I’ve got something to admit. We’ve been together for two months and I guess it’s okay for me to confess something to you: this is weird.
This is a really strange thing to preach into a camera. So much of the training we get as preachers is next to useless in this particular set up.
|About This Sermon|
Rev. Mark Schaefer
St. Matthew’s United Methodist Church
September 6, 2020
Exodus 12:1-14; Matthew 18:15-20
See they teach us not only how to write, but how to stand. How to balance making eye contact with reading a manuscript. How to be mindful of our spoken and behavioral ticks. How not to get overly distracted by congregants’ facial expressions. (That one has come in particularly handy since I once had a member of my congregation who scowled all the way through the sermon only to tell me afterward how much she liked it.) When we took preaching courses, we had to practice in front of our classmates and in front of a congregation (and get evaluated on both occasions by the people we were preaching to).
And so, it’s just a little bit odd not to have a congregation here. Speaking into a camera (or two) is a different skill set than the one I was trained to develop. I really can just look in one direction the whole time. I could have a TelePrompTer and just read the sermon while looking right into the camera. I don’t have to worry about nervous habits like tapping my foot or bouncing a leg—I can just ask George to frame the shot in close. Heck, if done right, I don’t even have to wear shoes.
It’s a strange thing to be in a church, ready to preach, and not to have a congregation to preach to. It’s a strange thing to preach to people who can see me but I can’t see them. It’s probably why I appreciate having George, Denny, Carol, Isaac, and Becky here, if nothing else to be faces who can react to something I’ve said. It doesn’t even really matter if it’s a positive reaction, so long as it’s a reaction. As I said, this is weird.
And all the more so because we know that a church is ultimately about those people, now absent from our pews. We can admire beautiful empty churches, and I have taken my share of photographs of just such spaces. But even the most gorgeous cathedral is lacking in something without anyone in the space to worship.
II. THE TEXT
Each of our scripture lessons this morning concerns the life of the congregation. In the Exodus passage, Moses and Aaron are commanded to “tell the whole congregation of Israel” how to prepare for—and then forever commemorate—the Passover. This congregation will later leave Egypt and journey on by stages into the wilderness, will receive the law through Moses, who are instructed to remain holy as their God is holy, and so on. It is a term that defines the Israelites not by their leaders, not by their priests, not by their sacred rites, but by this gathering of the people. The Congregation of Israel.
In the Gospel lesson, a similar definition is made.
The word church only appears in Matthew’s gospel—it appears nowhere in Mark, Luke, or John. The word appears only in two instances in that gospel: at Peter’s confession of Jesus, when Jesus says “upon this rock I will build my church,” and here, in the lesson we heard read this morning.
The word for church used in the text is ἐκκλησία ekklēsia, a word that means “called out” or “assembled.” It is the same word that was used in the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible to render the word קָהַל qahal, which is used to refer to the desert assembly of Israel and another word for the congregation of Israel. The church, then, is meant to evoke this “assembly of Israel” in the wilderness. It is the called-out gathering of the faithful.
In the Matthew passage, we read of Jesus’ instructions on how a disciple should respond to a member of the community who sins against them. What the proper response should be in this assembly.
The first step is to confront the person directly and work it out between you. If the member listens to you, you have regained them. But if not, take two or three other members with you and attempt the same reconciliation. This way, you’ll have witnesses who can attest to what was said. However, if the member doesn’t listen then, bring your matter before the whole assembly.
It is only then, if the offending individual will not listen to the entire assembly that they should be kicked out of the community.
But then, Jesus continues. He notes that whatever the assembly binds on earth will be bound in heaven and whatever they loose on earth will be loosed in heaven. Further, that if any two of them should agree about anything they ask, it will be done for you by “my Father in heaven.” “For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.”
It is hard to remove these statements from the context of the entire passage. It is most likely that the authority to bind or loose, interpreted somewhat expansively in the Catholic Church (and somewhat satirically in the movie Dogma), is related to the judgment of the community about excommunication. In effect, if you go through this process and need to shun a member of the community, God will back up your decisions and your requests. Indeed, if you gather in Jesus’ name, it is as if Jesus is there among you. This is made clearer in the Greek text where the word translated here as anything is πραγμα pragma, which means “deed, matter, thing” but in this context likely means “matter” or “case.” In fact, the requirement for two or three witnesses aligns this passage with the requirement from Deuteronomy 19:15 that a charge can only be sustained from testimony by two or three witnesses.
