Where Two or Three are Gathered
Where Two or Three are Gathered
September 10, 2017
Exodus 12:1-14; Matthew 18:15-20
For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.
Where two or three are gathered: it is a familiar phrase, well known to people both in and outside of church communities. It comes in this particular form from one of Jesus’ lessons in the Gospel of Matthew. A slightly different form was used in a famous prayer by John Chrysostom, or John the Golden-Tongued. He is revered as a saint in the Eastern, Roman, and Anglican traditions.
Among other things, John Chrysostom was an Archbishop of Constantinople in the fourth century, within the first century of the legalization of Christianity in the Roman Empire. He was exiled a few times for his teachings at a time when differences of religious opinion shortened your life expectancy. This was often on the surface for trumped up reasons of heresy, but in reality it was generally for John’s oddly frequent criticisms of the Emperor’s wife, a tendency even more likely to shorten your life expectancy.
Depending of which sources you look at, John Chrysostom held rather unkind views regarding Jews and even Jewish converts. His family probably was polytheistic in the classic Roman style. And consistent with the teachings of Paul, John Chrysostom did not want Christians to follow Jewish practices.
John sought to have Christians move away from ceremonial Sabbath observances, Passover meals, or rituals like circumcision, even though those various traditions had been the basis for Jewish religious life, a legacy shared by none other than Jesus. When Jesus teaches that those who fall out with the community should be shunned, Jesus would have been agreeing with those whom John Chrysostom sought to cast out. This is the bizarre inconsistency at the heart of Christian Anti-Semitism.
The prayer of John Chrysostom is 1,600 years old. So why then do we know it, why do we still say it? How has it survived such a long time?
Because John Chrysostom’s words made it into the Anglican Book of Common Prayer, specifically the version of the book from 1662. Once it made it through that early editorial process, the prayer passed through the centuries with few modifications until the 20th century. If you have ever attended an Anglican or Episcopalian service, you might have heard it. In particular, if you have ever attended the First Church in Chestnut Hill, you would have heard essentially the same version of the prayer from 1662.
Again, it is important to recall that the phrasing of this prayer differs in a significant way from what Jesus taught. What is the difference between God granting the requests of two or three people gathered together and God being there among them, in their midst? What might the difference be between those two expectations?
I imagine this turns on an understanding of why we pray. What is prayer and what can we expect from it. What is the effect of two or three gathering together? And what does it mean to gather in Jesus’ name? As a point of reference, the current American version of the Book of Common Prayer provides that where two or three are gathered together in his name, God will be in their midst. I will come back to this.
This summer, I once again went to camp. This was my tenth year working at this particular church camp up in Maine. Ten years. When I first began doing so, I was still a student minister. Another staff member at my internship church asked me to join her as a counselor. Now, I had never attended summer camp as a child, so I had no idea what this would involve. So I asked her, why on earth she wanted me of all people to do this? She responded, “Simple. We need someone to yell at them.”
I can do that. In fact, I would be very good at that.
My original job description was essentially to be the sergeant at arms over a few dozen middle school children, but that understanding of my role quickly changed. In general the kids did not need to be yelled at – in general. Instead, they needed some grownups around to make sure that camp was the good place it was intended to be. A place where they could be away from the peculiar stresses of modern suburban childhood. The tight schedules and the parade of sporting events, weekends jammed with activities and appointments. Making sure that sixth grade is spent in preparation for getting into the right college – in case you were wondering, I have an opinion on this subject.
And that opinion arises from my experiences with these kids. Watching them enjoy themselves for those scant seven days on the beach. Many of these campers live for that week or two away from school, a place where they can be free. Bright days of summer they treasure all year, like hoarding Halloween candy throughout the winter.
This past summer, there was a new girl at the camp. She was a foster child, a refugee from one of the civil wars in Africa, living with a new family in the United States. She was assigned to my small group of children, the ones I met with every morning to check in with to see how things were going. I quickly figured out that she had no idea why she was there – awkward. I had to explain to her that she was at church camp and that we had nightly worship – really awkward.
She was thinking that her family had dumped her off at Bible camp without telling her. Which really, really is not the case with this camp. So I tried to explain to her how it was different. I told her it was a Unitarian Universalist camp, a piece of information that presented more confusion than clarity. She asked what that meant, essentially what do Unitarians believe?
I had to think about it. I know it is my day job, but it is difficult to sum up in a sentence. It can be hard to pin down a simple explanation that does not cut corners on the one hand but also does not get bogged down in a bunch of history and excessive detail for a sixth grader.
And I had about one minute to ponder over it all. So I took my sixty seconds and thought. I then told her that Unitarians are unusual as religions go because we do not care what you believe – we care about what you do. We care about what you do.
That explanation seemed to satisfy her and we moved on to figuring out who wanted to make friendship bracelets before lunch.
