Tough Love for a Tough Crowd

Tough Love for a Tough Crowd

Romans 13:8-14 and Matthew 18:15-22.

For any one here who came to church this morning looking for a place that’s free of disagreements, slights & fights, I’ve got bad news…

Expecting church to be better than, nicer than, more well-behaved than other human communities is not an unusual expectation. But it stings twice as much when church fails to live up to such high hopes.

Dissonance in the church community — I wish there were only a few “church fight” illustrations. Sadly there are too many to choose from.

Trouble is: deciding which one to use, which one will work in a sermon! If I get too close to anyone’s never-ending battle, too close to home, leave folks thinking I’m talking about them, make anyone uncomfortable, they’ll miss the rest of the sermon.

I thought about using the apocryphal story of Susannah and the Elders: there’s a church mess. But if you want to know that “church dirt” — about corrupt church members and the evil they wreak, come next Saturday night. I saw the opera here in the Sanctuary last night. I recommend it.

Instead, I’ve found an example from as far away as possible– a tiny, rural church. Rev. William Dawkins, 20 years later, can still recount the struggles as if they were yesterday. He says, “For three years I went to bed every night with knots in my stomach.”

200 yards to the east of the church sat the parsonage, and almost otherwise nothing but soybean fields stretching as far as one could see.

On the west side of the church, there were three homes occupied by three couples, all in their late ‘50s and early ‘60s. Four of their six inhabitants were ordained elders. But only 1 of these 4 elders was still coming to church.

4 years earlier, the two households had left, angry with each other and the church over a vote of the church board. No earth-shaking, radical decision; not even a particularly memorable meeting! Just people disagreeing with one another…

The ones who left had joined other churches in the county, congregations of the same denomination, though they no longer attended church very often. And despite the proximity of their houses, they’d hardly spoken to other for four years. In one home, the husband and wife had even stopped talking over this church fight.

The couple that stayed tried talking to the others, but their attempts only brought more resentment.

An interim minister had decided rightly in a small community the issue was bigger than the disputed decision or the few people involved. She addressed the matter head-on by preaching from our Gospel reading today.

In that sermon, citing scripture and the circumstances, she suggested, the congregation needed to stop in the middle of the service and process together to the homes of those who were on the outs with them.

It must have been quite a sermon, because the congregation did just that. At their front doors, the neighbors were appreciative and courteous, but their decisions were final; they were not coming back. Nothing changed.

By the time of Dawkins’ arrival as pastor, the church’s membership had dropped from 115 to 70. Disappointment over the failed attempt at reconciliation had damaged the congregation’s spirit more than anyone wanted to admit. Everyone, including their new pastor– young and green pastor– was left walking around on egg shells. For the next 3 years, until he left. I wonder if that congregations exists anymore?

Beloved, we do much more harm with our nursing our wounds, holding our grudges and maintaining our feuds than we realize.

The mainline church struggles more and more these days to get our neighbors, the world around us, to believe anything we say, or say we believe, or we say God promises. There’s no shortage of explanations for this widespread and seemingly unstoppable secularization.

For Robert Wuthnow, Wade Clark Roof and William McKinney, it is ‘declining birth rates” — families in the mainline aren’t reproducing at rates to replace themselves…

For Tony Campolo, it’s what he calls “affluenza” — we’re too rich to care about God or the Gospel.

For Martin Marty, it’s modern work schedules and “weekend trips” — to many hours of both parents working, coupled with the mobility of modern, middle class North America.

For John Buchanan, it’s lack of “mission…” defined as outreach ministries — we’re not enough about anything, except memories and the survival of an institution to matter to anyone.

And for Will Willimon, it’s because “Rotary meets at a more convenient time.”

I think it could be more basic. When people see a lack of forgiveness among church folk… When they fail to witness us working it out in love– through, or at least alongside of, our difficulties… When they can’t notice Christians are, in fact, better at living together, despite our differences… Well, then, why bother with church at all?

“See how these Christians love one another,” was the pagan observation of the quality of life among the members of this new sect, alive and growing in second-century Rome. Beloved, those noticeably different, ancient qualities of church’s life– compassion, equality, room for all, honoring the humanity of each, giving to every last person according to her needs… forgiveness, reconciliation, love– …a distinct, different quality of life set the church apart from all other attempts at creating community.

Do we model that? Is the love and spirit and transformation of Christ happening here? Sometimes– at our best– clearly yes! I often think more often at Old First than other churches– that’s probably why we are growing!

