In It Together: The Church As Moral Community
Nehemiah 8:1-10; Hebrews 10:19-25; Matthew 18:15-22
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I know I’m wading into muddy water
when I talk about church as moral community.
The idea that the church would claim to read the mind of God,
and shape our moral lives accordingly—
should make us squirm in our seats.
Many people, many churches,
are tempted to give up before we start.
There are just too many pitfalls for a community
to take responsibility for the moral lives of its members.
For starters, we can’t agree on the details of what is right or wrong.
And even if we could agree on the content of our moral code,
it’s a long shot to get the process right
to shape the personal moral lives of our members.
We stand a good chance of getting it wrong on both counts—
content and process.
Furthermore, in a culture of hyper-individualism
that worships individual freedom and autonomy,
how dare a church even suggest we might have something to say
about how people go about living their own lives?
Especially now, with widespread distrust of any cultural institution,
not just the church,
and with churches everywhere losing ground
in terms of cultural influence
in terms of raw numbers like attendance and giving . . .
it’s understandable that many contemporary American churches
try to lower expectations of members,
for fear of offending the loyal remnant,
and losing even more ground.
Many American churches have already caved in to crass consumerism.
They position themselves as a marketplace
for religious goods and services that consumers seem to want—
concert-style performance worship, with high-tech special effects,
comfortable theater-seating in darkened rooms,
so each worshiper can be in their own little world
taking in (consuming) what’s happening
in the performance space (up on stage).
And the cafes and bookshops in the lobby
have all kinds of products to satisfy the customer.
There is barely a suggestion,
much less an expectation, and certainly no pressure,
to notice worshipers around you, and enter deeply into their lives.
This sort of church is not really a community of moral formation.
It’s a collection of individuals in a religious marketplace
having a spiritual experience.
And then the customers walk out of the Christian supermarket
and go off to do life on their own,
until they come back to get a refill the next Sunday.
Yes, I know. You can call me on it.
I’m being too cynical.
I’m overstating to make a point.
Things aren’t this extreme everywhere.
Most congregations do
try to take spiritual formation and discipleship seriously.
And no, I won’t claim,
that just because Park View doesn’t have theater seating
or a fog machine or a coffeeshop,
that we aren’t also tempted
to make church into a religious marketplace.
We need to be on guard constantly.
We are human.
We breathe the same air and drink the same water
of our surrounding culture.
We can’t help but be influenced by consumerism.
We also are prone to cater to individual religious customers.
We may also be afraid to set the bar too high.
If we start talking too much about communal moral formation,
or about living a sacrificial life that goes against the flow,
or start drawing boundaries that society is not drawing,
people will start shopping around for a better deal.
Because there are better deals out there,
if by “deal” we mean a church that
gives us more, while demanding less.
So our temptation, my temptation, as a church leader,
will always be to demand less and give more,
to keep people coming through our doors,
and supporting our programs.
So that’s the tension I’m trying to name.
A church wanting to build up its program and numbers
(and what church doesn’t?)
hesitates to push very hard
for more communal moral formation.
But I also say, “It doesn’t have to be this way.”
I want to make the case that a flourishing life, a good life,
an attractive life,
is actually a disciplined life,
deeply embedded in a community.
It is a life that does not lean away, but leans toward,
the practice of mutual moral formation.
A community whose members ask a lot of each other,
and give a lot to each other,
is a community calling people to the good life.
It is a community who is living out the vision
of the writer of Hebrews, who urged the church, in today’s reading,
“Let us hold fast to the confession of our hope without wavering,
And let us consider how to provoke one another
to love and good deeds,
not neglecting to meet together,
but encouraging one another,
and all the more as you see the Day approaching.”
I couldn’t have said it better,
“Let’s provoke each other . . . and do it all the more.”
We are a provocative community,
a community that provokes its members to love and good deeds.
I love that word provoke.
And no, it does not mean to get somebody mad.
That’s only one specific kind of provocation.
Provoke is from the Latin, pro-vocare.
Vocare is to call—as is “vocation,” a calling,
or being “vocal”—using our mouth to call out.
And the prefix “pro” means “forth.”
So “pro-vocare” means to call forth.
To provoke someone,
is to call forth some kind of response or action.
The writer of Hebrews urges us in the church,
“Don’t be lackadaisical in your relationships.
Live together in a way that doesn’t allow people
to be static or passive or lethargic.
Put a fire under them.
Do things or say things around them,
that provoke a response in them—
that provoke love and good deeds.”
Love them in a way that makes them want to love more.
Do good in a way that makes them want to do good more.
And when they struggle with something pulling them down,
or causing a moral failure,
live around them in a way that raises them back up.
Provoke each other to love and good deeds,
and all the more, as things around us start falling apart.
With the multiple global moral crises facing us,
now is not a season to back off of our communal moral calling,
to crawl into a hole and hope it all passes,
and that we miraculously survive.
No, now is the time for active, communal, and mutual
In a world that is at sea,
a community like this one is a precious gift
to anyone wanting to live a flourishing life.
We are not on our own to navigate life.
We have a community to walk with us, hard as it is.
We have people who love us too much,
to let us off the hook too easily,
when it comes to living up to our high calling as humans.
That’s the kind of community I’m glad to be part of.
One that loves me unconditionally, the way I am,
and expects continued growth
and maturation and transformation.
