September 10 2017
18:15 “If another member of the church sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone. If the member listens to you, you have regained that one.
18:16 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 two or three witnesses.
18:17 If the member refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if the offender refuses to listen even to the church, let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.
18:18 Truly I tell you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.
18:19 Again, truly I tell you, if two of you agree on earth about anything you ask, it will be done for you by my Father in heaven.
18:20 For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.”
This is the word of God for the people of God. Thanks be to God. Amen.
Would you pray with me? Amen.
Let me start with a meandering story and let’s see if it opens a window through which you can see the grace of God restoring relationships in Christ’s holy church.
In the United Methodist Church, there are governing structures that are based on geography. Imagine a dozen or so churches grouped together in a cluster. Then imagine 60 or 70 churches grouped together in a district based on their shared identity around a city or region. Think Nashville, Murfreesboro, or Clarksville. Then even larger are all the United Methodist churches in a state. Then all the United Methodist churches in a region of states and so on.
Well the church I grew up in was part of the Ashland District, it was a collection of churches that stretched up the I95 corridor from just north of Richmond all the way up to Fredericksburg. For me as a young person, one of the notable ministry events of the Ashland District was a winter retreat at an old Methodist College out in the country. About 500 youth would gather one weekend in January or February for worship, fellowship, Sabbath rest, and good music by well known artists in Christian music. It was an opportunity to see friends from local youth groups and to meet new friends from churches on the other end of the state.
Behind the scenes this retreat and many other events geared toward the spiritual growth and edification were planned and implemented by the Ashland District Youth Council. This group of about 20-30 teenagers, supported by local youth directors, gathered often to plan these retreats that would draw our peers into experiences of God’s grace.
There were a bunch of adults over the years who provided counsel for the Youth Council. Some were active in my home church, others provided leadership at local churches, and others served on staff at churches across the district. These youth coordinators were pillars in my life and in the lives of my peers who also served on the District Council. I served on the council for about 7 years and then when I was a rising senior in high school, Chris and Vicky asked if I would chair the council for the coming year. I agreed.
Before the school year started, the council was tasked with reviewing its structure and communication practices so as to make ministry more efficient and effective. With this charge in mind, the executive team went on retreat with other youth council leadership teams from all across the state of Virginia. On paper, we overhauled the council’s structure from head to toe. We cut the number of adult coordinators and sought to empower the youth serving on the council to make substantial decisions. We left the retreat beaming with smiles stretching from ear to ear for a job well done.
At the next full meeting of the youth council with all members and adults coordinators present, the leadership team presented its restructuring report from the retreat. It went over like a lead brick being dropped from 30,000 feet into water. In short, nobody likes power being pulled from their hands and certainly no one likes hearing this for the first time in a crowded meeting. The rationale behind the restructure never got a hearing. It was perceived as a coup to push out well loved and long serving adult coordinators.
Over a series of weeks that fall, I lost a relationship with my best friend who also served on the council. I lost a significant amount of leadership capital in the restructure and cut off relationships with several of the adult coordinators who were angry at the perceived dismissal of their leadership. I avoided going to worship at my home church because I’d continually run into several of the coordinators. It was a long year.
Almost a year after this fiasco began, it suddenly came to an end. Several of the adult coordinators for the youth council also served on the board of directors for a summer metropolitan home rehabilitation ministry. Every summer I would spend a week at Richmond Metro Workcamp helping repair homes of older and disabled adults. That year I made the difficult decision not to go to this beloved ministry because the relational chasm was too large with the people I had hurt.
Oddly enough, some folks from camp came into the restaurant I worked in at the time to pick up a catering order for a worksite. I made polite conversation about why I wasn’t there like I had been in so many prior years. Then the opportunity opened-a friend of mine was sick and a work team was a person down. I was encouraged to take off work for the week and fill the spot but I was hesitant to be back in the presence of the adults I had hurt months earlier. I went home packed my bags and was at camp by that afternoon. Walking into the gymnasium where most of the evening programming took place felt like a homecoming. I was greeted by friends I hadn’t seen since the prior year. Then I heard it. My name was being called by one of the adult coordinators I did not want to see. I turned and smiled, and she beckoned for me to come and sit at the table across from her. She reached for my hands and spoke candidly about the past year and its difficulty.
I’m not sure what I expected that conversation to be like. I had avoided it all costs over the past year. I thought I was happier preserving the relational chasm than directly and honestly addressing the matter with grace. I don’t remember using or hearing words like sin, repentance, and forgiveness but when the conversation was over, I knew that was the feeling of reconciliation.
