HEBREW BIBLE LESSON Hosea 2:2-23
EPISTLE LESSON Matthew 18:15-20
SERMON: “If the Church Were Christian . . . (part 2) . . . Reconciliation Would Be Valued over Judgment” When I was growing up in Chicago my best friend was a girl who lived next door. Her name was Belinda, but everyone called her “Binna” because that was all her brother, who was about two when she was born, could manage to say. When I think about nicknames, “Binna” wasn’t all that bad, compared to what her brother had to deal with. He was named Lambert after his father, and the nickname for him became “Lamby.” Horrible thing to do to a child, especially a boy – call him “Lamby.” That lasted until he was 12, at which point he declared that he was to be called “Bert,” and anyone who called him “Lamby” would get a hard punch in the stomach. It only took one child to test the threat for the rest of us to believe he meant it. Sadly, it seems that violence, whether on a global or personal scale, too often becomes the way we settle our disputes and get what we want.
Binna and her family were Catholic, and one of the things I clearly remember was that Saturday, about 5:00 p.m. Binna’s family would all stop whatever they were doing and go to “Confession and tell a priest everything whatever they had done wrong that week. Then the priest would routinely prescribe a certain number of prayers to be said. Only then would they be okay to go to mass on Sunday morning.
In our Reformed tradition we include a prayer of confession and assurance of pardon as an essential part of worship. The theological theory is that as imperfect, sometimes even rebellious people of God, we ought to confess our sins and receive pardon before getting closer to a Holy God through the reading and proclamation of Scripture. Sometimes it feels like we place more emphasis on what we have done wrong than on what God has done right: the forgiveness of sins, the assurance of pardon.
Again and again, Jesus told us that God loves us, that he came so that we could be reconciled to God. Over and over again when someone approached Jesus with a request for healing, beyond the desired physical healing, he offered spiritual and emotional healing when he told them that their sins were forgiven. The only people I remember him openly criticizing were the Pharisees when they were busy trying to discredit and embarrass Jesus or to condemn people whom they believed were their inferiors.
If the Church would be truly Christian, while it would not condone sin, it would also refrain from mercilessly condemning the sinner. Our task is to tell the truth in love. Judgment is God’s job. This approach opens the church to welcome all kinds of people.
I came across this piece during the week. I regret that I did not take note of the author, but it is too important not to share. The author wrote:
It’s easy to poke fun at some of the things churches say on their welcome sign. It’s easy to question some of the things that make it inside a church bulletin. It’s easy to say “this is bad,” but it’s a lot harder to say “this is good.” Anyone can critique, but creating is a lot more difficult.
So what does a great welcome message look like? What does an awesome welcome message look like?
It looks exactly like what “Our Lady of Lourdes Catholic Community” has in their church: . . .
We extend a special welcome to those who are single, married, divorced, gay, filthy rich, dirt poor, yo no habla Ingles. We extend a special welcome to those who are crying new-borns, skinny as a rail or could afford to lose a few pounds.
We welcome you if you can sing like Andrea Bocelli or like our pastor who can’t carry a note in a bucket. You’re welcome here if you’re “just browsing,” just woke up or just got out of jail. We don’t care if you’re more Catholic than the Pope, or haven’t been in church since little Joey’s Baptism.
We extend a special welcome to those who are over 60 but not grown up yet, and to teenagers who are growing up too fast. We welcome soccer moms, NASCAR dads, starving artists, tree-huggers, latte-sippers, vegetarians, junk-food eaters. We welcome those who are in recovery or still addicted. We welcome you if you’re having problems or you’re down in the dumps or if you don’t like “organized religion,” we’ve been there too.
If you blew all your offering money at the dog track, you’re welcome here. We offer a special welcome to those who think the earth is flat, work too hard, don’t work, can’t spell, or (came) because grandma is in town and wanted to go to church.
We welcome those who are inked, pierced or both. We offer a special welcome to those who could use a prayer right now, had religion shoved down your throat as a kid or got lost in traffic and wound up here by mistake. We welcome tourists, seekers and doubters, bleeding hearts … and you!
“Bravo” exclaimed the blogger, “to Our Lady of Lourdes Catholic Community! That should be made into a poster and hung in church offices (narthex & conference rooms!) around the world.
“I love the thought [of] a few members of Our Lady of Lourdes Catholic Community getting together and saying, “Let’s invite everyone to come meet Jesus!” And then they started writing their list.
And it got long. Why?
Because everyone needs Jesus.
Everyone changes when they meet Jesus.
And they wanted to make sure everyone knew [was] invited to meet him.”
