I went to my first Washington Nationals baseball game last week and expected to walk out into that glorious feeling of a stadium crowd anticipating the words, "Play Ball!" Instead, I found a sparse crowd, open holes in the seating with plenty of comfortable spots available. (And they ended up winning that night!) Every preacher knows the feeling of looking out on the congregation from the chancel on a holiday weekend and seeing far too many empty pews. Such a view can dash one's spirits and impact the delivery of a well-crafted sermon.
Why is it that we are so effected by numbers? In youth gatherings we try to reach "critical mass" that number of teens that makes games fun or even possible and lends a feeling of being part of a group. Humans judge success by quantity. From the estimated crowd size at a D.C. protest march to the number of popped kernels in a bag of microwave popcorn, we look for quantity to determine value. Sunday's gospel text in Matthew points us to a different set of integers; 2 and 3.
"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.” (Mt 18:19-20)Initially it appears that Jesus is valuing the few, even the single individual who joins with another in reconciliation. It's true that each one of us is important and of great value. We know the shepherd leaves the 99 to go after the 1. Yet there is even more to this passage than the value of the individual. Matthew 18 is about reconciliation, a key activity which is commanded for Jesus' disciples. The two coming together in agreement may be two having experienced broken relationship or severe disagreement. When they come together to address the issue between them they are building a relationship. However awkward, difficult, and uncomfortable it is, it is relationship. The power of honest discussion may be all it takes to overcome conflict. There is no substitute for going and speaking to the person with whom you disagree or who has injured you. Matthew assures us that when we approach our adversary, Christ is there with us.
Why is it so important for two to reconcile? With all the people in the world, would it not be easier to 'get over it,' make a new friend and just leave the difficult relationship behind? But for Christians, community is of greatest value and restoring that community through reconciling work may be our highest calling. We are called to community. Mathew 18 gives a whole process for reconciliation in a community and what to do when disagreement is so strong it retains the brokenness. It begins with just two.
There is a natural desire to judge the health of community by its number, as long as we don't take it too far and make it our only criteria. More importantly we should remember that the health of community is based on relationship, beginning with the smallest quantity; the relationship between you and me. When we come together, Christ is there with us. It's an awesome promise and awesome responsibility.