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The Rev. Dr. John H. Pavelko


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22nd Sunday in Ordinary Time

Matthew 18:15-20

Confrontaion that Restores


The Mission Fund Raising Drive

The planning had begun for the annual mission fund raising campaign. Alice drafted the leadership list. She decided that the time had come for a shift in leadership. The church needed new people to step forward so Alice left Anne off the list. Anne had served in nearly every leadership position and on almost every committee and board. She loved her church and sacrificially gave her time and talents. When she heard that Alice had excluded her from the leadership team, she was hurt and told several people. Word filtered through the grapevine. When a friend asked Alice why she had left Ann off the list, Alice admitted that it was intentional. “Everyone is sick and tired of being ordered around by Anne. Her high-handed ways are getting on people’s nerves. So I took it upon myself to let her sit this one out.”

Anne quietly withdrew from church activities that fall. She was too hurt to get involved or even to attend services. At first, she did not talk to anyone but later she began to express her concerns that Alice had made too many changes. The telephone lines warmed up as members of the congregation started discussing the pros and cons of Anne’s “concerns.”

The situation degenerated through the winter as members formed two camps. One supported Alice and her plans for a revitalized church under new leadership. Another sided with Anne and her supporters who had been at the helm of the church for over 20 years. Tensions continued to escalate through the summer and many believed that the church was on a collision course making a church split inevitable.[1]

 It is a sad reality that church life in America bears little resemblance to the teachings of Jesus in Matthew 18. Whether we are talking about how we relate to people within the church or how we interact with people in the secular world. The prevailing values or the lack thereof, in our culture toward morality and community have distorted and corrupted our interpersonal relationships. These attitudes have contributed to making the words of Jesus appear incredible and impractical.

Morality

In morality, we lack a consensus on the definition of sin. A postmodern world does not believe in transcendent absolutes, we cannot come to an agreement on what constitutes wrongdoing. In such a climate, every action or attitude is right if it feels right to the individual. “The chief ‘wrongs’ are presupposing that there are immutable and/or objective standards, and trying to hold people accountable to them.”[2]

This was dramatically illustrated in a conversation that a pastor had with a reporter during the trial of a denominational minister. The reporter asked why the minister was on trial. He could not understand why the church would seek to discipline him for following his conscience. The other pastor declined to comment about whether the man was following his conscience. She told the reporter that he was on trial for breaking a church law: a law to which he agreed to obey when he was ordained. The reported took issue with this. “But in breaking the law, wasn’t he serving a need in this neighborhood. And doesn’t the church exist to meet people’s needs?” “No, the church is not a market-driven organization.” responded the pastor. “The church exists to the glory of God, to proclaim the gospel of Jesus Christ and to invite people into a relationship with Him.” The reporter paused. He stared at the pastor with a confused blankness in his eyes. He could not follow her line of reason. She was speaking a foreign language.

Unfortunately, such an attitude pervades even the church population. We have misinterpreted Jesus’ warning of judging others to apply even to beliefs, behavior, and attitudes that are contradictory to the gospel. We assume that different strokes for different folks should apply to all aspects of life. We have forgotten that the Law governs our relationship with God and one another. But when we abandon our transcendent absolutes one person’s experiences and feelings are pitted against another. Rather than restore relationships we have accepted an uncomfortable and unpeaceful coexistence by honoring a mutual cease-fire.

Community

Secondly, we have elevated the autonomous self over and above community. We do not live in relationships to serve but to receive. We commit ourselves to a church only as long as the church is meeting our needs. Once the sermons stop “feeding us,” once the music team leader stops picking the hymns we like, once the minister starts changing the liturgy, we withhold our money and stop attending. If someone offends us or the Session decides to start a program or ministry that we do not like, we go church shopping. New programs are approved based on whether or not anyone will be offended, not the spiritual benefit of the program. We have forgotten what it means to live in covenant with one another. Membership is based on convenience not commitment.

These attitudes have weakened the health and vitality of our church community. We do not have the spiritual well being to support a family going through a long-term crisis. We do not have the sense of responsibility to confront and comfort someone who has fallen from grace due to a moral indiscretion. Therefore, we seldom witness the miraculous power of God to restore individuals. We have few testimonies of people whose lives were rebuilt through the loving confrontation of community. Restoration is relegated to AA groups or the therapist’s office. We assume that we are being “Christ-like” by limiting are conversations with one another to nice pleasantries. We do not want to appear judgmental or negative so we avoid topics that may cause someone to become upset or offended. A bland form of politeness marks our friendships. Our community relationships appear peaceful but are built with a straw framework that crumbles in gale force winds.

