Renewing Our Covenant: We Agree to Differ (First Sermon in a Series)

This sermon was preached at Plymouth Church the first weekend of Lent 2019 -MML

I.

We agree to differ. We resolve to love. We unite to serve.

 

That is the motto of Plymouth Church: a dozen little words that distill the essence of this place. And today is the first Sunday of Lent –traditionally a season to reflect, repent and prepare for the big celebration of Easter.

 

So here is what I want to do: from now through Easter, whenever I preach, I will be reflecting on our motto and on what it means to follow Jesus together here at Plymouth Church. I’m calling this sermon series Renewing our Covenant: Following Jesus in a Fractious World.

 

“Fractious.” Isn’t that a great word? It means “unruly” or “tending to be troublesome.” It feels like the right word for this moment in our culture. When political discourse devolves into people calling each other names on social media –that feels a little fractious to me. When we prefer to stay in our own separate corners; to stick with people who already share our beliefs –sure seems fractious. When friendships and family ties are stressed and strained by whatever happens to be driving the news cycle –friends, it’s getting fractious out there.

 

And, to be honest, it can feel a little fractious in here. Because at Plymouth Church, we do not all believe the same things about God, about faith, about what it means to grow in love of God and neighbor. We don’t all agree about any of that –and we say so, right there in our motto: We agree to differ.

 

But how? How do we do that? When everything feels so fractious—not only out there but sometimes in here—when things feel fractious, can we claim, and maybe even celebrate, agreeing to differ?

 

I think we can. I think we should. It will take some work. But it can be such a beautiful thing.

 

II.

Our reading for today comes from the Gospel according to Matthew. It falls in two sections. First we get some teaching from Jesus about life together in the church. Then we get a story about forgiveness. Taken together, they tell us some important things about the ways we share life together.

If you have spent any time around the United Church of Christ, the first part of this passage just feels weird. No matter who you are, no matter where you are on life’s journey, you are always welcome here. That’s what we say. If somebody at church bothers you, show them the door. That is what Jesus says. In this passage, he gives us instructions—detailed, specific, step by step instructions—for kicking people out of the church.

 

That does not sound like our motto at all. It sounds like Jesus does not agree to differ. It sounds like Jesus invites us to purge the church of people we do not like.

 

(Can you imagine the volunteers to serve on that committee?)

 

That is what it sounds like. But is that what it says? I don’t think so. One little word makes a big difference here: Sin. If anyone sins against you. That is when you confront them. That is when you show them the door. If someone is hurting you, it may be time for them to leave.

 

So please watch this carefully: What Jesus says in the first part of this passage does not have anything to do with our motto. Disagreeing is not a sin. Let me say that again for the people in the back: Jesus is talking about sin here and disagreeing with each other is not a sin.

 

But sometimes it feels like a sin. At least it does to me. Disagreement makes me uncomfortable –literally, physically uncomfortable. I squirm and flush and flop sweat. It think I am going to die. And I think I know why. In my family of origin, we were pretty enmeshed. Disagreement was not permitted. Disagreement threatened relationships. Disagreement was betrayal.

 

So I have a hard time with conflict. Whenever I disagree with somebody, my fight or flight response kicks in. I think the relationship is under threat. I think I am under threat. But one of the marks of a healthy human being is the ability to say what we believe and to stay in relationship with those who disagree.

 

I did not learn that growing up. I am trying to work on it now. And Plymouth Church gives me opportunities to practice. In saying We Agree to Differ, we recognize that we do not come to church to avoid disagreement; we come to church to discover that disagreement does not have to end a relationship. If we do it right—if we live into our covenant with one another—disagreement can make our relationships deeper and richer and more worthwhile.

 

We agree to differ.

 

But of course, that isn’t easy. It is hard to share life when we disagree with one another. It is hard, sometimes, to stay in relationship when we don’t see eye to eye.

 

How do we do it? That brings us to the second part of our passage.

 

Peter seems to see himself as some sort of spiritual athlete. And he is so pleased with himself. How often should I forgive? As many as…seven times? I mean: that’s a lot of times, Jesus! Aren’t you impressed with how forgiving I am?

 

And in this moment, I imagine Jesus…smiles. Oh, Peter. Seven times? How about…77 times?

 

Better yet: what if we stop counting altogether?

 

Once upon a time, says Jesus, there was this one guy, up to his eyeballs in debt. Medical bills, student loans, upside down in his house and his car and his boat. Debt collectors are blowing up his phone, coming over to his house. It’s a nightmare. But he begs for mercy. He promises to repay all of it. (He can’t repay any of it).

And what happens? Every dime of his debt is forgiven. The slate is wiped clean.

 

But this guy who had all the debt? He has a buddy. And last week he spotted his buddy ten bucks to get a turkey sandwich at Palmer’s. So what does he do now? He goes over to his buddy’s house, grabs him by the throat, throws against the wall and says, “Pay me back, right now, or else!”

 

The debt collectors hear about this, change their mind, revoke their forgiveness and all that debt comes due.

 

So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart.”

 

III.

If we will succeed in sharing life together, we have to remember. Remember that you are forgiven. Remember how much grace God extends to you –all the time, every day.

(I mean, God has had to forgive me like 8 or 9 times just since I started this sermon).

Remember the grace that you have been given…and then decide how much grace you should give to your sister or brother.

 

We agree to differ, here at Plymouth Church. But if that is ever going to work—if we will ever get that right—you and I will need to extend a whole lot of grace to each other.

 

Nerd alert: I did six years in the marching band. Six years in the Williamsburg High School Blue Pirate Marching Band because, for reasons I have never entirely understood, where I come from you start the high school marching band in the 7th grade.

 

My first summer of band camp—August, 1989—was miserable and sweaty and also miserable. I was at the very peak of my physical awkwardness. And, as a kind of bonus humiliation, my big sister was the drum major.

 

It was not my favorite summer. But I learned how to march in the band –how to dress the line, how to stay in step, how to play the baritone horn while wearing ridiculous clothes.

 

And here is what I really learned: Marching in a band is mostly about staying out of each other’s way. You keep your distance from each other, you form straight lines and you all walk in the same direction.

 

Plymouth Church is not a marching band. That is what the motto says. We don’t all face the same way; we don’t all walk the same direction.

 

No, my dear friends. Plymouth Church? Plymouth Church is a dance. And if you really want to learn how to dance, your toes will get stepped on. From time to time, you may step on some toes yourself.

 

It takes a lot of grace to do this thing. But it’s worth it.

 

I’ve belonged to Plymouth Church for almost 14 years. There have been highs and there have been lows. When I look back and remember the most painful moments I have had at this church, they all seem to have one thing in common: the refusal to extend grace to one another.

 

There have been times when some of you have taken something that I said or something that I did and refused to forgive me for it. You assumed the worst, ascribed bad intentions and shared your suspicions with your friends. That hurt.

But this is Lent and, in the spirit of confession I should probably say that I know there have been moments when I have failed to extend grace to some of you; moments when I have assumed the worst about someone just because they happened to disagree with me. Some of you have stepped on my toes, and I was not gracious about it. I’m sorry.

 

It hurts, doesn’t it? And we may well wonder if it is worth it: The pain of being stepped on, the hassle of saying I’m sorry. Is it worth belonging to a place where we agree to differ?

I guess that depends on your answers to two questions:

 

Do you know how many times have you been forgiven?

 

And do you realize how beautiful it is—can you imagine how delighted God must feel—when you and I manage to dance with each other?

 

We could steer clear of each other’s toes. But then we would have to miss the dance.

 

I say we thank God and strike up the band.

 

 

 

 

 

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