I realized that this sermon from September 10th was never posted… a month late, but here it is.
Grace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
5 years ago – in the Spring of 2012 – I received a telephone call from one of my youth minister friends. She was a graduate student and part-time youth minister at a small congregation in my synod. Her congregation was located in a neighborhood that had once been affluent but was not any longer. She had done a lot of amazing ministry with the local neighborhood youth who as I’m sure you can imagine, did not fit the typical membership demographic of this small, traditional, German Lutheran Church. These youths had never experienced traditional liturgical worship. They had never engaged in the standard pew aerobics that we take as common and normal. (You know – stand, sit, kneel, repeat.) They didn’t know what was considered appropriate or not. My friend would often sit with them and help coach them through worship. This was going very well, until one Sunday she was asked to play guitar for worship.
This Sunday no one sat these youths. No one helped shepherd them through what was still a rather foreign service. And as teenagers are apt to do – they were off task and a little noisy. The cultural differences between the congregation and the neighborhood became very apparent. Rather than kindly address behaviors that were deemed inappropriate with the youth directly, or even with my friend shortly after worship, a small faction of the congregational members instead started up gossip-mill. They wanted these youth expelled from worship and began the process of trying to make this happen.
When word finally got to my friend, via the pastor, the suggestions were – create a youth only worship service that she was responsible for leading so that they wouldn’t bother anyone else, or tell them they were no longer welcome. Obviously, my friend was very upset.
As we talked about this she was at a loss for what to do and was looking for any perspective I could offer. She didn’t want her hurt, anger, and frustration to cloud her judgment when engaging in a meeting with her Pastor and the ring-leader of the upset congregants. I told her this:
#1) I don’t believe in fractionalizing the Body of Christ. We don’t separate out subgroups of people and cast them into corners. We worship as a community. So noisy children, people with special needs, people with mobility issues, people from different cultures with different standards for what is socially appropriate, people with different stylistic worship preferences, and people who are “normal” are all welcome and necessary for the body to function at its best.
#2) If we say: “All Are Welcome” – one of those quintessential Lutheran catch-phrases – then we really have to mean that! We can’t just say all who look, act, behave, and function like us are welcome. And when new people enter our community, part of what it means to welcome them, is to help guide them. And to incorporate in their what they bring to the table. Even for longtime Lutherans, entering a new community invokes some anxiety. No congregation does things the same… there’s always a learning curve to try to figure out how worship functions, how communion is served, where you go after worship is over, etc… This is exacerbated by about a million for non-Lutherans.
#3) It is never okay to complain and stir up conflict when you have not addressed an issue with an individual first. It may not go over super well because they won’t want to hear it, but you need to quote Jesus’ Conflict Resolution plan when you meet with this group.
By Jesus’ Conflict Resolution plan, I meant this morning’s Gospel. In the text the author of Matthew depicts Jesus as addressing conflict amongst the body of believers. Our translation states that: “If another member of the church sins against you, go point out the fault when the two of you are alone.” It’s noteworthy to understand that in the time of Jesus, “the church” did not exist. Commentators argue that a more accurate translation or portrayal of this would be – if a brother or sister sins against you. The intent is to portray a deeper level of intimacy – not necessarily just some random stranger or acquaintance.
As Jesus is giving these instructions to the disciples it is highly likely that he was trying to give them guidance for how to proceed in the future when they are more active leaders. Not only with those whom they are helping to guide, but also amongst one another. We know that Peter, James, Paul, and many of the other early church leaders, did not always get along, and did NOT always follow Jesus’ Conflict Resolution Plan.
The plan itself seems fairly simple – if conflict exists. If someone sins against you – TALK TO THEM ABOUT IT! Direct communication. Work it out. When my kids were little they would often come to me tattling about something that one or the other of them did. You know, because reading their book without permission or looking sideways at a beloved stuffed animal was a grievous sin and completely tattle worthy. I would tell them – “I’m sorry. Mommy doesn’t understand tattle. My ears don’t hear it. You’re going to have to go figure it out!”
