13th Sunday after Pentecost—Year A—Sep 7, 2014
Preached at the Lutheran Church of Framingham
Let the words of mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, my strength and my redeemer. Amen.
Have you ever sat down and read a congregation’s constitution cover to cover?
Even if you didn’t read every word, you might have come across a reference to this passage from Matthew (18:15-17), for in many congregational constitutions it is the guideline for dealing with conflict in the congregation. This is what the ELCA Model Constitution for Congregations says:
Persistent and public denial of the Christian faith, willful or criminal, conduct grossly unbecoming a member of the Church of Christ, continual and intentional interference with the ministry of the congregation, or willful and repeated harassment or defamation of member(s) of the congregation is sufficient cause for discipline of a member.
Prior to disciplinary action, reconciliation and repentance will be attempted following Matthew 18:15–17, proceeding through these successive steps, as necessary: a) private counsel and admonition by the pastor, b) censure and admonition by the pastor in the presence of two or three witnesses, c) written referral of the matter by the Congregation Council to the vice president of the synod, who will refer it to a consultation panel drawn from the Consultation Committee of the synod, and d) written referral of the matter by the consultation panel to the Committee on Discipline of the synod
These steps are not meant to be used in cases where people simply disagree on aidiaphora—things like hymn choice or carpet color. It is for cases when individuals are acting in direct and substantial contradiction to the foundation of the church—Christ’s love for the world.
It is not about ganging up on a dissenter, who simply has a different opinion about how something should be done. The two witnesses are not meant to be backup for your point of view, who will blindly agree with you. They are meant to be there for the protection of reputation of all involved.
It is not about throwing out someone because it would make life easier if they were not around. It takes a serious circumstance to make it through all the steps to removal of membership, and the goal should always be reconciliation and repentance.
But these are (or should) not only be true of situations inside a congregation. We can use these guidelines for reconciliation work throughout our lives. For that should always be our hope, for it is God’s hope. Relationship is the whole reason for creation, and the maintaining of relationship is the purpose of our study, pray, worship, and fellowship—relationship with God & God’s people.
As Jesus says, if someone does not wish to be reconciled to you: “let them be to you as a tax collector or gentile.” They are to be separated from you, from the community, but not written off for eternity. We must remember how Jesus dealt with tax collectors and gentiles—he ate with them, healed them, taught them, gave them living water, and called them as disciples. And in the same way, we are always called to love our neighbor.
These guidelines for dealing with conflict and dissent in the body of Christ has little to with the judgment that will happen on the last day. That is up to God.
However God is part of this temporal process too. God is in fact the whole reason for it. God is the center, beginning, and initiator of all our relationships. God is what we—as created begins—have in common.
When I hear “where two or three are gathered in my name, I will be there among you”…a couple of things come to mind (depending the mood I’m in).
- uh oh…we better behave, God is among us
- thank God…for the promise to be among us even just when 2 or 3 are gathered
- oh yeah…with each person or two I gather with, we have God in common among us, whether we choose to use that word or not, and so there are standards for our interactions. Sometimes (I might even venture to say usually) that is all we might be able to agree on, and so God promises to be with us…to hold us as individuals and in our relationships.
5 of our youth and 3 of our younger families are at Hammonasset Beach State Park this weekend for the New England Synod’s annual concurrent youth & family events. And “Held” is the theme for the weekend. From the speakers and in Bible study we heard constant reminders that we are held by God, how that can feel, and that we are called and sent out to hold one another throughout our daily lives and vocations as well…when we are in right relationship with each other, when we might disagree, and even when we part ways and are as tax collectors and gentiles to each other. We are all still beloved children of God, fearfully and wonderfully made, and are held by God. Amen.