When Two or Three Gather, What Happens?
Rev. Thomas Cary Kinder
United Church of Strafford, Vermont
September 10, 2017
Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost
Psalm 119; Exodus 12:1-14; Romans 13:8-14; Matthew 18:15-20
The Rev. William Jeffrey began as pastor here in 1964. He wrote a long list of accomplishments in his first annual report. Strafford was nearing its lowest population level, but we had sixty children in Sunday School. 78% of all children in Strafford were participating in our programs. Melvin Coburn remembers well his youth group trip that year to Washington DC, partly because Rev. Jeffrey got stopped for speeding.
Isn’t a sanctuary full of young families the way it is supposed to be when two or three gather in Christ’s name and ask for their church to flourish? Almost every congregation I know grieves how few children they have compared to the old days, and prays for full pews. Isn’t a faithful church supposed to thrive?
Well, no, actually, even though Jesus does say in today’s gospel passage, “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.”
That teaching has caused much trouble.
Two soccer players pray to win, two parents pray for their child to stay healthy, the last two members of a church pray for a miracle, and when they do not get what they ask, all too often the result is that they give up on prayer or lose faith altogether.
The mistake people fall into is taking the passage literally. Jesus was a spiritual master who used many rhetorical devices including hyperbole and paradox. His teachings often resemble Zen koans, like “What is the sound of one hand clapping?” or, “When you can do nothing, what can you do?”— puzzles that cannot be understood with our rational mind but only by our heart and spirit awaking to new insight in God’s good time.
Once a Zen student went to her teacher full of frustration that understanding and enlightenment were not coming. The teacher took the student over to a small fish pond in the courtyard and reached in and stirred up all the mud at the bottom. “What do you see?” “Nothing but mud,” she answered. “Good! Good!” he laughed. “That is where you need to start—see that your mind is a muddy pond. Now sit patiently waiting for the mud to settle and you will see to the depths.”
Matthew places today’s teaching just after Jesus has demonstrated why it is not to be taken literally. Two or more church members agree and ask that their neighbor listen to them and be reconciled, and it does not happen. So what does it mean when Jesus then says that God will do whatever two or more ask? It’s as clear as mud.
The Jewish mystical tradition of midrash is a profoundly wise method of Biblical interpretation. Jesus and Paul both practiced it. There are books of midrash that give three hundred interpretations to a single Bible verse like this one. Midrash never questions if an interpretation is heresy or even wrong, it asks only, is it useful in this situation?
The situation we are in today is the reverse of the 1960s. Instead of 78% of the children in Sunday School, we live in a society where 80% of people under the age of 20 have never set foot in a house of worship. Social forces have turned against the church.
We long for the good old days, but if we read the Bible and church history, adversity is what we should expect. The children of Israel were slaves in Egypt for 400 years, asking God every day to set them free. The Bible describes great crowds following Jesus, but after the crucifixion the entire persecuted Jesus movement was less than we will have here on Christmas Eve. Today Paul’s letters are read by millions, but he wrote from jail to churches that met in living rooms and were struggling to survive.
Today it is not useful for us to interpret Jesus as saying that God will fill our pews with 78% of the children of Strafford and their parents if we ask.
Yet we want with all our hearts for this church to flourish. We want the children of this town to have all the gifts a church can offer—teachings of values and virtues, morals and ethics, a source of comfort and courage, a multigenerational community to love and care for them, guide and encourage them, plus opportunities to sing and act and learn helpful words by heart, plus a group of peers who speak their spiritual language, and Biblical literacy, and church familiarity so they can enter a sanctuary and feel at home and find what they need wherever they go in life.
We ask God that all children have what church can offer, yet only a small percentage will join us here. We ask for many more adults as well, yet in Vermont, the least religious state in the union, that is not likely to happen. So how can we interpret this teaching in a way that is useful to us here and now?
The Apostle Paul wrote in the 8th Chapter of Romans that we do not know how or what to pray, but the Spirit within us intercedes and communes directly with God at a subconscious level. So for today, one useful midrash interpretation may be simply for us to agree that we will ask the Spirit to show us what we should be asking, and then listen deeply to our hearts and to one another and to the world around us to hear what God is saying.
That is essentially what you will be doing as you respond to the questionnaire and talk together at the small gatherings this fall. We may not return to the church of the 1960s, but I am certain we will find a path forward, we will find the next right thing to do, and the next.
I believe the truth of today’s passage. I believe it is truly a good thing for us to put our hearts and minds together and find agreement on something to ask God to help us do. I believe it is truly good for us to have faith that God will respond and the force of love and life and light will be on our side as we move forward.
I believe that wherever two or three are gathered, Christ is there. I believe Christ is here. And there is much else I believe in today’s passages.
I believe that God calls us to gather today as much as at the first Passover or in the early church, because God needs people who will remain faithful to the commandments to love within a world of greed and hate and war. I believe God needs people who will live as citizens of God’s realm of mercy and peace even as the destruction of the world passes overhead.
I believe with Ezekiel that God needs people who are willing to serve as a sentinel, speaking the truth in love to a world that has lost its way and is in dire danger.
I believe we need more than ever to follow Paul’s teaching to wake from sleep. We need to find spiritual practices that open us to transformation so that we each bring forth the gifts God has given us to use in this time.
And I believe that doing this will make as much a difference as it did when the Children of Israel made their journey through the wilderness to the Promised Land, and when those tiny house churches that Paul founded joined to transform the Roman Empire and the entire world.
We may be at the beginning of 400 years of struggle, but that does not change in the slightest what we are called to do, nor does it change the love that can fill these walls, or the light that can shine out from them into the shadowed world, or the joy we feel at every single child we get to nurture and teach.
Taoism has a saying, “If I had any sense at all my only fear would be of straying from the sacred way.” The only thing we have to fear is that we will stop gathering and seeking Christ’s way. The only thing we have to fear is letting our light go out. Last Sunday we couldn’t find the matches and we went through the whole service with no candles, but we shone our love and joy and we gave generously to hurricane victims—we were the light.
Way back in the 1700s the American Quaker John Woolman led unpopular one-man campaigns against slavery, environmental pollution, oppression of Native Americans and mistreatment of stage coach horses. He kept going even when his prayers went unanswered and only a few would listen to him. Today he inspires tens of thousands.
Henry David Thoreau wrote in Civil Disobedience, “It is not important that many be as good as you, as that there should be some absolute goodness somewhere.” Donella Meadows wrote in her “Global Citizen” column in the Valley News, “The most anyone can do to upgrade the moral tone of a society is to offer a shining example.”
When two or three gather and set out to follow Christ, something beautiful and meaningful happens, a light shines. I remember a leadership retreat twenty-five years ago here in the Parish Hall. I was a Deacon at the time, as was Frances Wilson. She said one of the most moving and beautiful things I have ever heard about the church.
She said that as she drove through the Vermont countryside, whenever she saw a steeple rising above the trees her heart was filled with gratitude, because she knew that under that steeple she could find a group of people who were trying their best to love and do good things in the world the way Jesus did. She knew however flawed or few they were, if she came to them in need, they would welcome and comfort her and try to meet that need.
We are the seeds, we are the stars in the dark night, we are the grain of yeast in the dough of the world. And Christ is with us. We are not alone. Let us go forward into whatever adventure will come with that faith and hope and love.
Let us pray in silence…