society we’re losing the ability to have difficult conversations with humility and forgiveness, the ability to remain in relationship despite our differences, with an eye towards reconciliation.
Building community across difference and division is hard work, and we need to relearn how to have difficult conversations. But it’s worth it, because healthy community, community in which all are welcome, in which we love and serve one another, is life giving. And more than just life-giving, healthy community is sacred. It’s where we find God. That’s the promise that Jesus makes in our reading this morning. “For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.”
So how do we build healthy, sacred, life-giving community? Many of the keys have already been mentioned: humility, forgiveness, reconciliation, a seeking out of those who need to be found, a care for those who need care, a willingness and ability to have difficult conversations.
There is also a need for shared practices that draw us together across our differences. You could call these rituals. We get to see the power of ritual in our first reading from Exodus this morning. In this account, God gives the Hebrew slaves a very specific ritual, the Passover meal. It’s all about the formation of a people, of a community. The instructions, the choreography if you like, is quite specific. Each household, on a specific day, is to take a lamb or a goat. Neighbouring households will share as needed to make sure that all are included. There is a synchronicity about the ritual. All the lambs are slaughtered at twilight on the same day, and the meal follows. The meaning of the ritual, of each of its provisions is made clear. And this same ritual has been passed on throughout the generations. The Passover meal has been celebrated every year for well over 3000 years. Rituals like this are a way of building community, of holding a community together. Which is why, I suppose, we’re here, doing what we’re doing today. And when we do gather together, we have been promised that Christ will be present among us. Our communal gatherings are sacred.
It is hard to underestimate the importance of healthy, authentic community which reaches across the divisions in our world. It is life-giving. It is sacred. It is something each one of us needs and that we need together. So we gather, we do our rituals, we practice humility and forgiveness, we care for one another, we welcome the stranger, we celebrate diversity, we learn from difference and when necessary, we have difficult conversations - but always with love and reconciliation in mind.
Why? Because healthy community is worth it.
Homily. Yr A P23. Sept 10 2023. Trinity
Readings: Exodus 12.1-14; Psalm 149; Romans 13.8-14; Matthew 18.10-22
Image by Ray Morris