Plymouth Church: It is time to talk about Lent.
Lent is a season of 40 days (excluding Sundays) to prepare for Easter. It is traditionally a time for fasting, repentance and self-examination. The 40 day period begins with Ash Wednesday on March 6.
(Sidebar: Join us for Ash Wednesday worship at Plymouth! There is a family service at 5:45, a sanctuary a 7:30 and a Youth service 8:30).
This year, at Plymouth Church, Lent will be a season to ponder the ways we belong to one another and to God. I’m calling it Renewing our Covenant: Following Jesus in a Fractious World.
Because at Plymouth, we have an unusual understanding of the meaning of membership. And in our increasingly divided culture, I believe the Plymouth Way of being Christian may be more relevant than ever.
For Plymouth, membership is rooted in covenant. The language of the covenant is a little old-fashioned sounding, but we have a condensed version in our church motto: We agree to differ. We resolve to love. We unite to serve.
Former Senior Minister Stoddard Lane gave us our motto; it is hard-won wisdom from a deeply difficult time in the history of Plymouth Church. Lane was himself no stranger to suffering. He was widowed at a young age and then left his infant child with relatives to serve as an ambulance driver in the First World War. After that he returned to pastoral ministry, coming to Plymouth in 1929 and dying in office in the year 1943.
Whenever I think of Stoddard lane, I think of the opening narration from my favorite movie: With the coming of the Second World War… Between the Great Depression and the onset of the World War II, these were trying times for Plymouth Church. We have, in our archives, some of the correspondence between the church and its creditors from those years. “Please give us one more month” seems to be a common refrain.
But Stoddard Lane must have known that that one great asset of this church is its understanding of the way we belong to one another because we belong to God. So he took our covenant and boiled it down to its essence: We agree to differ. We resolve to love. We unite to serve.
A dozen little words. But the more I ponder them, the more profound they seem.
Maybe it is just selfish; I want to reflect on the meaning of our motto. So I am taking this Lent to do just that. Starting on the weekend of March 9 and 10, I will preach a series of sermons on the meaning of membership at Plymouth Church. Each sermon will have two texts: the Scripture lesson assigned by the Narrative Lectionary and the church motto of Plymouth Church.
So right now my plan looks like this:
March 10 We Agree to Differ Matthew 18:15-35 (Forgiveness)
March 17 We Resolve to Love Matthew 20:1-16 (Parable of the Workers)
March 31 We Unite to Serve Matthew 25:1-13 (Parable of Bridesmaids)
April 14 Join the Crowd Matthew 21:1-17 (Palm Sunday)
April 21 With Fear and Great Joy Matthew 28:1-10 (Easter)
And that means this is my Agree to Differ blog post. Our Scripture text? Some teachings about forgiveness.
15“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.”
21Then Peter came and said to him, “Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?” 22Jesus said to him, “Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times. 23“For this reason the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his slaves. 24When he began the reckoning, one who owed him ten thousand talents was brought to him; 25and, as he could not pay, his lord ordered him to be sold, together with his wife and children and all his possessions, and payment to be made. 26So the slave fell on his knees before him, saying, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.’ 27And out of pity for him, the lord of that slave released him and forgave him the debt. 28But that same slave, as he went out, came upon one of his fellow slaves who owed him a hundred denarii; and seizing him by the throat, he said, ‘Pay what you owe.’ 29Then his fellow slave fell down and pleaded with him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you.’ 30But he refused; then he went and threw him into prison until he would pay the debt. 31When his fellow slaves saw what had happened, they were greatly distressed, and they went and reported to their lord all that had taken place. 32Then his lord summoned him and said to him, ‘You wicked slave! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. 33Should you not have had mercy on your fellow slave, as I had mercy on you?’ 34And in anger his lord handed him over to be tortured until he would pay his entire debt. 35So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart.”
This portion of Matthew’s Gospel deals with questions of forgiveness. The first part of the reading (verses 15-20) is didactic; it offers up some very direct instructions about dealing with sin in the church. The second part (verses 21-35) offers more teaching in the form of a story.
