John Wooden was the coach of the UCLA men’s basketball team during the 1960’s. He was an amazing coach, whose teams won ten national championships in twelve years, which is a feat almost unheard of anywhere in sports, and unlikely to repeated in any sport, at any level. His approach to coaching was remarkably simple. On the first day of practice each year, he would only do one thing: teach his players out to properly put on their socks and shoes. The idea was that championships are won by learning how to do the most basic things as well as they can possibly be done. He would run the same drills the night before the national championship game as they ran during the first week of practice. By dong the same thing over and over and over, it eventually becomes second nature, so you can run plays perfectly almost without thinking about it. There’s a similar idea for people who play musical instruments. Proficiency at piano or guitar or whatever involves hours and hours of repeating the same motions over and over and over so that you build enough muscle memory to hit certain notes without really thinking about it.
I like coach Wooden’s approach because it in my experience, that’s how faith works, too. Church is like a spiritual gym where through weekly worship, by running the same liturgical drills over and over and over, our spiritual muscles are shaped over time by God’s grace and love, so that knowing and showing God’s love in our lives becomes almost like second nature.
Today’s gospel lesson reminds us that this work is a team sport. Jesus offers instructions on how to handle conflict in the church reminds us that faith isn’t just a private transaction between us and God, it’s about how we share our lives with each other.
Anyone who’s ever been part of a family, or worked in an office, or been part of a church—so basically, everyone—knows that conflict and disagreement are inevitable. It’s just what happens when human beings live together. Whenever I meet with couples for pre-marital counseling, I tell them, “the only thing that will really worry me is if you tell me you never argue, because if you say you never argue you’re either lying to me or you’re lying to each other.” The trick with marriage is not to avoid arguing or disagreeing. The trick with marriage is to disagree in a way that leads to understanding, forgiveness, and deeper love.
Conflict is a constant in life for two simple reasons: people are different, and people aren’t perfect. Life in a family, or a neighborhood, or a city, or a nation requires a constant practice of making room in ourselves for someone else: someone else’s politics, or bad tv shows, or organizing habits, or whatever other preferences and quirks.
Today’s gospel lesson reminds us that this is some of the main work of the spiritual life. After giving the advice, he reminds us that our relationships here on earth resonate in heaven: “whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.”The church is a training ground where we are formed more fully in the image of God’s grace and love. How we connect with other people is a key part of how that happens, because our connections with each other is where love, and grace, and forgiveness really start to count.
I love all the ways we run those drills of connection here at Trinity Cathedral. I see it in our Sunday adult forum, where a group of folks with all kinds of different perspectives and opinions share their thoughts about almost every topic imaginable, people can disagree but stay connected, and then come and share Christ’s body and blood together. I see it in our Wednesday Bible Studies, where people have different perspectives and opinions and interpretations and we all learn from each other and don’t worry too much about who is right or wrong. I see it in the way the choir—a diverse group of people, take care of each other and share their lives as they’re drawn closer to each other through the demanding work of lifting our spirits in song. I see it in our weekly altar guild teams, who share their lives with each other as they do the holy and hard work of arranging, and cleaning, and caring for our altar and the vessels for Christ’s sacraments. I see it over and over and over as I live and work among you week by week.
Our connection to God cannot be separated out form our connections with each other. Teresa of Avila, a 16th century nun famously wrote that “Christ has no body but yours, No hands, no feet on earth but yours.” I might add: Christ has no forgiveness but yours, Christ has no love but yours. Practicing God’s love and grace and forgiveness in here forms us to put that on display out there, for a world where those things are in desperately short supply.
The core of our faith is that there is no sin God can’t forgive, there is no evil God’s love can’t destroy, there is no one so lost that God cannot find. We exist as the church to show the world that’s true. We can only be credible signs of grace for the world when we are regularly practicing that grace with each other.
Today is the first day of the new program year. As we set out in this new season, I hope and pray this will be a year we connect more deeply, learn how to love and forgive and live with one another more fully, so that we might be a sign and sacrament to a broken, conflicted, divided world of the endless, life-saving power of God’s love. Amen.