All of this means that Jesus is not saying that whatever you ask for in whatever circumstances you will receive if you agree. He’s saying that when it comes to matters such as these, concerning the reformation of a sinning member of the community, those decisions will be ratified by Heaven.
III. WHERE TWO OR THREE ARE GATHERED
Of course, over Christian history, we have come to understand that Jesus’ statement “where two or three are gathered in my name there I am among them” has far greater application than simple question of church law and procedure. We have come to understand this as a statement of Christ’s presence whenever we are gathered together in his name, no matter how small the gathering.
This idea has parallels in the Jewish tradition as well. In the Rabbinic tractate Avot we read:
But two who are sitting, and words of Torah do pass between them—the Presence is with themMishnah, Avot 3:2
So, too, in the church have we understood that when we gather in Jesus’ name, however few of us, Christ is present in that gathering.
I will say that this has become a favorite church joke, any time attendance is sparse at a meeting or an event, we’ll shrug and say, “Well, wherever two or three are gathered!” Sometimes, I will admit, this has all the feeling of a cop-out for not having a better job advertising the meeting or inviting people to the service.
But it is an important reminder that the church is not defined by how many people we can jam into a particular space. Christian faith is qualitative rather than quantitative. Better to have two or three faithful Christians in the world than two billion who claim the name but do not live out the faith. In that case, the two faithful people would be a stronger church than that of the faithless billions.
And so, although this passage was not intended to be a simple statement of what constitutes the church at a minimum, it can be a comfort to us to know that Christ’s presence with us is not limited to the times when we’re able to pack the pews or fill the arenas. Two or three gathered in his name is enough.
IV. WHERE NONE ARE GATHERED
But what about where none are gathered? What about a situation in which a pastor is alone in their living room, standing in front of an open laptop, looking at boxes of faces via Zoom or Google Hangouts? Or standing in his church looking out through a video camera at people he cannot see? How do we understand what it means to be gathered in any meaningful sense when we simply cannot gather?
On some level, we know it’s not the same as being in person. If we could be together safely, we would be. We know that church somehow isn’t church without the direct face-to-face physical contact, the handshakes, the hugs, the shared meals. Even as we take more and more steps to keep us connected, we know that our inability to gather physically diminishes our perceptions of the experience. We’re not really gathered, we think.
And if we’re not really gathered together, is Christ present with us?
A. The Law of Love
I could just say, “Of course!” and end the sermon right there. But it’s important to understand why. And the why of it has nothing to do with whether virtual meetings are equivalent to in-person meetings, whether the bonds of fellowship travel via high-capacity phone lines and wireless networks, or whether doing the same thing separately but together counts as “gathering.” The why of it is so much deeper.
And this is where the context of Jesus’ statement really matters. Jesus is giving instructions to the church on how to deal with one who has sinned. It is important to understand that Jesus isn’t laying down arbitrary procedure. That is, Jesus isn’t giving us 10-day filing deadlines, followed by a process of interviewing witnesses, an opportunity to respond, and a right of appeal before a panel elected at a semi-annual meeting. The context is love.
When someone does something wrong, the loving response is as Jesus identifies it: talk to the person one on one. There is no need to publicly humiliate or shame. No “getting the person in trouble.” Just one on one loving relationship. As one commentator notes:
Love does not permit them to turn a blind eye to such sin, thus abandoning the wrongdoer to the consequences of their misdeed, but nor will it want to embarrass them before others.Stephen Westerholm, Matthew
If that doesn’t work, then you bring along two or three more people, not to antagonize, not to pile on, but simply to witness. To ensure that you have reached out lovingly, compassionately. And to witness to the refusal to repent if you’re unsuccessful.
Then, you bring the matter before the whole assembly. You’ve tried in private, you’ve tried with others bearing witness, now you turn to the whole body who reaches out to the individual. And only then, if the person does not repent is removal or shunning permitted. And even then, the goal of this step is to encourage repentance. To cause the person to see the error of their ways and seek to be admitted back into the assembly. We see this idea addressed in the writings of Paul.
But what clearly frames the entire passage is an ethic: an ethic of love.
