Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 18, Year A)

A Sermon from the Episcopal Parish of 
St. John the Evangelist in Hingham, Massachusetts
Preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck on September 4, 2011 (Proper 18, Year A)

Jesus said, “For where two or three are gathered together in my name I will be in the midst of them.” I love this quote for two reasons: it speaks of Jesus’ presence and it speaks of the importance of community. Which is pretty much what it’s all about when we show up for Sunday morning worship – Jesus’ presence in the midst of community. And on Labor Day weekend we are definitely closer to the “two or three gathered together.” Of course for some it’s hard to listen to this passage without hearing that old joke about country club Episcopalians: “Where two or three are gathered together there is always a fifth.”

Last Sunday itself felt a bit like “two or three gathered together.” A small but hearty group trudged out in the midst of the hurricane to be here. Which sounds better than saying they trudged out in the midst of a tropical storm which is closer to what it actually was. At 10:00 o’clock most of us fit up in the choir which brought a certain intimacy to the whole experience. Dr. Fred couldn’t make it here from Medford so John Lanza stepped into the breach and up to the organ console as we sang a few hymns; I scrapped my sermon at the last minute and just talked about the concept of sanctuary in the midst of storms both literal and metaphorical as the wind howled and the rain pounded the roof; and the power went out during the Eucharistic prayer so we shared communion by candlelight.

Sometimes the most intimate moments with God and one another are the most spiritually rewarding. These moments are certainly memorable and you may well cherish the memory of a similar service –  walking to church during a blizzard or receiving communion at home during an illness or even just praying with a friend over a cup of coffee. That’s not to say that grand liturgy with a long procession and a packed church and the organ with all the stops out and the choir belting out an anthem and perhaps even a hint of incense isn’t moving. But as much as God abides in transcendent liturgy, God is equally present in smaller gatherings of two or three or 30.

Compared with what the church will look like in the coming weeks, this feels like the calm before the tropical storm. This is the intimacy that balances out the grandeur. It’s quiet, parking is plentiful, there are many seats available, and the service is simpler. And while this may feel like a nice change of pace, we also need the grandeur. You need the sense of mystery and transcendence and awe that comes with post-Labor Day life around St. John’s. But you also need the sense of connection and rootedness that comes with intimate relationship with God. These aren’t mutually exclusive of course – you can feel intimacy in grandeur and grandeur in intimacy. But relying exclusively on one approach or the other doesn’t allow you to experience the rich fullness of the living God in your life.

This is also the reason I’m constantly encouraging people to get involved in a small group ministry around here. It’s not just a practical ploy to get more hands on deck and share the load of all that takes place at St. John’s. It’s because finding a real connection to God through this community happens not just from sitting in the pews but also when two or three are gathered together in Jesus’ name to do Bible study together or serve at the altar or teach Church School or reach out to others. But more about all that in the coming weeks.

As we all know, authentic community is challenging. Whether it’s dorm room living or family life or, yes, even at church. Living in close proximity to one another tends to magnify our respective flaws. This is what Jesus is getting at in this morning’s gospel reading. He’s well aware that people don’t always act as they should. So we get a prescription for dealing with conflict when it invariably arises. And the first step is the most important. If you have a grievance against someone else you don’t start by gossiping about them or complaining to someone else, as tempting as it may be and as good as that may feel. No, you confront them directly. There’s no doubt that conflict avoidance is the path of least resistance; most of us dread open conflict more than anything else. Well, maybe public speaking is number one but conflict is right up there. We go to great lengths to avoid it which nine times out of ten only makes the situation worse.

In fancy therapeutic jargon Jesus is warning us against triangulation. When a relationship or an issue between two people involves a third party, this is triangulation. Here’s an example: Amy and her boyfriend John have a fight. Amy goes to her friend Sarah to complain about John rather than dealing with John directly. And thus the triangle has formed. That’s not to say that Amy should never discuss problems with her friends but the moment a side is taken and it becomes two against one, the ensuing turmoil often becomes worse than the initial situation.

So how do you get out of a triangle if you find yourself sucked into one with a person who has wronged you? While Jesus is speaking about confronting a sinner within the community, the same principle applies. He suggests taking another person or two to confront the sinner and help them to see the error of their ways. This breaks the potential triangle because it gets people speaking directly to one another. Distilled down to its most basic form, it’s better to talk to someone than about someone. And at times, we’re all guilty of this. 

But Jesus isn’t just some smooth talking therapist spewing psychobabble. He brings this up because such conflict distracts us from God. When we are embroiled in conflict, when anger colors our thoughts we can neither receive love nor offer love. And that distances us from God.

“For where two or three are gathered together in my name I will be in the midst of them.” That’s the kind of triangle we’re looking for, no matter the size of our community on any given Sunday. One that involves one another and one that leaves room for God.

© The Rev. Tim Schenck 2011

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