Two or three gathered

Sep. 10, 2017

Ex. 12.1-14; Ro. 13.1-14; Mt. 18.15-20

What do we do when we're at loggerheads with each other? How do we work it out? Perhaps that's why Jesus makes the point of saying when two or three are gathered together God is in their midst? Is Jesus trying to say that there is something about being with others that opens us up to God? It's a fact that from our birth, we depend on others for our survival and our wellbeing. It's also a fact that we are born with the innate ability to respond to others, and this ability helped us cooperate with each other to survive, not just as individuals, but as a whole society.

Together we are able to discern more of the truth about ourselves and our world and our God. Discernment is the process of thinking together toward better understanding. There's a good reason. Let me give you an example. There was a county fair in southern England in the late 1800's. Over a thousand people bought a ticket so that they could guess the weight and win a huge bull. Those who guessed included professionals like butchers, but also many hundreds of others with no expertise in such matters like children or housewives. No one guessed the exact weight, but a local scientist later collected all the guesses and found that the average of all the guesses was within one pound of the actual weight. That's discernment. But collective thinking has a downside too.

When groups become too inbred or too alike in their thinking, they tend toward what social scientists call "group think". It robs the group of its power to discern. When we bond into tight, little clans, we isolate our thinking into smaller, little platoons. This limits what we can see and understand. As General George Patton said during the planning for a WWII battle, "When everybody thinks the same, nobody is thinking very much." Clans are groups of people who are related or see themselves as related through a tight bond that excludes others. The English used the word "clan" to describe the obstinate standoffishness of the Scots who fiercely opposed inclusion into a greater United Kingdom... and they still do, but it's only been 500 years, maybe they'll change!

Even in the church we can become clannish calling one another "brother" or "sister" while not seeing our familial connection to others outside the church. But as much as we might like to prune our family tree, the best we can do is to occasionally shake out a few of the nuts. As former President Jimmy Carter said, "We've uncovered some embarrassing ancestors in the not-too-distant past. Some horse thieves, and some people killed on Saturday nights. One of my relatives, unfortunately, was even in the newspaper business."  Most people are killed by people they know. It's like the guy who phoned his wife and asked, "Do you ever have a shooting pain in your back like someone is stabbing a pin into a voodoo doll?" His wife says, "No, not really." There was a pause and he asked, "How about now?" A spirituality that builds fences to keep good people in and bad people out is susceptible to group think. As writer Anne Lamott said, "(We can) assume we've created God in our own image if it turns out that we think God hates the same people (we) do."

But contrary to this exclusive clannishness, brain scientists have shown that our brain's neo-cortex (that's the outside layer of the brain) is much larger in us than in any of the other primates. This is the part of the brain that gives us conscious thought, the ability to do social and behavioral regulation, and the ability to understand the feelings and intentions of others. In other words, when we'd like to punch somebody for what they just said to us, instead we're able to smile and say, "Well, now there's an idea!" This function of our brains explains things like collective decision-making, parental caregiving, or just obeying the law. This brain function may ensure the survival of our children or to keep society hanging together in one piece. It's an agreement on the rules of the road as we move forward. It's like the couple asked how did they stay together in 60 years of marriage. The husband very meekly said, "Well, early in our marriage we decided that I would make all the major decisions, and my wife would make the minor ones. And fortunately," he said, "we've never really had to make any major decisions."

Peace making is another function of our social brain. The gospel lesson today outlines a process to make peace in the midst of conflict. It requires us to seek the truth together. Often we may disagree about what the truth is and in these circumstances we gather together with others to help us discern the truth. As CS Lewis said, "There are a dozen views about everything until we know the answer. Then there's only one."

When I've read this gospel lesson before, I'd always heard this process of discernment as one in which the offender gets their comeuppance, that's when they get slapped down. But actually I think this passage is more about how we can come together to hear the truth from others without the hardening our hearts against others so that we can come together in fellowship and community. Often when we stand corrected we may feel a sense of shame or rejection because our position was not embraced by others, but in Christ there is no shame, only the fact that we are one in Christ. It is Christ who makes us brothers and sisters and who binds us together...not the fact that we share an opinion or a belief. When we are at loggerheads...Christ brings us together. We know this from the Scriptures because Jesus said, "Where two or three are gathered, I will be in the midst of them." We just have to listen. AMEN.

The Reverend WA Ray
St Thomas Church
Diamondhead, MS