If for some reason direct one-on-one communication doesn’t work, then you bring in another member of the community. Have another set of eyes and ears. Get additional perspective. It’s definitely possible that you have been seriously wronged. It’s also possible that you are completely overreacting. Extra perspective often can bring about resolution.
If the private intervention doesn’t resolve the issue, bring it before the entire church. Sometimes it takes hearing that we are wrong from many, many people before we are willing to accept our sin.
Basically, Jesus is saying – no passive-aggressive behavior, no triangulation, no “parking- lot” conversations, no gossip. Just forthright communication. It’s much easier to complain to others about our perceived offense than to address it with the offending party. Elizabeth Johnson stated that: “Jesus leaves no room for self-absorbed grudge-nursing. Restoring a broken relationship must begin with conversation between the parties concerned.”
Finally, Jesus states that if this still doesn’t bring about any kind of resolution, then treat the offender “as a Gentile and a tax collector.” In the context of the Jesus’ ministry, Gentiles and tax collectors were often part of the fold. Friends. Followers. Contributors to the ministry. People who Jesus reaches out to regularly. So, this is a very tongue-in-cheek comment.
Karl Jacobson stated that: “Being a member of the church means you have a responsibility. If your sheep gets lost you don’t look for an hour and call it quits. You get out there and find that sheep. If your brother sins against you seventy-seven times, that’s how many times you forgive him.”
So – If neighborhood teenagers are disrupting worship, you talk to them and you guide them through worship. If a child is being noisy, you walk them around the sanctuary or get them a book or crayons and paper. You help their quite possibly overwhelmed parents get through worship.
If your least favorite hymn in the history of ever is sung, you sing joyfully because your least favorite is someone else’s absolute favorite. When the scary crotchety kitchen dragon lady fusses at you, you respond in kindness and point out that she could have been gentler in her approach.
Eric Barreto pointed out his is commentary of this text that: “This is no mere handbook for resolving conflicts. Simply following this order of confrontation will not ensure a result consonant with God’s hopes. It is not as simple as moving through these steps. We know that the mechanics of decision making do not always reflect our values. Checking off these duties step-by-step will not guarantee a decision rooted in God’s love for us. This process could so easily be co-opted by selfishness and dislike and so many other human frailties. Instead, what matters here is the concern for the other and the community.”
Unfortunately for my friend – concern for other did not prevail. Shortly thereafter she decided to focus on her studies and I suspect the relationship with those youth diminished. Jesus knows this is a possibility and continues with saying that anything that is agreed upon by two on earth will be done for them by the Father in heaven. This is a promise. He finally ends with: “Where two or three are gathered in my name I AM there among you.” I AM – God. Jesus. The Trinity is among you. Present. Really present. Not just where two or three are gathered and getting along. Not where two or three are gathered and in complete agreement on doctrine, liturgy, and mission. Just, where two or three are gathered.
It certainly includes all of those things, but it also includes where two or three are gathered and not acting as their best selves. Where two or three are gathered in conflict. Where two or three are gathered and cannot get along. Where two or three are gathered and are unable to come to any sort of resolution.
Because no matter how great the plan that is laid out for us is. No matter how much sense it makes. No matter how clear Jesus was… ultimately, we almost never do it that way. We do gossip. We do triangulate. We do act in passive-aggressive ways. We do look out for ourselves first and community second. We do ostracize and isolate those who are different from us. The noisy neighborhood teenagers are often NOT welcome. And in all of that Jesus is present. Especially in these times, Jesus is among us. In our times of joy, in our times of sorrow, in our times of peace and harmony and agreement, and in our times of contentious conflict, Jesus is with us. We are called to do our absolute best to live lives according to the Gospel – and when we fail – and we do!… Jesus is with us. We are loved. We are forgiven. We are extended grace. Thanks be to God. Amen.