September 7, 2014

Centrality of Community

Passage: Ezekiel 33:10, Matthew 18:15-20

Ezekiel 3310

Now you, mortal, say to the house of Israel, Thus you have said: “Our transgressions and our sins weigh upon us, and we waste away because of them; how then can we live?” 11Say to them, As I live, says the Lord God, I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that the wicked turn from their ways and live; turn back, turn back from your evil ways; for why will you die, O house of Israel?12And you, mortal, say to your people, The righteousness of the righteous shall not save them when they transgress; and as for the wickedness of the wicked, it shall not make them stumble when they turn from their wickedness; and the righteous shall not be able to live by their righteousness when they sin. 13Though I say to the righteous that they shall surely live, yet if they trust in their righteousness and commit iniquity, none of their righteous deeds shall be remembered; but in the iniquity that they have committed they shall die. 14Again, though I say to the wicked, “You shall surely die,” yet if they turn from their sin and do what is lawful and right— 15if the wicked restore the pledge, give back what they have taken by robbery, and walk in the statutes of life, committing no iniquity—they shall surely live, they shall not die.

1Matt. 1815“If another member of the church sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone. If the member listens to you, you have regained that one. 16But if you are not listened to, take one or two others along with you, so that every word may be confirmed by the evidence of two or three witnesses. 17If the member refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if the offender refuses to listen even to the church, let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector. 18Truly I tell you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven. 19Again, 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. 20For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.”

Most of us acknowledge that community is very central in determining what it means to be human. From the earliest pages of Scripture, God declares that it is NOT GOOD for the earth creature to be alone. A companion/partner is required before the earth creature becomes human, ‘created in the image of God, male and female. It is not only religious people who have a focus upon community. An article from this week’s Maclean’s, shares some thoughts from a developmental psychologist, Susan Pinker, author of The Village Effect . The article by Bryan Bethune states: “Like many other contemporary thinkers who are not devout themselves, Pinker is strongly interested in religion.... social scientists are impressed by the benefits of community. In a study of 90,000 women who attended religious services at least once/week were twenty percent more likely to have longer lifespans. Small wonder there are increasing attempts to establish atheist churches to gain the benefits of community and comforting ritual. Pinker says: “Our digital devices are fabulous for gaining information, for scheduling our lives, for reaching the people we want and avoiding those we detest, but those devices have not been good for human relationships, because they cannot engender trust.”

Ezekiel was written at a difficult time in the history of Israel. Trust in God had not been lost in the terrible consequences of exile. Experiencing exile in a strange land, they did not know where to turn, but realized that it was punishment sent by their God for ignoring the prophet’s warnings, especially Jeremiah. They readily acknowledge this: Our transgressions and our sins weigh upon us, and we waste away because of them; how then can we live? But trust in God had not eroded because they realized their plight was self inflicted. However, their traditions lay in ruins - no temple; no king. Sometimes our traditions do not allow us to shape new questions and we stagnate. But if our minds remain open we are in a position to be perpetual learners. I would like to share what a one hundred year old church member at Aurora United told me. She said to me: "One of the great things about growing old is that there is always more to learn." What an attitude! What a great statement!

Unfortunately, the road to fulfillment is often seen in terms of instant gratification. In a recent book, The Impulse Society: America in the age of Instant Gratification

the author Paul Roberts states that the drive to consume is falling short of what we actually need. The great irony Roberts states is that for all our emphasis on pleasure and gratification, society’s main output these days seems to be anxiety. We are paying a steep price for a quarter-century’s disengagement from one another. In other words, the age of short term solutions and digital communication is not succeeding in achieving what really counts - the importance of community, engaging one another face to face.

This emphasis upon community is well spoken. As Jim Wallis, editor of Sojourners magazine, has observed: “Community is the great assumption of the New Testament: From the calling of the disciples to the inauguration of the Church at Pentecost, the gospel of the kingdom drives believers to community. The new order becomes real in the context of the shared life.” Call to Conversion p.113.

Accordingly Jesus insists that in this new community of his followers, we are to deal very carefully with interpersonal relationships. What is at stake is the very survival of the community, and its mission. If two of you agree, my Father will grant your request. Binding and loosing again comes into play, and has implications that are far reaching for life on this earth.

Perhaps an example of an anti community will help us understand. With the emergence of the new terrorist threat through ISIS, we need to recognize that their goal is to set up an exclusive Islamist state. They have a concept of community, but it does not include any diversity. From that perspective, the question the world ought to be asking right now is not “How do we capture, kill or lock up the terrorists so that they can’t do it all again?” but “How do we successfully deconstruct the power of this ritual, so that the desire to do it all again is displaced into something more life-affirming?”

Why are we not equally concerned with the humanitarian disaster in Syria, displacing so many people leading to the death of so many children. What about the concern for Central West Africa where over two thousand lives have been lost to Ebola virus. Of course, aid is compromised because of the civil strife happening at the same time. How do we intervene positively so that Syria/Iraq can return to some degree of normalcy? How do we contain the Ebola virus in Africa? Community has been seriously disrupted, and life for some in these threatened areas becomes strictly a matter of survival.

What about our little community here. How do we embrace our future?

It may not be easy, because there is a critical mass required for us to move forward. How then can we live and thrive into our future? From the gospel lesson it would appear that if two or three agree, the Lord is in our midst and will grant the request. Of course this agreement has to be consistent with what God wills.

What is our attitude as we face the coming year. Are you anticipating excitement? What do you think we can accomplish? We are slowly making some changes and improvements around here. I have a sense that there is a strong committed core wanting to move the congregation forward. It will be a challenging task.

Dietrich Bonhoffer in his book Life together suggests that we do not have to achieve community. In Jesus Christ, we are a community - it is God’s gift to us. However, Jesus points out how difficult it is to maintain community. Not only do we have different opinions, but more seriously we often sin against one another through thoughtlessness, prejudice or not taking another person seriously.

This may be more difficult than it seems. For example, a central tenet of the Christian faith is ‘to love one’s neighbour as oneself.’ Most here would agree with that statement. But the implications of such a statement are complex. In the writings of Gustavo Gutierrez, a liberation theologian, you find this penetrating thought: “....when faced with a situation [of massive injustice] neutrality is impossible and calls for our active participation,... passivity or indifference is not permissible when the issue is justice and the defense of the weakest members of society. Passivity or indifference would be neither ethical nor Christian.” Essential Writings. p.119 He quotes the former Archbishop of Mainz: Under the Nazi dictatorship in Germany, “an attitude of unconditional neutrality in political questions contradicts the command of the Gospel and can have deadly consequences,” which of course it did.

It divided the Christian community in Germany, and has led to challenges in Latin and Central America. So important differences will emerge in the Christian community as in Matthew’s church. Jesus spells out steps to be taken.

Interesting that the one aggrieved initiates. Points out the other’s fault; if there is no repentance, brings some one else along to assist with the communication. If that does not work, you bring it to the congregation and finally remove the person from the community in order to ultimately bring the person to his or her senses. Nowhere is there the idea of punishment; it is all about restoration and harmonious community.

A vibrant community of love and forgiveness commends itself to the broader neighbourhood, but do they know it exists here? How do we get the message out? In small measure we are attempting to reach out to the island in a variety of ways: from the Garden Party, to the fish fry to the forthcoming concert and PCW evening presentation. Finally, however, unless we communicate at a very personal level, all these attempts, productive as they are, will not bolster community.

We have to be a welcoming presence that invites people to come to know a God who cares, loves and forgives. Let the attractiveness of Jesus shine through us!