Even though my campers moved on quickly, this conversation got me thinking. Thinking about what it means to gather together in twos and threes. What does it mean to gather as we do and what is required of us as we gather? And how might it be different to gather here than in some other place?
That idea about gathering in two and threes is ancient. It was derived from the lessons of Jesus, rephrased a few centuries later by John the Golden-Tongued, and enshrined by English Protestants more than a thousand years later. The prayer about gathering has been a part of the liturgy of the church, the manner of worship of a people, for thousands of years. But what do we mean when we say it?
The word “gather” used in the Greek text is synago. If that sounds like synagogue, there is a reason for it. People came together in congregations, in synagogues, in churches. They came together, each group being very much like the others in purpose, though those in those gatherings might wildly disagree as to whether there was indeed a common purpose.
The reference from the Bible appears in a series of lessons taught by Jesus. Those lessons were collected, stitched together in a single chapter in the Gospel of Matthew, but who knows for certain if they were ever taught in one session. I would guess not.
In this case, Jesus was trying to teach people how to gather, how to be with and to work with one another. And even in the most tightly knit community, there will be disagreements. So what do you do then?
When someone in the group wrongs you, sins against you, you need to tell them. You need to go to them away from others. Hash it out, see if you can get the other person to listen. If that works, great. You have regained that person to the group. Why regained? Because one of you was out of sync with the others, outside of the confines of your collective relationship. Call that a code of conduct, call it a covenant.
And what if that does not work? You bring a friend.
Take one or two others along with you – note the phrasing. It is similar to where two or three are gathered together because the purpose of gathering continues even when you disagree. The others are now there as witnesses so there is no misunderstanding as to what has gone on.
But what if they still won’t listen?
Then you explain it all to the church, the congregation, the synagogue. Tell the group what is going on, what is wrong. This is not gossip. This is not did you hear what Frank did to Joe.
This is about a community of people that understands a way of being with one other, a way of gathering together. This is why we are here in this place, in this time, with these people. We all then as such a group would strive to understand what our common purpose is all about and how we all need to work together in this agreed upon way. In theory.
If the offending party refuses to listen, Jesus said, let them be to you as a Gentile or a tax collector. Which is not the clearest modern terminology. In essence, you are to shun the other person. To ostracize them from the community for failing to acknowledge what they have done wrong. But what, you might ask, if they do not think they have done anything wrong?
Historically, shunning someone in this fashion was a big deal. People did not move around. You lived in one place, often for your whole life, with family and friends all of whom were members of one religious community. Outside of this group, you would often be frighteningly alone, adrift from church or clan. And there was generally nowhere else to go, no meaningful place to find refuge. You were stuck, so you conformed. Over the centuries, this changed as society grew more complex, but the desire to have others conform endures even in our complicated age.
Recently, a clergy colleague asked on-line if there could be a collective term for Unitarians. Like a pride of lions, a parliament of owls, or a conspiracy of ravens. Another minister, a former Baptist, said that she would often refer to a schism of Baptists. Why? Because they could not agree upon anything. As she put it, where two or three are gathered together, there is going to be a fight.
Others made suggestion for a collective term: a heresy of Unitarians, a muddle of Unitarians, a disputation of Unitarians. The most popular was a quorum. My offering was a kvetch of Unitarians, Yiddish being the most expressive of languages in my humble opinion.
When we consider what it means to be able to disagree, to have an opportunity to consider something other than the doctrines and dogmas of a particular group, we should remember how precious that right is. And how fragile that privilege can be. Not just to have differing opinions, but to be able to live them out in the world.
Over time, in this way, the meaning of gathering together in a congregation has changed. The one true church fractured into many smaller groups. And yet those splintering congregations have often tried to be as rigidly controlling as whatever larger group they sought to leave. Whether you consider that a move toward purity or tyranny is yet another reason to break away. Ask the Baptists.
This brings me full circle to my off the cuff advice back in summer camp. Unitarians do not care about what you believe – they care about what you do. When I think about a member in a congregation going up to someone and saying you must believe this or that, it bothers my Unitarian sensibilities. Who are you to tell me what to believe! Then again, I probably have a lot of issues.
What then should I say when someone tells me what I should do? Do I have the same negative reaction? Should I have the same negative reaction? Does my gathering together with others create on obligation on my part to behave like those others? In other words, if we care about how we all act, how should each of us act?
A congregation is not just about gathering together. To cite back to Jesus, it is about gathering together with purpose, following the lessons of Jesus. For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.
In my name, with my lessons in mind, for my purposes. Gathering around what Jesus asked us to be. And when this happens, when we gather in this way and with all of this in mind, God will be in our midst.
This is not just about traditions. This is not getting worked up over the table manners of one religion versus another. It is a question of whether we should be spending our time in this life talking about God or walking towards God.
I do not mean to suggest one option is easier than the other, but I would hazard to say that one option is more meaningful than the other. In case you were wondering, I have an opinion on this subject. Then again, I most certainly have a lot of issues.