One that calls out the very best in me,
that provokes me toward becoming
the human being God designed me to be.
I believe, if we stop to think about it,
we would all want that, wouldn’t we?
But again, I say with some caution—
as flawed people in flawed communities, it’s hard to pull off.
There is the theory.
And there is the practice.
So let’s look at a story of a people of God trying to practice it.
In the book of Nehemiah,
the Jewish people had just returned to Jerusalem,
after some generations in exile,
so they had forgotten almost everything about the law of God.
Their communal moral formation languished
while they were uprooted, living in a pagan land,
separated from their scriptures and their religious rituals.
They suffered from mass collective forgetfulness.
So while they were rebuilding and repairing the temple,
they found the scroll, the Torah, their scriptures,
in a pile of rubble.
In that scroll, they would rehear, and relearn
what God desired of them as a people.
This is how it went down.
They called everyone together—50,000 people we are told—
and gave them their Book back.
They didn’t pass out 50,000 Gideon testaments,
and tell them, “Go home, and read, and obey.”
That’s how we might do it,
modern individualists that we are.
They took a different approach.
We heard the story in our reading from Nehemiah 8.
Ezra, and 12 other people, 6 on his right, and 6 on his left,
read the text out aloud to the people . . . for six hours.
And then those 12, plus 14 more,
worked with the people to make sense out of what they heard.
All are listed by name.
I told Steve I expected him to read all 26 names.
The fact they’re all named, is significant.
It shows how important these interpretation assistants were.
Exactly how these 26 interpreters did their work, we aren’t told.
The story implies that they fanned out among the people,
and worked in smaller groups,
worked together at the task of interpreting and discerning.
I mean, how else do you lead a 50,000 person Bible Study session?
Whatever it was, it was not a private reading for private consumption.
It was community work.
It was the combined work of the whole people,
a people moved by the Spirit of God,
to seek the word and will of God together.
The result was so powerful,
that 50,000 people fell on their faces . . . and wept.
The emotion of remembering and reconnecting
with something deep within them that they had lost,
overpowered them, and they wept for joy.
They had a sense of coming home
to the people they were meant to be.
That is an overwhelmingly joyful reality!
Some of you have felt that—
to discover you are living the life you were meant to live.
Discovering and interpreting the Word and Will of God
is the task of the whole church—working together in community.
It is a task in which we all have an obligation to participate.
This is not a job we delegate to preachers and professors
and ask them to report back.
Wrestling with knowing God’s will for our life here and now,
is our job as a community,
that we must do together,
if we want to call ourselves a moral community.
But too often we cop out.
And this happens all along the theological spectrum,
on the left and right and in-between.
I call it Biblical moral individualism.
And it takes different forms.
There is the “God-said-it-I-believe-it-that-settles-it” form,
which actually denies any need for interpretation.
then we don’t really need a community to wrestle with
the question of what God’s will is for this time and place.
There is also the “however-you-want-to-read-it-is-fine-with-me”
form of moral individualism,
where every individual takes from the text
whatever seems helpful to them from their unique perspective.
It’s a kind of therapeutic deism—
“the God you most want is the God you should have.”
Moral individualism is user-friendly.
It doesn’t need to take seriously the wisdom of
the tradition and the history of where we are located.
It doesn’t need to account for the wisdom of
other traditions in other times and contexts.
And it doesn’t need to account for
the real and present community of people
that we are in real and present relationships with.
It may be low-demand.
But, if I isolate myself from my own wisdom tradition,
and from the tradition of others,
and from my own human community,
I am also less likely to discover the life I was meant to live,
and less likely to come into a place of joy and flourishing.
There’s an echo of this in Jesus, in Matthew 18.
We often pull out Matthew 18 as a problem-solving text—
as a procedural checklist
to slap on to any human-relationship problem,
and voila, church conflict solved!
moral ambiguity cleared up!
pastoral dilemma avoided!
Actually, it doesn’t work that way in real life.
It’s not a checklist, it’s a guiding principle.
It tells us we are not on our own.
We are part of a moral community,
and community matters.
Matthew 18 operates on the assumption
that church communities will care about
each others’ spiritual well-being,
and that we will work at it together, in love and honesty,
until there is some resolution, some peace,
some way forward that we can imagine together.
We misuse Matthew 18 if we see it as a rigid 3-step procedure,
and that if we apply the steps, and it doesn’t work,
then we are free to publicly shame and discard the offender.
No! Instead, what this text emphasizes for us all,
is that community moral formation matters.
We are not alone on our journey toward wholeness and shalom.
Jesus is calling for close, relational accountability.
When I am in honest, close, healthy communal relationships,
I will be giving account of my life to that community,
naturally, and continually—
as will everyone in that community.
Because accountability is honest conversation.
The very basis for community,
and the basis for the good life,
is to have people to tell your stories to,
is to have those who are ready and willing to listen
to your account of your life,
and are also ready and willing to give you theirs.
So let us expect more of each other, not less.
Let us give more to each other, not less.
And let us provoke each more, not less,
toward love and good deeds,
toward the good life.
Let’s turn to HWB 420, and sing . . . these words of aspiration:
“Heart with loving heart united, met to know God’s holy will.
May we all so love each other and all selfish claims deny,
so that each one for the other will not hesitate to die.
Kindle in us love’s compassion so that everyone may see
in our fellowship the promise of a new humanity.”
—Phil Kniss, February 2, 2020
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