When was the last time you were drawn up into a church fight? Or if you weren’t in the center of it, when was the last time you stood on the sidelines and watched your brothers and sisters in Christ duke it out with words over a mole hill? When was the last time you witnessed a chasm grow between the church and an individual or family over any number of issues?
Doesn’t it seem easier when conflict or ungraceful actions emerge for one party to give way and disappear? That might be a quick fix but it’s not reconciliation. What about trying to restore the broken relationship directly, honesty, and with grace? Maybe it doesn’t work with the first attempt. So you try again. Maybe still there is no reconciliation. So you try again and seek the counsel and support of trusted brothers and sisters and faith who can provide perspective you may not already have. You go seeking reconciliation in the name of Christ’s church but ultimately no progress is made with those stand on the other side of the relational chasm.
So if reconciliation is not found in the one on one encounter, and then the one on two encounter, and then with the counsel and wisdom of the larger community, what is one to do? Should you cut off completely the one who has in Jesus’ words ‘sinned against you or the church’ if they don’t change their ways after one, two, or three times of counsel? The verdict is still out on this question.
Depending on how the interpretation is done, it could go one of two ways. For churches that practice excommunication, these verses seemingly back up the practice of kicking church members out when they don’t fall in line with the expectations of the community. Let them be like despised Gentiles and tax collectors who are outside of the fold of decency and God’s promises. If you can’t meet the standard of life in the community after brothers and sisters of faith seek to speak truth into your life, then there’s the door. You could even be helped to the door depending on what you did that was considered sin against the church in the first place. For some branches of the Christian family tree, this is a much used form of church discipline-(please take note I’m not interested in enforcing a standard of behavior or using this Matthew 18 model exclusively for doing life together).
On the other hand, think about all the gospel stories you’ve heard about Jesus pursuing life with tax collectors, Pharisees, folks in need of healing who stand just on the corner of the crowd hoping to be seen as he passes by. What if when Jesus suggests ‘let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector’ that it’s not in the spirit of excommunication but a spirit of pursuit and inclusion. Even if you’ve gone to someone five or ten different times seeking resolution and reconciliation and they still hold a hard heart toward you, keep a place at the table prepared for them. That way when the hardness of their heart begins to transform they will be welcomed to a place of honor at the dinner feast that Christ has prepared.
Let’s also consider in our day and age that maybe it wasn’t the actions of another church member toward another that caused the relational chasm that is in need of reconciliation. What if the teachable moment was reframed to help the church not only reconcile its internal relationships but also relationships with those who are presently outside of its membership.
I think about so many people who have been caught up in an old fashioned church fight, sometimes just caught in the crossfire. Now they want nothing on God’s green earth to do with church and Christians. Even if the church reaches out to make amends and restore the relational chasm, it has proven to be fruitless, time and time and time again. Their hearts are broken, their spirits wounded, and their trust of the church is slim. How do you trust someone or something that keeps hurting you every time you’re around it? I’ve seen the tragedy of it, folks edging back into a relationship with the church hoping to experience God’s grace only for a pastor, a bishop, or a church member to say something that extinguishes this ember of reconciliation.
A reconciled relationship whether it’s between church members or between the church and its neighbors requires trust and the willingness to listen. Jesus’ teaching creates space for listening to occur, for feelings and observations to be expressed. It’s written in such a way that if the sinner listens to the church, then they will see the error of their ways and repent. This assumes that the church member or faith community is right and justified in pointing out the faulty step of another. But in the spirit of reconciling relationships with those burnt by the church, the same instruction from Jesus applies just in the opposite direction.
The church takes faulty steps and often when its harmful theology and actions are unmasked, it fails to listen to the perspective of others who’ve been on the receiving end. The church goes on the defense to shore up its position, justify its harmful actions, discredit the perspective of the one who called out the church’s misstep while invoking terms like ‘biblical authority, theological interpretation, orthodox Christianity, and differences of opinion’ to sidestep the problem at hand. Church, when we’ve damaged relationships with our neighbors to the point where they don’t want to share life with us, the very least we can do is be quick to listen and very slow to speak.
We have our work cut out, to listen well and speak slowly so that we might regain not just a full life with one another, but also with those burned so badly by ungraceful churches.
Bless you in the spirit of the Everlasting God. Amen.