But there are also times and ways we show we want forgiveness to be a quick and simple answer… exactly because it never is? Jesus’ answer, rather, is this long drawn out process, with no end really… growing up, i guess you could call it. Or life!

Beloved, our hope vis a vis the difficulty of facing our disagreements as mature Christians is what the whole 18th chapter of Matthew is about.
It begins with a typically human dispute: Jesus’ disciples jockeying for position. “Who’s the greatest?”

How many of our disagreements are really posturing, trying to climb over others to get further up the ladder, creating a hierarchy of righteousness or wealth or some other measure of importance that benefits oneself.

Who Is the Greatest? Jesus calls a child, sets her down in the middle of us and says, “Unless you become like this child, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven…”

You can hear the gasp, even today. But children back then weren’t symbols of innocence, nor the endearing focus of a family like today. Instead, they were the epitome of powerlessness.

Jesus is saying: church, you have to give up all the fights for any “power over.” Here there’ll be only power among. …In that simple, single switch, everyone will find the care and protection each of us needs: no one will be put down.

But children aren’t only physically vulnerable; they are among the most spiritually vulnerable–they’ve yet to grow in faith. We all still need to mature in faith. Rather than tripping others up, getting in the way of someone else’s faith, maybe we should concentrate more on our own growth in faith?

Next in Matthew’s chapter 18 comes the parable of the lost sheep. Literally a lost lamb wanders off (…the Greek term used usually connotes ‘moral straying’). The shepherd leaves behind the 99 — left alone on the mountain — to seek one the errant member.

The one with the greatest need or the biggest weakness or the greatest failure– becomes the criterion of care not only for leadership, but for the whole community. Jesus’ point is hard to imagine, much less work out in real life: our being a church community is tied up in our care for the least among us or how we acknowledge and minister to where each of us is most vulnerable.

Here’s Jesus’ strategy for all this:

If you got a beef with someone, talk to him or her directly. Most of the time, we’d change the world if we’d only get that far– going right to the source of our discomfort, rather telling our side of the story all over town… to the ones we want on our side.

If that doesn’t work, ask for help from an other member of the church. Old First has established & trained a group, called our “Peace Builders” — not for if this happens, but because it does happen— but so that we have some help, “peace circles” to count on when it happens.

In the worse case scenario. before one can claim to have “tried everything,” the disagreement has to be taken to the whole church. After seeing Susannah here last night, that verse puts some fear of God in me. But, rather than some some Inquisition or Scarlet Letter trial, I think Jesus’ faith is that someone in the church, often the least expected, might have just the right words or needed action to get the offended parties past their impasse or breach.

In the end, Jesus says, if nothing works, then we treat the offender like a “tax collector or a sinner.”

This is the part we like, the easy way out: skip steps 1, 2 and 3 to jump right here. Judging, shunning, excommunicating– it‘s more fun and a lot better than the hard work of living together with all the tensions.

Only problem, the text doesn’t mean that. Jesus doesn’t allow us to drive people out of this community, physically or with our stealth weapon, peer pressure.

“Treat your enemy like a tax collector or sinner” when Jesus is talking…. in Jesus’ teaching…. set up with the story “Who’s the Greatest…” sandwiched between the parable of the lost sheep and that of the unmerciful servant, next week’s Gospel, where Peter is counseled 7 times 70 knows no end of mercy…

…Treating a sinner like a Gentile or a tax collector is the prohibition of excommunications; it’s about finding ways to keep communicating, no matter how bad the break… No matter who you are or where you are on life’s journey God loves you, so we better figure out how to love you too!

“Love,” Paul writes fulfills all the horizontal commandments, our obligations to other humans. Love always has the final word: not sentimental, hormonal and romantic “love.” But Love as a strategy for putting up with one another and sticking together. As an act of the will. “Love that will grit its teeth and act better than we’re yet grown to be, trusting we will catch up in good time.” Love willing to suffer patiently, in an unrelenting effort to achieve reconciliation in community, even when, finally, forgiveness is the only way to approximate that.

Our faith believes “cruciform love” is both defining of the Christian community and the paradoxical power that overcomes the world.

So why isn’t it ALWAYS practiced in the life of the church?

Beloved, let’s commit ourselves to growing and changing; let’s show some trust in God, and in one another, and in ourselves. Roll up the sleeves of your faith and get down to the hard work. Talk to one another directly. Listen without getting defensive. Stick together through thick and thin.

There’s a reward, a blessing in that hard row to hoe: maturing together in faith, becoming the kind of community that transforms not just individuals, but the world.

Amen.