Sunday, September 4, 2011

"Two or three sinners walk into a church . . . "

Texts: Romans: 13:8-14 (love and law), Matthew 18:15-20 (conflict and repentance)

This Tuesday evening, our Central Board meets for the first time this season. Perhaps it is timely, then, that we have just heard another passage in which Jesus talks about the church. It is the second such reading from Matthew we have encountered in the last month. These two readings are the only places that Jesus says anything about the church in all the gospels. And today, Jesus focuses on conflict in the church.

Conflict in the church -- in local congregations, within a denomination like the United Church of Canada, and between the world's different Christian denominations -- is quite common, unfortunately. Sometimes we disagree about doctrines. Sometimes we disagree about cultural issues such as equality for men and women in the church. And at the local level, we sometimes disagree about how to spend our money or fulfill our mission.

Church disputes are often resolved by the respectful airing of differences that leads to consensus. But at other times, church disputes end in fighting, unhappiness and splits.

In our reading today, Jesus suggests that if another church member has offended us, we should first try to resolve the issue face to face. If that doesn't work, he then suggests that a select group of elders try to help the wayward member see the light. It is only when these efforts fail that Jesus suggest that the church then treat the offender as a quote "Gentile and a tax collector."

But how does one know when a fellow church member has committed a sin? An action that I might consider to be offensive might be quite acceptable to another one of us. And what does Jesus mean when he says that we should treat a church member who refuses to repent as though he were a Gentile and a tax collector? Is not Jesus famous for bringing the good news of God's healing not just to the Jews but also to the Gentiles? And is not Jesus also famous for spending time with, eating with, and becoming friends with the hated people who collected taxes for the Romans in Palestine during his ministry?

I hope that a simple example of a dispute from my former church in Toronto might give us some context. Three years ago, all of the windows in the sanctuary of that church were being replaced. After 80 years of existence, window replacement was one of many upgrades required in the church building. One Sunday during the service, a maintenance committee member announced that there would be a congregational meeting after the service to make a decision about the replacement of the last of the windows. It was the large, plain window that fronted out onto the street at the back of the sanctuary.

The committee proposed that the ordinary glass be replaced by stained glass similar to many of the other windows in the sanctuary. The committee had found an artist who had created a design, and we were asked to approve it. Since the work on the window was happening that week, the church needed to make a decision that day.

About 45 of us stayed after the service to discuss this stained glass design. When I had glimpsed the design as it circulated during the service, I didn't much like it, so I wanted to have my say. In the meeting, some others also said that they didn't like the design. Unfortunately, it was the only design on offer. So if we rejected it, the window would be replaced that week, but with ordinary glass as before.

Other people, however, liked the design just fine and were grateful to the committee for coming up with the idea and bringing it to the congregation for approval. After about 15 minutes of discussion, the issue was put to a vote. 30 people voted for the design and 15 of us voted against. Since two thirds had voted yes, the decision was approved. And the stained glass window with the design that I don't like has been at the back of that sanctuary for more than three years now.

Not a big deal, eh? But it made me think about how we reach decisions in a church. I don't always support making church decisions by voting. Sometimes I prefer that we thoroughly discuss an issue, hear other viewpoints, and figure out what feelings and values lie behind different opinions. The hope in such a process is that a consensus would emerge.

When a large group have objections to what the majority proposes, then perhaps a decision should be postponed. Unfortunately, in the case of the stained glass window there was no time to wait -- the window was going to be replaced that week regardless of what we decided.

In the grand scheme of things, who cares about a stained glass window? Well I for one seemed to care, at least at the time. Perhaps at that time, I might even have gone as far as to conclude that the maintenance committee had sinned against me and the church. They had called a meeting where a decision had to be made on the spot. They had only commissioned one design. And in a final insult, they had chosen a design that I considered to be ugly!

But if I step back from my reaction and judgement, I might also be able to see things from the point of view of the maintenance committee. Like all church committees, its members volunteered their time. They were supervising renovations that we all agreed were necessary. They had decided to use the renovations as an occasion to change a plain and drab window into one that conveyed more of the story and beauty of our faith. And they had decided to seek approval of this idea from the whole church instead of going ahead without feedback. Seen in this light, I have difficulty being as upset now as I was then about their work.

Further, if I look within myself to examine why the issue seemed so important to me, I might find things of which I am not proud. Was I more focused on the church building than on proclaiming and living God's good news? Was the high value I gave to a window a sign that I had stumbled into a type of idolatry related to beauty​? Perhaps I could go on . . .

I hope that this little example shows how I got caught up in an issue that later looked silly to me. If I had gone as far as to judge the maintenance committee as sinners, I would have been mistaken, I believe. Instead of making such a judgement, all I could truly own was my own upset reaction. But such a reaction then demands three things, I believe. First ,unearthing the feelings behind my reaction; second, discovering the desires or values that lay behind my feelings; and third, determining if those desires and values lined up with the values that I publicly profess.

Unfortunately, those three steps often do not come easily to me. The preliminary step of noticing that I am upset is easy enough. But going beyond that into discernment might expose things about myself that I don't want to expose. And although I might grow through such discernment and exposure, such growth often involves some pain.

When Jesus says we should treat an "offender" in the church like a Gentile and a tax collector, I believe that we can hear his words not as ones of condemnation and exclusion, but as words of welcome and inclusion. They point to the welcome that Jesus extended to Gentiles and tax collectors all throughout his ministry, I believe.

One of the things that I appreciate the most about church is the understanding that none of us are perfect. Al of us are sinners. All of us are sometimes in the wrong, and all of us need God's forgiveness. Indeed, the very next words spoken by Jesus, and which we will hear next Sunday, are about forgiveness.

In this light, to be treated like a "Gentile and a tax collector" in the church is to be embraced, welcomed and loved as yet another sinner by the other sinners in that church. This is also the advice we also get from St. Paul today; to treat all our neighbours in love.

Now acting in love does not always come easily. Given the difficult conditions we live under, we do not always have the self-respect that is the necessary condition for mutual respect and love.

The good news is that we don't have to achieve self-respect on our own. The Bible, our tradition, and our life experience all teach us that God in Christ forgives and loves us just as we are. With this reality firmly in our hearts, we are then freed to love our neighbours as ourselves even though we are not perfect and even though we don't agree with each other on all the issues.

In Christ's church, we are all sinners, we are all beloved, and we are all neighbours. So when we gather to discuss church matters both big and small on Tuesday or on any day, we do so secure in our worth and in our own salvation. We do so as ordinary, broken people who are freed by God's love and healing to love ourselves and each other.

Where two or three self-confessed sinners are gathered in Jesus' name, there God in Christ is also found.

Thanks be to God, Amen.

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