We work pretty well at being inclusive around here. It’s not easy. On whatever site it was that I saw that piece, there were comments following, and the first one was this:
“I would love to see this tolerance extended to the intolerant even. Why is it okay to accept everyone except the man who is blinded by racial prejudices or the Christian who believes in traditional marriage, or the old lady who hates the drums. It seems like some groups are fair game for bashing and some are not. Inclusiveness can be very exclusive in places. You have extend love to Truett Cathy (Chick-Fil-A) and Ellen DeGeneres to really be grasping the ideas in this welcoming article.”
I think it’s biblical for the Church to be that inclusive, inclusive even of those who are not so inclusive by nature.
Of course one trouble that comes with including everyone, is that inevitably we end up with disagreements. We have different ideas about how to go about things, what our priorities are. Jesus gave us a model, a proper procedure for dealing with disputes.
15 ”If your brother or sister sins, go and point out their fault, just between the two of you. If they listen to you, you have won them over. 16 But if they will not listen, take one or two others along, so that ‘every matter may be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses.’ 17 If they still refuse to listen, tell it to the church; and if they refuse to listen even to the church, treat them as you would a pagan or a tax collector.
So if you have differences with someone, the first person to talk to is that person. Perhaps it’s all just a misunderstanding. Maybe they thought you did or said something you didn’t actually say or do. Perhaps the words were heard right, but the intent was misunderstood. Talk it over, one on one. Both parties may save face by dealing with their differences in private. Many issues can be quickly resolved if we would just talk to each other instead of about each other.
There are all sorts of medical privacy laws these days – your doctor, the hospital, the lab – they aren’t supposed to tell people anything about you without your permission. I remember going for an MRI in 2010, and the receptionist in radiology asked, “If anyone inquires if you are here, may we tell them that you are?” They can’t even tell someone I’m there without my permission. Church folk are not so legally bound to keep personal stuff private.
There’s a short story about four elders who met for a friendly gathering. During the conversation one of them said, “Confession is good for the soul. We should confess our troubles. We would feel much better.” After a short discussion they all agreed. The first one confessed he liked to go to movies and would sneak off away from his office some afternoons. The second confessed to liking to smoke cigars and the third one confessed to liking to gamble. When it came to the fourth one, he wouldn’t confess. The others pressed him saying, “Come now, we confessed ours. What is your secret or vice?” Finally he answered, “It is gossiping and I can hardly wait to get out of here.”
Jesus instructs his followers first to talk to the person from whom we are estranged. (For some reason it is more difficult to talk it over with a human being we can see than to tell it to a God we can’t see.)
So many differences can be solved privately. The whole world doesn’t need to know your business. It is both kind and respectful of others to keep our differences out of the public eye.
In the washroom of his London club, British newspaper publisher and politician William Beverbrook happened to meet Edward Heath, who was the Prime Minister of the UK in the early 70’s. But then he was a young member of Parliament, about whom Beverbrook had printed an insulting editorial a few days earlier. “My dear chap,” said the publisher, embarrassed by the encounter. “I’ve been thinking it over, and I was wrong. Here and now, I wish to apologize.” “Very well,” grunted Heath. “But the next time, I wish you’d insult me in the washroom and apologize in your newspaper.”
There is something to be said for allowing people to save face.
Talking directly, one on one, doesn’t always work, so plan B is to invite a couple of other people to sit in on the conversation. Even back in the first century they struggled with “he said/she said” disputes. If private conversation, which allows for clearing the air and saving face doesn’t work, take a couple of impartial witnesses along. It’s amazing how much more carefully people choose their words when there are witnesses!
Unfortunately, sometimes that doesn’t work either. Step C is to take the matter to the whole church. At 51 years old, we are a very young congregation. You would be amazed, perhaps fascinated, to read the minutes of congregational meetings in churches like White Pigeon – the oldest church in our presbytery – chartered in 1830. Records were kept of people brought to account before the congregation for their misbehavior and wrongdoing.
Finally, the Lord tells us, if none of the above works, treat them as you would “a pagan or a tax collector.” In other words, write it off and leave them alone. Maybe you can agree to disagree. It’s one of those “Dr. Phil” kinds of questions: Would you rather be right or would you rather be happy?” I am learning that life is much more fun when we let go of being right – even when we are right.
None of us can control how others behave. The only person we have a hope of controlling is our self. When Jesus sent the disciples out two by two, he advised them that there would be people who would not accept or welcome them. If that happened, they were to shake the dust off their shoes and move on.
If the Church is to be Christian reconciliation must be valued over judgment.