14 Pentecost, Proper 18 – September 6, 2020
Matthew 18:15-20

          Wherever two or more are gathered….well, it can be really hard to get along. Right?

Today’s gospel caused me to say Oh, no!, when I first read it.  But then, I realized this is relevant to what we’re going through right now. This exhausting point of our journey through a pandemic, this unsettling time of addressing – hopefully addressing – racial injustice, and all of that intertwined with a contentious political environment.  Can we get along? Can we at least begin to try to understand each other? To listen to each other? Can we find that place deep within all of us that connects us, that reveals we are so much more alike than we are different? That, my friends, is what our gospel is addressing today – conflict resolution.  What we human beings tend to want to avoid – conflict resolution.

Conflicts fester (or explode) thanks to fear or misplaced loyalty, and people talk more about one another than they talk with one another. And we just don’t listen to each other, deeply listen. I don’t need to tell you that social media is making it so much easier to lash out at others behind the safety of a computer screen. Stir into the mix divided loyalties and power dynamics—not to mention the challenge of discerning what actually counts as sin—our gospel begins with the one who “sins against you,” —and so it is tempting to throw our hands in the air about prospects for resolution, in spite of the process outlined in our reading today.

So, what am I saying? What is the good news for us?  Well, I think it has to do with understanding that this process is not meant to be easy, because we human beings are complicated. We need to acknowledge that. There are many great quotes from leaders about this…Winston Churchill is the one who said “If you’re going through hell, keep going”.  Nelson Mandela said, “The greatest glory in living lies not in never failing, but in rising every time we fail”. Martin Luther King said, “The ultimate measure of a [person] is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands in times of challenge and controversy”.  And, we are in the middle of a time of challenge and controversy.  We are in the messy middle. The darkness of the middle. As Brene Brown calls it, we’re in Day Two.  The rest of what I’m going to say comes primarily from Brene Brown’s latest podcast from Unlocking Us.   (Brown, B. (Host). (2020, September 2). Brené on Day 2. [Audio podcast episode]. In Unlocking Us with Brené Brown. Cadence13. https://brenebrown.com/podcast/brene-on-day-2/)

The term, Day Two came about because of the 3-day intensives that Brene’s leadership team would host. The first day for the attendees meant anticipation and as the day unfolded there were aha moments that led into the beginnings of reflection and learning, which caused an uncomfortableness in Day Two. Because Day Two is where, if you really were learning something new, you were vulnerable, raw, uncomfortable and that it is messy. So, they have a saying, “The middle is messy, but it’s also where all the magic happens, all the tension that creates goodness and learning. There’s interesting research that says, “If learning is not uncomfortable, you’re not really learning.”  So, this is the seat of discomfort, This is day two.

“Day two or whatever that middle space is for your own process is when we’re in the dark, the doors close behind us, we’re too far in to turn around and not close enough to the end to see the light.  For the military and veterans, they talk about this kind of dark middle piece as “the point of no return.” It’s an aviation term coined by pilots for the point in the flight where you have too little fuel to turn around and go back to the originating airfield, so you have to go forward. It’s strangely universal, and this kind of saying about the point of no return, actually tracks all the way back to Julius Caesar’s famous, “The die is cast.”

You’ve thrown it, and it’s rolling, but it doesn’t matter now because it’s been cast. Your future is set now because that stuff is already in motion. Whether it’s an ancient battle strategy or the creative process, or a pandemic, at some point we are in the dark, there’s no turning back. The only way is forward and most of the time, we can’t see what that way is, otherwise it wouldn’t be anxiety-producing to be in the middle. We’re in Day Two. We’re in Day Two of the pandemic, we’re in Day Two of the long overdue racial reckoning.

Several years ago, Brene spent the day with Pixar employees. During a lunch that day, the conversation was focused on the unavoidable uncertainty and vulnerability of the creative process, and these filmmakers were explaining how frustrating it is that absolutely no amount of experience or success gives you a free pass from this daunting level of doubt that is a part of film making. And as they were talking, Brene was thinking, “Day Two? Sounds like Day Two. She connected with them…and they agreed…“Right, you can’t skip the middle.”  One of the writers in the room shared an observation saying, “You know, Day Two is like the second act in a three-act story. It’s always the toughest for our teams. It’s where we struggle with our characters and our narrative arc.”

Act One, think about this, is where the protagonist, the main character, is called to an adventure or called into a journey, accepts the adventure, and the rules of the world are established. So, when I say the rules of the world are established, it means that we understand the landscape of things. We understand what the rules are, we understand, “Okay, in Black Panther, Wakanda’s hidden away. Oh, but they’ve got a material source that people are after, so there’s something valuable, but the world doesn’t know.”  So, we start to understand what the rules are. Act One is also the inciting at the very end…the end of Act One, is the inciting incident. That’s when it hits the fan. Something really hard happens.

So, here’s the interesting part about Act Two. Act Two is where the protagonist looks for every comfortable way to solve the problem. Every easy way to solve the problem. Every way to solve the problem that does not require the hero’s vulnerability. How can I solve it without being vulnerable? And it’s not until the lowest of the low moment happens, where our protagonist, our hero, realizes, “I can’t solve the problem without vulnerability.”  Then we go to Act Three, which is where the protagonist learns the lesson, proves that she has learned the lesson, proves it at all costs, which is primarily vulnerability.

And it’s all about redemption. Our character has gone on this journey, has learned about the importance of “whatever” … Has had horrible trials and tribulations, but has learned about the value of stripping it all down and putting yourself out there and being brave and vulnerable.

So, right now, we’re in the messy middle. We are in Day Two.  And in order to continue our journey toward health and wholeness, without turning back, we’re going to have to strip it all down and get really, deeply, messy human. When we look at our lives right now, our work, our family, our faith, our friends, what would it mean to get a little bit more honest and a little bit more human and vulnerable right now? What would we say or ask for? If we could say “we’re at the point of no return, thank God, let’s just take it all off and get honest,” what would happen? How much faster and how much more effectively could we stop the brutality and make change? I think what sucks and what’s the hardest part about Day Two is exactly what the Pixar team pointed out – that it’s a non-negotiable part of the process, whether it’s a pandemic or an uprising or a difficult process at work, a fight with our partners; experience does not give us easy passage through the middle space.

I want to say that again: No matter what the middle is, experience does not give us easy passage through struggle. Experience only grants us a little grace that whispers, “This is a part of the process. Stay the course. Stay the course.” We’re in Day Two friends, and again, experience doesn’t even give us a little spark of light in this mess right now, it only gives us a little bit of faith that we can navigate it together. Most of the time when we’re in complete darkness, we wave our arms around to reach out and grab someone who can walk with us, to get our bearings, to give us perspective, to hold on to. It’s probably that time. Remember, the middle is messy, but it’s also where the magic happens. If we believe in ourselves, if we reach out together, and if we lean into a little bit of that grace that says, “We can get through this.” We can get through this, together.

Because Jesus tells us, that in the middle of this process of listening and truly talking it out with each other,  “where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among you.”  So, let’s try it, let’s put down our defenses, our walls and be willing to be vulnerable with each other, to really listen to our brothers and sisters, and to find our way out of the darkness, together.  Amen.