The podcast of this sermon can be found here.
A crowd of individuals can be a very fickle creature. It begins with each of us doing our own thing, but when we come together, we no longer pursue what makes us different, but what makes us alike. Given the right motivation, we will do what is necessary to be like everyone else and do what everyone else is doing. For example, take the wave at a football game, when 1,000s will go round and round the stadium, raising their hands and cheering.
Two physicist spent a summer studying this phenomenon. Perhaps it would be better to say, two bored physicists or two government funded physicists spent the summer studying the wave at sporting events. They reported, “The reason why we got interested in stadium waves was that people, apparently, very often behave like particles.” They say that in participating in the wave, we act like matter. Interesting points about a wave: in order for it to be sustainable, it must span from the top to the bottom of the stadium, it travels at about 20 seats per second, requires only 20 to 30 individuals to start a stadium of 50,000 moving, and typically the waves run clockwise. The primary factor though, in getting one started, is timing, when the mood is ripe. If it is an intense moment during the game, all you’re going to do in trying to start a wave is anger the people around you, but in times of celebration or even better, boredom, your chances of success increase considerably. So, like matter, given the right circumstances, a very small catalyst can start a very large reaction and get things moving. (source) Which, when applied to how individuals respond in a crowd, tells us that even if you’re sitting there trying to enjoy your supper with a beer in one hand, hotdog in the other, and some peanuts balanced on your knee, you’re still going to attempt to pop up when the wave comes to you, so that you can be like everyone else.
The idea of the crowd has also been studied by social psychologist who only confirm that as much as we would like to consider ourselves individuals, we will still follow the crowd in many ways. Psychologist Robert Cialdini writes, “Whether the question is what to do with an empty popcorn box in a movie theater, how fast to drive on a certain stretch of highway, or how to eat the chicken at a dinner party, the actions of those around us will be important in defining the answer.”
I can happily tool along at 72 m.p.h. on my way to OKC, but about ten miles out, I find myself turning the cruise control off and keeping up with the traffic. By the time I reach the 60 m.p.h. zone in the city, I’m doing 80 (and getting passed).
The same studies also indicate that when a group of like-minded individuals come together, their shared beliefs will intensify and become more polarized as they begin to communicate amongst themselves. The researchers wrote, “Group consensus seems to induce a change of attitudes in which subjects are likely to adopt more extreme positions.” If you have a view against X and you are with a group of likeminded individuals, then your views on X are confirmed, supported, and celebrated, making you more confident and extreme in your views. (Source) Both CNN and Fox News operate on this principle, which has allowed them to make more and more extreme statements and further polarizing our nation, while at the same time, making big bucks selling ads – but that’s a rant and not a sermon, so…
Not only does this crowd psychology find its way into the secular world, it also finds its way into the church; and today’s Gospel reading is what sent me down this path discussing crowds.
If someone sins against you, go speak to them. If that doesn’t work, go get a few buddies, come back and speak to them again. If that doesn’t work, tell it to everyone and cut them off. Then Jesus says, “Truly I tell you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven. Again, 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. For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.”
When we read this passage, I would wager that most often we read it from a position of pride and not humility. A position of strength and not weakness. I would wager that when we read this text, we most always see ourselves as the ones who are right. The ones who are required to go to others and point out the error of another’s ways. We are the ones that must perform the binding and loosing. We are the two or three who have gathered together and Jesus is compelled to do our bidding. Why? Because we are the righteous and “they” are the ones who require correcting. Honestly, have you ever seen yourself on the receiving end of the correcting and binding?
Two elderly, excited Southern women were sitting together in the front pew of their church listening to a fiery preacher.
When this preacher condemned the sin of stealing, these two ladies cried out at the tops of their lungs, “Amen, brother!”
When the preacher condemned the sin of lust, they yelled again, “Preach it, Reverend!”
And when the preacher condemned the sin of lying, they jumped to their feet and screamed, “Right on! Tell ‘em like it is Preacher Man!”
But when the preacher condemned the sin of gossip, the two got very quiet. One turned to the other and said, “He’s quit preaching and now he’s just meddlin’.”
The church, as that crowd, can fall into a similar trap. When it’s two or three that are coming together, it’s always us, but when it is sinning and needing binding, it is always them and, just like any other crowd, we can become more and more polarized, feeding off each other’s perceived rightness and moving towards more and more extreme positions, to the exclusion of even the slightest perceived transgressor. Erich Fromm, a humanist and a Jew is credited with saying, “There is perhaps no phenomenon which contains so much destructive feeling as moral indignation, which permits envy or hate to be acted out under the guise of virtue.” And when two or three or more come together with these types of agendas, they are many things, but they are not the church. They are two or three or more coming together with like-minded views and secret handshakes. They are a crowd of individuals coming together looking to be affirmed in their opinions and ways, whether holy or not, but they are not the church. Because – and here is the real kick in the pants – when two or three or more come together – no matter who they are – then two or three more sinners have come together, and each and everyone of them is in as much need for God’s grace as all the rest of the “them” out there. Because the church is not a crowd of holy people. The church is a crowd of individuals in desperate need of a loving and forgiving God.
Former Archbishop of Canterbury, Michael Ramsey, provides one the greatest description of the church: “The Church is not the society of those labelled virtuous. It is the mixed community of sinners called to be saints. When I say in the Creed, ‘I believe in One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church,’ I am saying that I believe that there is a divine society, and the risen Christ is the glory in the midst of it, and the Holy Spirit is at work within it. Wherever its members respond to the reality about themselves and their calling, the marks of saintliness do indeed begin to appear.”
A “mixed community of sinners” – a mixed community of those seeking to model their lives after Christ, often failing, but each day recommitting themselves to that goal. The goal that says, “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.” “A mixed community of sinners called to be saints” – called to be Christ to one another and the strangers among us. Called to serve as Christ served. Called to look beyond ourselves and see one for whom Christ has died. A mixed community of sinners called to be saints who love as Christ loved. From a few weeks ago – a community called to be saints who see the imago Dei – the image of God – in others and to honor them as such. That is the church and that is what we are called to be.
I am not denying that there are those that do harm who are sinners and who need correcting. There are. I am not denying that we are to seek holiness as a community. “Be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect” was not just a suggestion. However, before we can begin to call out, cast out, and bind those around us, we must first see ourselves in them. We must first see ourselves as the ones who have been called out on our sins, the ones who were cast out of the presence of God, and the ones who were bound in sin. And then we must remember our own salvation in Christ Jesus, that we might show it and offer it to others. That is the two or three or more that make up the Church and that is what I pray we become.
Let us pray: Heavenly Father, author and inspirer of all things holy, hear our prayers for our Church. Send forth Your Spirit that we may humbly be guided by your Divine Will. Touch our hearts with true generosity to raise up a house of God for the inspiration and renewal of all your faithful. We ask this in Jesus’ Name. Amen.