B. Where Love is Found
So, what does this have to do with us, in our attenuated congregational existence? It means that where love is, where Christian disciples are engaging in an ethic of love, there Christ is.
See, we are not in this circumstance because we’re lazy, or because live-streaming services allows us to watch sports at the same time, or because it’s easier to go to church in your pajamas. We’re not taking these precautions because we’re afraid of the coronavirus. We do these things because we love each other.
We do these things because we know that many of our congregation are among the more vulnerable populations, either by virtue of age or health condition. We know that we want to care for the vulnerable, not cast their interests aside because we might be stronger. We know that we don’t want to risk the health of those we love in favor of the aesthetic pleasure of worshiping in a common space.
Further, we know that some churches have become super-spreaders, causing the virus to spread far beyond the confines of their congregations into the surrounding community. We love our neighbors, not just our members, and we seek their welfare and well-being, too.
We seek to limit the demands on a strained health-care system, to flatten the curve so as to ensure that the need for respirators and other medical care can be kept to a manageable level, and resources remain available to those who need them, especially to those who lack resources. We do this so that we are not inadvertently contributing to a circumstance that becomes even more lethal and that overburdens first-responders and other medical professionals.
Caring for the vulnerable, caring for our neighbors, caring for the care-givers, and ensuring access to vital resources for the needy are powerful demonstrations of love. And because our worship, our fellowship, however attenuated and technologically connected, is defined by this ethic of love, Christ is here among us.
V. END—Where Two or Three Are Gathered in His Name
These things are not easy; discipleship rarely is.
It is not easy to confront someone one-on-one who has done something wrong. It is not easy to respond lovingly and caringly to wrong-doing.
It is not easy to remain separated from each other when our hearts long for the simple connections of ordinary community: the handshakes, the hugs, the potlucks.
It’s certainly not easy to master new technologies or to sit at a screen staring at different faces all day. It isn’t easy to watch a service live-streaming and want to participate in it meaningfully.
But love isn’t easy and in these things we demonstrate a profound love: love of one another, love of neighbor, love of the least of these.
And in that love we are joined by Christ, whose name is love, and who has promised us that whenever we are gathered in his name, there he is in our midst.
Exodus 12:1–14 • The Lord said to Moses and Aaron in the land of Egypt: This month shall mark for you the beginning of months; it shall be the first month of the year for you. Tell the whole congregation of Israel that on the tenth of this month they are to take a lamb for each family, a lamb for each household. If a household is too small for a whole lamb, it shall join its closest neighbor in obtaining one; the lamb shall be divided in proportion to the number of people who eat of it. Your lamb shall be without blemish, a year-old male; you may take it from the sheep or from the goats. You shall keep it until the fourteenth day of this month; then the whole assembled congregation of Israel shall slaughter it at twilight. They shall take some of the blood and put it on the two doorposts and the lintel of the houses in which they eat it. They shall eat the lamb that same night; they shall eat it roasted over the fire with unleavened bread and bitter herbs. Do not eat any of it raw or boiled in water, but roasted over the fire, with its head, legs, and inner organs. You shall let none of it remain until the morning; anything that remains until the morning you shall burn. This is how you shall eat it: your loins girded, your sandals on your feet, and your staff in your hand; and you shall eat it hurriedly. It is the passover of the Lord. For I will pass through the land of Egypt that night, and I will strike down every firstborn in the land of Egypt, both human beings and animals; on all the gods of Egypt I will execute judgments: I am the Lord. The blood shall be a sign for you on the houses where you live: when I see the blood, I will pass over you, and no plague shall destroy you when I strike the land of Egypt.
This day shall be a day of remembrance for you. You shall celebrate it as a festival to the Lord; throughout your generations you shall observe it as a perpetual ordinance.
Matthew 18:15–20 • If another member of the church sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone. If the member listens to you, you have regained that one. But if you are not listened to, take one or two others along with you, so that every word may be confirmed by the evidence of two or three witnesses. If the member refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if the offender refuses to listen even to the church, let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector. Truly I tell you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven. Again, truly I tell you, if two of you agree on earth about anything you ask, it will be done for you by my Father in heaven. For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.”
Stephen Westerholm, Matthew, The New Interpreter’s Bible: One-Volume Commentary. Accordance electronic ed. (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2010), 649.