Thumper’s Dad was Right!
Sept. 6 Thumper’s Dad was Right! Exodus 12:1-14; Psalm 149 (or Psalm 148); Romans 13:8-14; Matthew 18:15-20
I was here at the church working outside this week, when I noticed two men walking around the parsonage, so I asked them if they would like to see the inside, which they did. They were father and son, dad was very talkative, joking about “kids these days” in reference to his son, who was probably in his late forties, but the son was quiet, even though he was the one looking for a place to live. I didn’t get their names, but dad said he had come here as a kid to go to church, but his family moved to Camas UMC when they built that church. He claims he was driven away by the “old ladies” in charge there, and never returned to church.
Every church has its own dynamics, but every church has power struggles like any other social system. And it is not just the women. Some churches struggle with pastors who have too much power, especially those churches that were started by that pastor. We in the UMC tend to avoid this by moving our pastors frequently, which causes other problems. Our churches tend to have one or two people as the unofficial leaders, who often have been there for decades, and seek to keep the church the same as it was decades ago. Conflict arises whenever someone wants to start something new or tries to adapt to the societal changes threatening to make the church irrelevant to those outside of the church. and the church slowly shrinks as no compromises can be reached and nothing gets done. Too often, folks think church is the place where everyone must be nice, so open discussion is shunned in order to avoid conflict. Younger members who have new ideas that could move the church forward are given a “No!” to their ideas and give up and go somewhere else or stop going to church all together.
In such churches, differences of opinion are ignored but they still fester, those in charge refusing to let differing voices be heard. So, over the years, things are quiet but at some point come to a head. Instead of taking small steps forward, discussing things with civility, one day everything explodes, and people leave the church. Entire denominations split because of their refusal to find common ground and make compromises.
Now this is one case where I don’t want anyone to follow my example. I hate conflict and often don’t have the courage to have crucial conversations when problems are still small. In the coming weeks we will be looking at how to have better courageous conversations, working towards an environment where everyone feels that they are heard and their opinion is valued, and that they are valued as equal members of the church. If we are to survive as a church, we must be a people who are forward-looking and pushing our comfort zones, but loving each other enough to face our conflicts and solve them, and where the answer to new ideas is “Yes!”. Our Gospel reading for today is Matthew 18:15-20. It reads:
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. 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. 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. 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. 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. For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.
Now Jesus here says that one sins against the other but doesn’t give any details. It is worth noting that sometimes we get to the same place without sinning: we let ourselves be divided over differences of opinion. Often this will lead to sinful behavior, but not always. The Biblical witness as found in the New Testament, both in the Gospels and in the Letters, is that the group has more power than the individual. This of course reflects society in general at that time, which was not so hyper-individualistic as we are today. Nowadays, the individual comes first, and everyone is free to say and do whatever they want without any regard to how it affects others, especially with the anonymity of the internet. But the Bible teaches us to put the church community first. That first step Jesus gives us, to meet face to face alone, is the hardest one. Few can do it. Instead, we resort to doing things behind the other person’s back, gossiping and resorting to character assassination. We try to build an army to attack our opponent and avoid doing the tough work ourselves. Instead of nipping things in the bud, we allow our conflicts to grow until there can be no easy solutions.
Jesus tells us that the church has the final word, and that word is bound in heaven. When we are in the midst of conflict, we become very shortsighted. We only want to have our way. But Jesus reminds us that how we handle conflict can have eternal consequences. None of us wants the responsibility of determining a person’s eternal home, that’s Jesus’ job, but we still separate others and condemn them as being not worthy of entrance into our presence. We prefer to be with those who agree with us and don’t challenge us. We avoid those who are in any way different than us and lose out on their insights and experiences. We lose out on seeing things from a different perspective and miss opportunities to move forward because we are too invested in how things are, unable to see what is needed to be done in order to grow and advance. In confusing times like this, we must trust each other and look for the Spirit to provide guidance and ideas in unexpected places.
There are few things I hate more than having to preach on how we should treat each other better, so I will keep this short. The message here is to put the needs of the church before your own, and that is counter to what we are told by our culture. We are to trust others here, recognizing that they are the one the Spirit may use to guide us, even those we don’t get along with. We should make it a practice to assume the best in others and consider our differences as a source of new ideas and personal growth in new directions, if we can keep our temper in check. It takes hard work. As Paul reminds us, we are to treat each other with love, and live in an honorable manner. Any comments?