Click here for the video: Loosed
A few weeks ago we welcomed a new group of parents who were entrusting their children to our ministry at A Child’s Garden for the new school year. As many of you may know, A Child’s Garden is a non-sectarian pre-school that serves children from infancy to pre-K. Non-sectarian means that we don’t have a specifically “Christian” curriculum for those classrooms. It’s a play-based learning environment. Still, when Mary and the staff at ACG bring in new parents to orient them to the school, I like the chance to say, ‘hi,’ and let them know that ACG isn’t a stand alone entity, it is a ministry of this church. Some of the children enrolled there are known to us in some way. They are the children, or grandchildren of members of the church. But many of the children, and their parents, are in effect strangers to us. At least at first. And the simple act of creating a welcome space for those children and their parents, a space where they can come to learn and play and grow in a safe way, is an expression of what we believe Jesus has called us to do by loving our neighbor and welcoming the stranger. At this most recent new parent orientation I described First Presbyterian Church in this way, we are a Christian community cultivating faithful and fruitful lives in order to feed a hungry world. But it’s that first part that’s important, because these days it isn’t always clear what we mean when we call something church.
In his book The Jesus Way, longtime Presbyterian pastor Eugene Peterson observes that, “The great American innovation in congregation is to turn it into a consumer enterprise… If we have a nation of consumers, obviously the quickest and most effective way to get them into our congregations is to identify what they want and offer it to them, satisfy their fantasies, promise them the moon, recast the gospel in consumer terms: entertainment, satisfaction, excitement, adventure, problem-solving, whatever.” “We are the world’s champion consumers, so why shouldn’t we have state-of-the-art consumer churches,” he asks. And then he answers his own question, saying, “There is only one thing wrong: this is not the way in which God brings us into conformity with the life of Jesus and sets us on the way of Jesus’ salvation.” The consumer church that Peterson describes is wonderfully skewered in a short video patterned after the HGTV show House Hunters, in which a couple is church hunting instead. The host has already shown them one church, but like the television show that the video is modeled after, the couple isn’t sure it’s the right fit. In trying to pitch the next church the host says, “you’ve heard of non-denominational and interdenominational, well this place is interde-non-denominational.” But after showing them all that this new church has to offer- the music, the lights- the couple still isn’t satisfied. They’re going to keep looking.
So it’s important to say up front that First Presbyterian Church is not a spiritual retail outlet. It is not our mission to be a religious service provider in a crowded marketplace of consumer choices. We are, instead, a community, a collection of lives and families bound together in relationship to a common goal- following in the way of Jesus Christ as his disciples. Only we’re Presbyterian, so we’re not always so good at talking about it in those terms. Still, that is ultimately the source of our community, our common unity with one another: Jesus. This is the other place that our cultural interpretation of church has become confused. Because many people hear the word church and think that means our common unity is a single political agenda, or a particular social platform, or an attitude of exclusion toward anyone who doesn’t fit a pretty narrowly prescribed moral or theological mold. Too often when we hear people talk about church as a place to gather with those of like mind, it is one of those categories that they are talking about being like-minded in, not the mind of Christ.
Princeton Theological Seminary made news this past year for awarding its annual Kuyper prize and lectureship to the Rev. Tim Keller, who is the pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City. That decision was not without controversy. You see, Redeemer is affiliated with the Presbyterian Church in America, or the PCA. Princeton, on the other hand, is considered the flagship seminary of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) One of the chief differences between these two denominations centers around the role of women in their communion. PCA churches do not ordain women. PC (USA) churches do. Stephanie is fully ordained to the Ministry of Word and Sacrament, so you can figure out which one we are. But this award created significant distress for many of the female members of the Princeton student body. It felt not only like rewarding a tradition that did not value their gifts for leadership, but validating that position as well. Writing about how events unfolded, Princeton President Craig Barnes shared how many conversations he had with students who expressed a concern that they no longer belonged at Princeton. Barnes reminded them that our primary belonging is to Jesus Christ. These other issues, while significant, are always secondary to that most important common denominator that holds us together.