The medical community offers us a model of a covenant community. Certain hospitals conduct morbidity and mortality conferences for their doctors. The motto of the sessions is “forgive and remember.” The basic assumption is that doctors will make mistakes. They may misdiagnose an illness or apply the wrong treatment. Even their best efforts will fall short of the intended goal. Medical cases are present at these M & M conferences to learn from the mistakes not to blame. The goal is restoration not humiliation. Quality patient care is only maintained in an atmosphere of honest, open, caring confrontation.[3]

In the old Scottish church, John Knox would meet with the elders once a week for a time chiefly of mutual criticism but also to consider the faults of the members. But these meetings were not to shame or humiliate but to heal and restore. It was through this mutual sharing that the Scottish church was galvanized into a strong and dynamic church.[4]

In a few weeks, I will be sitting down with the Personnel Ministry Team to discuss the results of my performance review. Even if the comments are generally favorable, those meetings are not always easy for either the person giving me the feedback or for me. I know who I am. I know my strengths and weaknesses and my sin is ever before me. I expect to hear both good and bad. While it may not be particularly pleasant, it is still important to hear both. If I only hear the good, my pride could blind me to my own sin. If I am to grow, both as a Christian and a pastor, I must listen to the criticism knowing that I live in community with a loving body of believers who only want the best for me and in a relationship with a gracious God who forgives.

Eternity

The third distorted value we have focuses our view of the relationship between this earthly life and eternity. From our enlightened frame of reference, we do not really believe that what we do on this earth will have any eternal consequence. We have an almost universal view of salvation. We cannot fathom a god who would punish. God is love. We have rejected that angry schoolmaster stereotype of a god who is just waiting for us to make a mistake so he can swat us with the paddle. After all, “Once we confess Jesus Christ as our Savior our sins are forgiven and we have the promise of eternal life. Isn’t that what you preach pastor?”

 While I do not have the time to explore the topic to any depth, we must consider the words of our Lord. “whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.”

The meaning of the terms “binding and loosing” has been debated throughout history. In the Reformed tradition, they are understood as shorthand for what is said about listening or not listening in vs. 15-17. If the confronted believer listens to the warning, he is loosed by the pardon of the church. If the confronted person refuses to take heed, he is bound by guilt and excluded from fellowship with God as demonstrated by the church’s censure. Dale Brunner writes, “The church may calmly believe that when she takes Jesus’ command seriously the heavenly Father backs her up.”[5] The prayers of the church are not twisting the will of God. Our prayers are the visible manifestation of the Divine Will. Through our actions divine grace and judgment are conveyed.

Can a church become misguided and judgmental? Yes indeed, however, just as a church can through excessive legalism inflict harsh punishment so can it become too lax in its discipline and thereby allow sin to prevail, such is the condition of the church in the US. Through our overreaction to the abuses of past generations, we place a higher priority on tolerance then holiness. We have disguised grace with the garment of silence when adultery destroys a marriage. We have confused lenience for forgiveness in the presence of chemical additions. In our effort to accept the sinner, we have ignored the sin. Rather than heal the broken spirit or restore the shattered soul we have allowed people to wallow in their muck of their guilt and shame. Now we wonder why so many members of the clergy, in both Protestant and Catholic churches are being accused of sexual crimes. We have overlooked sin so often and for so long because we think that God is gracious and will also overlook it. Matthew reminds us that we are responsible for taking sin seriously because God takes sin seriously.

A Church Fight Avoided

The tension between Alice and Anne simmered through the long summer months and might have continued until it boiled over into a full scale church fight until one summer morning. The lay reader stood and recited the passage from Matthew. Anne bolted in her pew. She heard God speak to her through this gospel lesson. She looked around the church and wondered if anyone else knew. Did anyone else know that God had aimed those words directly at her? Alice should not have treated her like she did but how did she respond. She allowed bitterness and resentment to silently seethe in her heart. Then she rallied her supporters and formed a power group to thwart any idea or suggestion Alice made.

Anne knew what she needed to do. But what if Alice just laughed at her? What if she got angry and offended?

Anne prayed about it and then wrote a letter to Alice, so she could put her words exactly as she desired. She shared the pain she had felt over the past year. She told Alice that her decision to exclude her had hurt her. She asked for a meeting for the good of the church and their relationship. Alice agreed and the two met over lunch and tears. Both of them took responsibility for the things they had done and asked for forgiveness. Later Alice would tell people how grateful she was to Anne for taking the initiative and having the courage to seek reconciliation.

A friendship was restored through loving confrontation.



[1] William H. Willimon, “On Forgiveness,” Pulpit Resources, September 5, 1999, Vol. 25, No. 3.

[2] Carol M. Norlin, “Rubric for Restoration,” Pulpit Resources, September 8, 2002, Vol.28, No. 3.

[3] Norlin, “Rubric for Restoration.”

[4] John T. Mc Neil, A History of the Cure of Souls, (New York: Harper and Brothers Publishers, 1951), 249.

[5] Dale Brunner, Matthew: The Churchbook, Vol. 2, (Waco, TX: Word Publishing, 1990), 652.

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