We Can Work It Out

[audio http://www.opcbrookhaven.org/worship/audio/sermons/09-04-11.MP3] Facebook is a great place for theological debate.

This past week, several friends of mine – and I mean friends in the real-world, non-Facebook sense of the word – posted an article written by a United Church of Christ pastor outside of Chicago. In it, she shares her frustration with people who tell her “I’m spiritual, but not religious…”

Before I go any further, I want to set the context for this article:

Every profession has its insider conversations. Whether you work in retail or management, every job has its pluses and minuses. And when those frustrations come, it is helpful to commiserate with others who have their own experiences to share.

Have you heard the stories shared by people who work technical support? They share some of their worst customer service experiences. There’s the man who called in asking why his computer wouldn’t print: he was holding the piece of paper up to the screen, and yet nothing was happening. Or the story of the woman who was told to put something into the CD drive, and was confused until the support technician described it to her; “Oh, you mean the cup holder?”

The truth is, we’ve been on both sides of this equation. We’ve been the person who has frustrated the flight attendant, the sales person, the teacher. And we’ve been the person experiencing the frustration with the customer, the student, the fellow commuter.

Now, I hate to burst any bubbles here, or shatter any images of perfection you might have, but pastors do the same thing. We have our own peculiar ways of commiserating. And this pastor’s article is one such example.

She begins her piece with this nugget:

On airplanes, I dread the conversation with the person who finds out I’m a minister and wants to use the flight time to explain to me that he is ‘spiritual but not religious.’ Such a person will always share this as if it is some kind of daring insight, unique to him, bold in its rebellion against the religious status quo.

It’s a conversation that all pastors can recognize. And with that start, she unleashes a stream of snark, bringing some pointed humor as her imagined seat mate talks about the God of the sunset and the beach and the mountains:

Like people who go to church don’t see God in the sunset! Like we are these monastic little hermits who never leave the church building. How lucky we are to have these geniuses inform us that God is in nature.”

I mention this story not because we should laugh alongside this frustrated pastor in such a way that we rejoice because we are religious and, therefore, superior. We spend enough time here at OPC deflating the whole concept of religious self-righteousness and how it has run amuck in our culture.

Instead, what is worth considering about the Facebook article and the resulting conversations was how deeply theological they were. People who self-describe as “spiritual not religious” were annoyed, because they felt they deserved more respect than she offered. And people who self-describe as religious were annoyed because the pastor wasn’t “being Christian enough.” As one respondent wrote, “Because of the occupation that she willingly entered into and serves in, she is held to a higher standard of kindness and humility.” (apparently they haven't met many pastors) What happened was unusual for Facebook: a spirited, respectful debate by people who don’t see eye-to-eye.

And that, in my opinion, is what the conversation offers us as people of faith, whether we define ourselves as “spiritual” or “religious”. For the author, the important distinction is between private spirituality and religious community.

The word “religion” itself is all about connection – re-ligio, as in ligament, a re-connection. Listen to what the author writes:

Being privately spiritual but not religious just doesn’t interest me. There is nothing challenging about having deep thoughts all by oneself. What is interesting is doing this work in community, where people might call you on stuff, or heaven forbid, disagree with you. Where life with God gets rich and provocative is when you dig deeply into a tradition that you did not invent all for yourself.

In an odd way, the very thing that happened on Facebook was just that: people were calling each other on stuff and having an honest conversation.

This, to me, is exactly the point that Jesus is making in this morning’s lesson. Throughout his ministry, Jesus challenged the religious status quo of his day, which had become marked by personal and tribal exclusion. At the individual level, it was the thought that following certain rituals and practices would lead to righteousness (think of the Pharisee’s prayer, “Thank you, God, that I am not like this tax collector.”). At the tribal level, it was the assumption that only those of a certain race could even fathom the possibility of righteousness (think of Jesus’ radical welcome of the Canaanite Gentile woman). Jesus challenged both ideas – that you could do religion alone, and that you could do religion by excluding others from its possibilities.

The text from Matthew 18 this morning is, to my mind, one of the most straightforward texts in Scripture. People are always packaging the gospel as “four stages to salvation” or “seven habits of highly faithful people,” but I am usually skeptical that it is that easy. In this morning’s lesson, by contrast, Jesus produces a recipe for dealing with interpersonal conflict.

There are four steps when you are in conflict with someone:

  1. Approach them alone. Or, as a parent might say, “Work it out yourselves.” There may not be any need to ramp this thing up. It may be as straightforward as a misunderstanding or a mis-communication, which can be easily cleared up. In case it is more serious, though, you can always move it up the ladder:
  2. Bring in mediators. This has two purposes: first, you’ve got witnesses in case the other party gets stubborn; second, you open yourself up to the possibility that you might be the stubborn one. Again, the outcome might be further division instead of unity, so there is another option:
  3. Bring it before the community. Is one party feeling like the mediators are too biased? Let’s add witnesses and broaden the conversation. Even so, there’s always the possibility that this thing is irreconcilable in human terms. In which case:
  4. Start over. Jesus says, “Let them be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector”; which, if we know Jesus’ ministry at all, means that they, too, have the door of community open to them. And they, too, are in need of repentance and self-examination.

Being Jesus’ disciple, following Christ faithfully, means doing so in community.

This is such a crucial point to make in 2011. We have the world before us in ways that we never had. Technology has given us more access to information than ever. Gutenberg’s printing press doesn’t hold a candle to the internet. Not even language is a barrier, as pages written in other languages can be translated with the click of a mouse.

And yet, the irony is that we are becoming more and more isolated by virtue of the same technology which holds such promise. There are more places to get information than ever before. And yet the tyranny of choice usually means that we self-select for those sources that agree with what we already say. Whether we choose Fox News or MSNBC, it is so much more comforting to listen to those who will confirm our self-satisfaction rather than challenge it.

And even places of apparent neutrality choose for us, and we don’t even know it. A Google search is now based not only on the term you are looking for, but also your history as an internet user. Two people looking for the same thing will get different results based on what they prefer, meaning a further narrowing of the information we get. And Facebook, which prompted this whole conversation today, slowly removes updates from your friends whom you rarely click on, meaning the ones who challenge your thinking will cease to be a part of your social media experience.

In many ways, we see this siloing of opinion at work in the partisan absurdities inWashington, and in the news channels competing to see who can have more people on screen at the same time screaming at each other. But I’m not convinced this is anything new and peculiar to this day and age; it just has a different flavor, and it gives the church a crucial role.

As we finish up our sermon series on evangelism and look toward our program kick-off Sunday next week, it is my hope that this is the character of church that sticks with you: a place where we don’t always have to agree; and when – not if, but when – we butt heads, we have hope that we can work it out.

Do you want an experience that will tell you how right you already are? There are plenty of those out there, and you can pretty much do that on your own. Do you want a place that convinces you of your own self-righteousness? There are plenty of organizations and, yes, even churches that will do just that.

Or are you looking for a community where you will be welcomed as you are and celebrated for you who are and, at the same time, challenged to grow and stretch as you confront the world as it really is? Then we just might be the place for you.

I’d like us, as we close, to consider the prayer that the author uses in her article:

Dear God, thank you for creating us in your image and not the other way around.