“Where Two or Three are Gathered”
Rev. Dr. Teri McDowell Ott
August 29th, 2011 – Monmouth College Chapel Service
I have always appreciated the sense of family one can feel as a member of a church. This is particularly true in the small church. My husband, Dan, and I have both served as pastors of small churches. After finishing his coursework for his Ph.D. in California Dan was wooed across the country to a small, rural community in Jefferson, SC by me (oh…the things you do for love) where he pastored Rocky Creek Presbyterian Church and worked on his dissertation. To this day, I am still impressed by the way the small town, blue collar, deeply Southern members of Rocky Creek welcomed Dan….a liberally minded intellectual type, moving to South Carolina from Los Angeles, California. Their worlds couldn’t have been farther apart. But Rocky Creek adopted Dan (and me) as their own. We were a part of the church family.
Later, I served as the pastor of Cameron Presbyterian Church in North Carolina and Dan directed the church choir. This was where our babies were born and baptized. While both of us were busy leading worship our babies were being passed from one member of the church to another because Isaac and Ella were not just our children there…but the church’s children…and they were loved extremely well. In fact, when Dan and I announced the news that we were moving to Monmouth the folks at Cameron were sad, but they understood our sense of call. They were willing to send us off with their blessing…..but, they said, you have to leave the children. J Eventually we negotiated their release by promising to send lots and lots of pictures.
Now that we are here in Monmouth, Dan and I have both appreciated the sense of community we have found here…in our churches…Dan is the part-time supply pastor for Sugar Tree Grove Presbyterian Church….a church as sweet and welcoming as it sounds…in the community of Monmouth….and here at Monmouth College. One of the benefits of serving a small, residential college is that it does feel like a family. We live together and we work together. We know each other and each other’s lives. We are a family…in fact we often refer to ourselves as the Monmouth College family.
In our scripture text for today, Jesus emphasizes the importance of community. Jesus tells us today that community is sacred; “Where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.” Jesus also tells us that community is family. We are to care for and respect our community members as we care for and respect our family. We won’t pick this up from the New Revised Standard Version of the text that we read today, but Jesus uses familial language to speak of community. A more literal translation of verse 15 is “If a brother (or sister) sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone.” By using this familial language Jesus raises the bonds of community to a higher level. As a community we are to care for one another. But as a family, as brothers and sisters, we are obligated to care for one another. No matter what happens….you can’t leave your brother behind…he will always be your brother. No matter how much you fight and squabble with your sister….you are bound together by your birth…you are family. This, Jesus says, is how we are to relate to each other in community. We have an obligation to care for each other and respect each other, even when conflict arises. And conflict always arises…whenever human beings live together in community conflict is inevitable.
In the church conflict arises when marriages break apart and members are forced to choose sides. Heated debates take place over the interpretations of scripture or the use of church polity. Feelings get hurt and people sulkingly and silently disappear. And, of course, there is always the color of the carpet…we never really can agree over the color of the carpet.
Conflict also inevitably arises in a college community…especially one such as ours that values a diversity of voices and encourages questioning and debate. Students will know conflict with other students, faculty with other faculty, staff with other staff, and roommates…well how can you not fight with your roommate when you are sharing such a small space….just don’t hurt each other, okay? (I hear a lot of crazy stories as a part of the Student Affairs staff…so just don’t hurt each other.)
But we are a family, Jesus says to us today. We are a family in this sacred space of community. So we are obligated to each other. We are obligated to respect each other and care for each other even in the midst of conflict. I appreciate Jesus’ advice today for the practicality of it. When someone offends you, or sins against you, go to that person directly. Speak to him or her about it. Work to resolve it. Don’t talk to everyone else about it, except for the person with whom you are angry. Don’t blast off an angry email or post your gripe on Facebook. Have enough respect for the relationship, for the relationship with your brother or sister, to deal with them directly.
If this doesn’t work, then, Jesus says, get the community involved, because it is a community issue. Unresolved conflict is a festering wound that affects the whole community. If two sorority sisters are at odds with each other…everyone feels the conflict and the whole sorority suffers. If two church members can’t stand the sight of each other…the whole church body is forced to tiptoe around the tension….and how much good work can we actually do on tiptoe?
If getting the community involved still doesn’t resolve the conflict then Jesus says, “Let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.” Oftentimes we read this line with relief…oh good, we say to ourselves….if I can’t resolve the conflict then I can just let that person go…I can be done with them. But this is not how Jesus intended this line to be read. All we have to do is remember how Jesus, at every turn, extended himself graciously to Gentiles and tax collectors, to prostitutes and lepers, to all those pushed outside of the community…to truthfully interpret this line. Jesus commands us never to give up on our brother or sister. Never stop reaching out in love to them. Never stop yearning for grace to restore what has been broken. Never stop caring for and respecting the members of your family. “In the next few verses beyond this passage in Matthew, Peter needs to make sure he has heard Jesus correctly, ‘Lord, if a brother sins against me how often should I forgive? Jesus’ ‘seventy times seven’ response means, ‘as long as it takes.'”
I recently had a wonderful conversation with a student in which he asked me, essentially, why I choose to follow Jesus. Now there are lots of reasons why I choose to follow Jesus, lots of reasons why I love Jesus. But the answer that came to me in that moment was “Because Jesus teaches me not just how to be a good Christian, but how to be a good human being.” People, all people, are important. Healthy relationships are essential for a healthy life. And community is sacred, because it is God who draws us together.
Now to this God who has brought us to this community be all honor and glory, thanksgiving and power, now and forevermore. Amen.
 Charles Hambrick-Stowe, “Theological Perspective”, Feasting on the Word, Year A, Volume 4, (Westminster John Knox Press, Louisville, KY, 2011), pg. 48.