A friend of mine recently told me she was taking a sabbatical from church. She had had enough of the squabbles and petty complaints that seemed to characterize her worshipping community. She’d decided to stay home on Sundays. To take long runs, to appreciate the beauty of the earth, and to commune with God on her own. An approach many disenchanted people take to church. They simply go it on their own. A faith journey to be sure, one that leads many people to a closer communion with God. A journey many of us in this room have taken at one point or another in our lives.
Some folks don’t choose such a journey—rather they have it thrust upon them. Sometimes folks are forced to leave their community of faith. Their community of faith rejects them or ejects them, and they are left outside the walls. I imagine some faith communities have even used the Gospel passage we just heard as justification for excommunicating or expelling or shunning. They land on the line “…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” which they interpret as “cast that sinner out—outside, beyond the walls of our community, beyond the pale. Have nothing to do with them.”
That is not the Gospel way. That’s not what Jesus meant when he referred to Gentiles and tax collectors. That “cast that sinner out” interpretation doesn’t make sense when you look at where Jesus went, who he ate with and who he stayed with. Jesus went to the Gentiles and asked his disciples “to go and make disciples of all nations”. Jesus ate with tax collectors and sinners and even stayed overnight in the house of a tax collector named Matthew.
“Let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.” This from a man who said, “Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile.” This is about going back again and again and again in attempts to restore right relationship. This is about living, as best you can, in reconciliation.
But what happens when we’re the one left outside the walls of community? What happens when folks shun us, reject us, refuse to hear our side of the story? What happens when we’ve seen just too much ugliness to come back to church? I think about my friend and her solitary runs on Sunday mornings. She’s been deeply hurt by church. She’s not going to dip her toe in church waters any time soon. And I don’t blame her. I’m not sure I would either.
Yet that makes me sad. The loneliest times I’ve had in my life have been those times when I have been without a faith community. I don’t believe that the Christian journey is a solitary one. I think we’re meant to work out our faith in community.
That’s why it’s so important that healthy Christian communities thrive. That’s why it’s so important that Christian communities work hard at being healthy places where people can disagree with one another, where people can disappoint one another, where people can seek reconciliation with one another so that all can grow together in their faith.
That’s not being community without conflict. Conflict and community go hand in hand. When two or three people gather together, conflict is inevitable. But what is not inevitable is destructive, soul-crunching conflict. What is not inevitable is the closing off of the possibility of reconciliation. What is not inevitable is living without love for one another.
In his letter to the Church in Rome, Paul says, “Owe no one anything except to love one another.” In his first letter to the Church in Corinth, Paul says, “Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth” (1st Corinthians 13: 4-6). Healthy Christian communities are built on love—the kind of love Paul describes, the kind of love the theologian Howard Thurman was referring to when he said that love is meeting someone where they are at the surface and treating them as they are at their core. That is treating them as a beloved and beautiful child of God. Love doesn’t close off possibilities. Love does not bar the door. And love does not take its marbles and go home. Love engages. Love confronts. Love listens. Love opens the way to new possibilities.
You and I are standing at a crossroads. We have been called into community together. Our work is to listen to the Spirit’s voice in our prayers and conversations, in sounds and silences, as we, together with God, build our community. What kind of a community shall we be?