Monday, September 08, 2008

Pentecost 17 - Year A

Today’s gospel reading is about how get along in the church. Practical advice for dealing with those who get under our skin, or give us stomach cramps.

We often have this image of the early Church as a love-fest where miracles were as common as a cold, and no one raised their voice to another. All congregational votes were unanimous and people greeted each other like long lost French lovers. Like Woodstock with clothes on, and everyone was high on Jesus.

But Matthew didn’t include these Jesus’ sayings because early church life lacked the spice of controversy. If we think a disagreement over an elevator can become a problem, you should’ve seen the tantrums these baby Christians could throw. Brawling believers might get attention of some bloggers typing away in their parents’ basements, but most people would need to scrap the dust off this old newspaper. A church fight? Christians clawing at each other again? Yawn. What else is new?

I don’t know why that is. Do you?

Maybe, it’s because, as Protestants, it’s kinda who we are, what we do. The root word of Protestant is “protest.” So that’s what we do. We protest. We argue. We wrangle. We fight. We demand reform. NOW! Our form of Christianity was born from a mega-sized church conflict.

And any church consultant worth her weight in communion wafers would tell you that when a church is created from conflict, conflict become part of its DNA. Disagreement sinks deep into the church’s chromosomes and its genetic material is spread around until it covers every aspect of its ministry.

Some Lutheran pastors have said that the best way for us to do radical surgery on our appetite for conflict is for us to re-submit ourselves to the authority of the pope. If not THE pope then at least a Lutheran version of one. That way, if a divisive issue slithers into the church, threatening our unity, we’d have a central authority to crush the disruptive interloper with the heel of divine justice.

But I wonder if that cure is more cosmetic than cosmic. Plastic surgery for the soul. Ecclesiastical Botox. A religious tummy-tuck. The wrinkles may fade for a while, and the abs may look ripped, but everyone knows what’s actually underneath.

However, conflict can spur creativity. Martin Luther preached some of his best (and saltiest) sermons in round seven of his Cage Match with the pope. What's more, I doubt we’d still be reading Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s books if he didn’t drop the gloves to go after Hitler. And Jesus saved some of his best punch lines for the religious hecklers who could’ve strung him up anytime they wanted – and they did!

This isn’t just true of the church. Conflict, creativity, and competition go hand in fist. The Labour Day match-ups thrive on gridiron bloodlust. McDonalds needs Wendy’s to improve their tastier heart attack combo. And Prime Minister Harper is skipping church this morning to fire the electoral starting gun. Business, politics, sports would be nowhere without creative conflict. Conflict, at times, can haul out the best in us.

As Christians, the conflicts we stir up might emerge from our commitment to gospel renewal. We are never comfortable with the status quo because the gospel is always in need of proclamation in new and fresh ways. We worry that God’s plan for us is still half a light year away from invading our world.

And so, in a passionate call to renewal, in our zeal to announce God’s message of life and freedom, we Christians end up duking it out with each other, trash-talking our sisters and brothers in Christ when they don’t adapt as quickly or in the same way as we would like them to. Or we spend time attacking those we disagree, exposing bad doctrine, challenging poor practice, rather than proclaiming what we DO believe. At least I know that’s true of me.

That’s where Jesus’ practical advice comes in handy. And why I think Matthew included them in his gospel.

“If a member of the church sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone.”

Makes sense.

“If the member listens to you, you have regained that one. But if you are not listened to, take one or two others along with you, so that every word may be confirmed by the evidence of the two witnesses.”

Good idea. Covers your assets.

“If the member refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if the offender refuses to listen, even to the church, show him the door then give him the business end of your Kodiaks.”

Wow. That’s pretty harsh. But it was the agreed upon process. And it still is. This passage from Matthew 18 has found its way into our church constitution. This is how we’re supposed to handle church conflict. (For you would-be trouble makers - I’m looking at you Wayne - consider yourselves warned.)

In Halifax we had a member who would go visit seniors in the congregation to bully them into changing their wills, having them leave money to the church Endowment Fund, against the wishes of church council. I thought that Endowment Funds were unbiblical. To me it felt uncomfortably close to storing up treasure for ourselves on earth. It assumed that God would stop providing at some point down the line.

But he wouldn’t stop. So, following the first bit from today’s gospel, the council president visited him at coffee hour. She received a pat on the head and was told to run-along.

Then the council president visited him with the former pastor, and they were chased from of his house yelling “You can’t tell me what to do!”

So, the council president brought it up at the annual meeting. It wasn’t exactly a secret that this was going on. Believing he had the support of the majority of the congregation and it was just the “incompetent council and uppity pastor” who had the problem, he unleashed a series of motions meant to swell the Endowment Fund to two million dollars.

He was voted down on all of them. All the money people voted against them. I think even his wife voted against them. They weren’t voting against the motions. They were voting against HIM and all the trouble and anger he caused. They were voting against what he was doing to the church.

No one liked doing that to the guy. But they wanted their church to be the church, they wanted to jump to the end of today’s passage where Jesus says, “Where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.”

Wherever two or three are gathered in a spirit of forgiveness and reconciliation, wherever a couple people come together looking to love the world rather than bully it, wherever a few brave souls really believe that God is still putting broken people back together again, I am there in the middle of them.

While we didn’t take Jesus’ third bit of advice and push the guy out the backdoor - time and age would soon take care of that – his influence in the congregation diminished. He could have been a mentor to young leaders, a warm smile to visitors, or a cheerleader to energy and joy that was happening all over the church. He could have been the elder statesman. But instead, he smoldered on the sidelines.

What I like about this passage is that it looks at church life with terrible honesty. Yes, we will disagree. No, we won’t always get along. We will have competing visions and divergent priorities.

But Jesus tells us what to do when things get really bad. But he also moves quickly into the dream he and his followers have for the world, where forgiveness is at the heart of every relationship because its at the heart of our relationship with God.

And from that forgiveness, the disciples are sent to be agents of reconciliation in a divided world.

For us, God’s of forgiveness Spirit is always hovering over us, even if there’s only a couple of together. May this be so among us. Amen.


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