It is difficult to set the instructions about “another member of the church who sins against you” alongside We agree to differ. Is it one or the other? Do we have to choose?
I don’t think so. But we do have an opportunity for some much-needed clarification.
The theologians would tell you that Matthew 18:15-20 deals with church discipline, and the church historians would tell you that our particular brand of Christianity hasn’t been much into church discipline since the 18th century. Can the church police its own membership? Should we? Can we imagine a situation in which someone might be shown the door?
We at Plymouth may recoil from such a thought, but consider this: 19th century evangelist Charles Finney denied communion to slaveholders. Wasn’t that the right thing to do? (Hint: It was!)
But if we set this alongside the motto, something else becomes clear: Disagreeing with each other is not a sin. Because of our family of origin or a conflict-avoidant style, some of us are wired to FEEL like disagreement is a sin. But it isn’t. That is what the motto says. So when Jesus talks about someone who sins against me, he isn’t talking about someone who disagrees with me. He is talking about someone who hurts me.
As for the second section…I think Jesus’ story invites us to distinguish between a negative approach to agreeing to differ and a positive approach to agreeing to differ. A negative agreeing to differ is the attitude that says “You go to your corner; I’ll go to mine. And as long as we don’t have to cross each other’s paths, we can both belong to this church.” Plymouth is a big enough place that we can and often do fall into this pattern. “Agreeing to differ” means “leaving each other alone.”
But Jesus’ story suggests a positive approach to agreeing to differ: What if we interacted often enough and honestly enough that we stepped on each other’s toes? Well, we would probably need to extend and receive a lot of forgiveness. And how do we do that? By remembering how much we have been forgiven.
In other words, Agreeing to Differ isn’t about keeping our distance from what another; it is about deep and honest connection. God’s love and forgiveness create the context where that is possible.
We agree to differ. Because we are loved. Because we have been forgiven.
See you in church!
1ST LENT BLOG BONUS MATERIAL
In July of 2011, I had to preach a brief sermon on Matthew 18:21-35 for a class I was taking. So far as I know, I have never shared that sermon anywhere else…so I thought I would do it here.
Then Peter came and said to him, ‘Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?’
Two. My niece Katy was two, maybe two and a half years old. I was home visiting from college. She is a sophisticated and somewhat surly teenager now, almost old enough to drive, but back when she was two and I was 20, Katy adored me. The feeling was mutual. But on this particular visit, our relationship hit its first rocky moment. I never saw it coming. She gladly held my hand as we walked to the car, accepted me help getting into the car seat. But when I reached for the straps to buckle her in—something I had done many, many times before—when I reached for the straps to buckle her into her car seat, something inside of her snapped. Her face grew stern, her eyes fierce. Indignantly she exclaimed, “I do it MYSELF.”
I was first surprised at this sudden, stubborn assertion of independence. And then I was shocked, in that moment, by how much I loved her.
* * * *
I know a guy who went through a phase in his life when he only owned wicker furniture –the lightweight stuff, with cushions, the kind of thing you might put out on your back porch when the weather gets warm. He only owned wicker furniture because that, whenever it came time for him to move, he could just…do it. He could do it all by himself. You’ve got to hand it to him, it was a foolproof system. The only problem was…he always had to sit on wicker furniture. Maybe that was what he wanted, but I imagine it would get old after awhile.
* * * *
How often should I forgive? As many as seven times?’
As is so often the case, Peter just doesn’t get it. He wants so badly to assert his independence, to stand on his own two feet, to do it himself. And he is so pleased, so proud. He just can’t help but brag.
Have you heard of this thing called the humble brag? That is where you try to brag about yourself without appearing to brag about yourself. I guess it happens a lot on Twitter: Can you believe they let me into Princeton? I think Peter attempts a common variation here –the question brag. (This is often heard in seminary classrooms). It’s asking a question that mostly serves to show how smart or sophisticated or pious you are. ‘Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as…seven times?’ I mean, that’s a lot of times…right? And I did it all by myself.
But Jesus can barely keep a straight face. Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times.
No, Peter doesn’t get it. But I have a hunch that Jesus gets him. And in this moment, I think Peter would be shocked to discover how much Jesus loves him.