What Kind of Community Will We Be?

Emilie Bouvier, "Springing"(Cowling Arboretum; Northfield, Minn.)Image © Luther Seminary Fine Arts Collection, St. Paul, Minn.

Dear Working Preacher,

Do you ever have one of those weeks where you just break down and admit that you don’t much like the appointed gospel reading? Okay, sure you do, we all do. And, if you’re like me, you then feel guilty. And then, if you’re really like me, you decide you’re gonna crack this nut and find something good to say from this darned passage if it kills you. (Okay, most weeks I just turn to the epistle or OT reading, but not always!)

For me, this is one of those weeks. I’m not exactly sure what bugs me so much about this passage from Matthew. Maybe it’s that I’ve known way too many Christians who are more than eager to “go and point out the fault” of someone who has sinned. Or maybe it’s the reference to treating the one entrenched in sin as “a Gentile and a tax collector” — nice. Or maybe this all goes back to my days in InterVarsity when this passage was regularly cited first as a way to handle disputes and then as a rationale of why a “backsliding” member of the fellowship should now be shunned. Or maybe it’s just the huuuuge promise tacked on near the end about asking and receiving that seems so, I don’t know, dangerously optimistic. No matter how you slice it, I just can’t seem to find a reason to like this passage. Which is of course why I can’t seem to let it go.

So here’s what I’ve come to. As much as I may not like what feels like an inherent legalism in this pericope — and, truth be told, in much of Matthew — when I get over this bias and read the passage carefully I realize that Matthew’s deep concern in this passage and in so many other places is community — honest-to-goodness, authentic Christian community. And the two things I’ve discovered time and again about community is 1) we all say we want it and 2) we usually have no idea how difficult it is to come by.

Community, after all, is one of those feel-good words that draw us into idealisms — we imagine something out of Cheers, a place where you’re accepted for who you are, where you’re never lonely, and where, of course, everyone knows your name. But the really difficult thing about community is that it’s made up of people! And people — not you and me, of course, but most people — can be difficult, challenging, selfish, and unreliable. Which means that usually when we’re daydreaming about community we’re often prompted to do so because we don’t particularly like the people — i.e., the community! — we’re currently a part of.

It’s into this reality that Jesus, according to Matthew, speaks, and I find his candor refreshing. Let me summarize what I take to be the salient points:
    *People sin.
    *Communities are made up of these sinning people.
    *When that happens and you’re involved, do something about it; namely, go talk to the other person directly like a mature adult rather than behind his or her back.
    *If that doesn’t work, involve some others of the community. (As Karl Jacobson points out in an excellent commentary on this passage,
this isn’t a “gathering of witnesses” but rather a way to involve and preserve the larger community that is affected by this dispute.)
    *If that doesn’t work, then things are serious and you’re all at risk. (To tell you the truth, I’m not totally sure what treating the offender “as a Gentile and tax collector” means, especially given Jesus’ actual treatment of Gentiles and tax collectors — wasn’t that what Matthew was?! — in the rest of the Gospel.)

To get even more succinct, I’d put it this way: Authentic community is hard to come by. It’s work. But it’s worth it. Because when you find it, it’s like discovering a little bit of heaven on earth; that is, it’s like experiencing the reality of God’s communal fellowship and existence in your midst. And, as Jesus promises, when you gather in this way — with honesty and integrity, even when it’s hard — amazing things can happen because Jesus is with you, right there, in your very midst, forming and being formed by your communal sharing.

So here’s what I’d like to see this Sunday or, if you think attendance will be low because it’s Labor Day, some Sunday soon: I’d like to see and hear preachers asking their congregations just what kind of community they want to be. Because “community” is all over the place. There are cyber communities, and social-media communities. There are work-related and school-centered communities. Many of the communities we’re a part of we fall into as affinity groups — our kids’ playgroups, or a running club, or the folks we eat with in the dining room of our college or elder-care facility. All of these communities are different, and each shares distinct characteristics. So what kind of community do we want from our congregation — largely social, somewhat superficial (which is, of course, safe)? Do we want something more meaningful or intimate (which is riskier and harder)? Do we want a place that can both encourage us and hold us accountable? Are we looking for a place we can be honest about our hopes and fears, dreams and anxieties? Do we want somewhere we can just blend in or are we looking for a place we can really make a difference?

Have people talk about this with each other on Sunday, or write it down, or email you, or all three. And then ask them how much they’re willing to risk or work for this kind of community. And remind them that as they struggle to be together in Christ, the Christ who formed a community around his message and cross is there, right there, in the midst of them.

Thanks for your faithful proclamation, Working Preacher, as through your ministry God is knitting together that imperfect yet Christ-bearing community we call the Church.

Yours in Christ,

P.S.: Don’t forget that it’s Labor Day. If you don’t already do this weekly, make sure you pray for all the varied kinds of labor our people do, and pray for those who are seeking work as well!