Of course the other option would be to just go it alone. After all, who needs all that drama? Who needs the uncomfortable tension created by conflicting points of view, or values that don’t always align? Wouldn’t it be easier to follow Jesus as a kind of free agent- spiritual, but not religious? Yes, it would be easier. If that were the goal of faith. Our consumer culture has conditioned us to evaluate whether or not something is good in terms of whether or not it is good for us personally. When ease, comfort, convenience, and what I get out of it are the criteria, community doesn’t stand much of a chance. Because community generally means putting our lives into proximity with other people. And, for the most part, other people aren’t all that easy or convenient or comfortable to be around. Certainly not if they too are primarily interested in what they’re getting out of it too. There’s an old joke about the two Presbyterians who are shipwrecked on a remote island. One starts the First Presbyterian Church, and the other starts Second Presbyterian Church. Of course, this habit of conflict, or disagreement isn’t unique to any one religious tradition, or even religious people in general. It is the human condition. Back when I was in drama school they taught us in acting class that we were supposed to figure out what our character wanted, to pursue our objective in the scene. Other characters would pursue their objectives and those objectives would naturally conflict and suddenly you had drama. People who spend any time with one another, whether it’s in school, or a business, or a marriage, or a family, or a nation, or -yes- a church are going to come into conflict with one another. And chances are good that in that conflict we will hurt one another in some fashion- with an unkind word, with an intended or unintended slight. To use the vocabulary of faith, we will sin against each other in pursuit of our own objectives.
Jesus knows this. He’s already seen it. His disciples argue over which one of them is the greatest. James and John’s mother wants Jesus to grant her sons special status. You’d think they’d be better. You’d think people that are called personally by Jesus to be a part of what he’s doing would be a little more holy than all that. And you’d be wrong. Because they’re human. Jesus doesn’t expect those who follow him to be something they’re not. Jesus doesn’t expect those who follow him to suddenly abandon their humanity for some kind of ethereal state of godliness. Instead what he does is recognize that in human community people disagree, they compete for status, and they sin against one another. He’s already taught them to pray for their forgiveness in terms of the forgiveness they extend to others. Forgiveness is the gift God gives us. But reconciliation is the work that Jesus gives us to do with that gift. Let me say that again, because I think it’s important. I hear people say all the time, “I don’t think I can forgive this hurt,” whatever the hurt is. And I get that. I do. I’m the same way. So, it’s helpful to be reminded that forgiveness is not a natural human instinct. Our instinct is revenge. Our instinct is you hurt me, I hurt you. But Jesus disrupts that. Jesus puts himself in the middle of all that, to the point of his own death in order to give us a new way, a better way. The forgiveness we can’t seem to generate on our own is given to us by God. When we can’t forgive ourselves, when we can’t forgive others, God gives us the forgiveness we don’t have. Reconciliation is the work we are called to do with that gift.
I said earlier that First Presbyterian Church is a Christian community cultivating faithful and fruitful lives in order to feed a hungry world. Well, friends, the world is hungry for reconciliation. I’d say the world is fairly starving for it. But like a junkie who will starve to death while trying to find its fix, our world is hooked on anger. It is hooked on conflict. It is hooked on the rush that comes with outrage and self-righteous indignation when our own way, our own side, our own objectives are thwarted or challenged in some way until we are ready to go to war over the smallest difference. To be a Christian community means that we are bound together in the way of Jesus, we are bound together in the work of reconciliation that Jesus has called us to do with the gift of forgiveness that we have been given. Some people here the words Jesus says about binding and loosing as holding on to a grievance, or letting it go. I wonder. When Jesus says that if you go through all the steps to try and bring someone back into relationship with a brother or sister, and thus with the community in general, and at the end of it all they aren’t having it, you’re to treat that one as a Gentile and a tax collector- remember that we are reading that from the Gospel According to Matthew. And who is Matthew? He is the tax collector than Jesus himself walked up to and called to follow him. Jesus’ entire earthly ministry is spent scandalizing his own people by reaching out to and including Gentiles in the blessing for what God is up to in the world. To treat someone as a Gentile or a tax collector is to make sure that the door is always open for them to be reconciled. We bind ourselves to one another in this community through the regular and ongoing practice of taking the forgiveness we have received from God in Jesus and being reconciled, first to one another, and then as reconciling agents in the world around us. That’s what Jesus is talking about when he describes two, or three gathered IN HIS NAME. To do anything in someone else’s name is to take their place, to act on their behalf, as if you yourself were that person. This thing we do, this community we call church- it isn’t a consumer enterprise, it isn’t a political or social affinity group, it isn’t a club for the like-minded- it is two, or three, or thirty, or three thousand (the number really doesn’t matter all that much) people living together in the name of Jesus, doing things as Jesus, out in the world as Jesus. Jesus says if you do that, if you’re about that, I am with you. When we are bound by him on this earth, in this place, and in our homes, and in our workplace, and in our schools, and in the public square, it has spiritual consequence. There is no separation, the earthly and the heavenly themselves are bound together and it is in this community bound to the name of Christ where we start living that out. And while there may come a time when we have to set someone loose, give them the freedom to go and bless them on their way, one of the ways we live as a community bound by reconciling love of Christ is to never consider such a one as lost to us, always open to the hope of their return. For their sake. For our sake. But perhaps most important, for the sake of the life we are called to share together in his name.