Saturday, March 01, 2014

Church: A Human Institution

This is an edited version of a sermon I preached on February 16, 2014.  The scriptures for the day were Matthew 5:21-37 and 1 Corinthians 3:1-9.

I grew up in the church with parents who were active church members, and I understood early on that Church is more than Sunday Morning.  My parents were committee members-- even committee chair persons. My father served as Lay Leader as well as Administrative Board Chair, and more than once my mother was Chair of the Missions Committee or the United Methodist Women's Unit President.

When I was in high school though, I got my first “taste” of serving on a “real” church committee.  Sure, I had been a member of the youth council, but that was different: it was full of kids.  In High School, I became a member of the Administrative Board,
as a Youth Representative.  It was an eye-opening experience.  I will never forget one of the first meetings I attended in which  one of the older, long-time members of the congregation
got angry and got up and walked out of the meeting.  I learned that adults don't always act like adults and Christians don't always act like very Christ-like-- even in church meetings.  Or maybe I should say, especially in church meetings.

I think that this is one of the hardest lessons that we all learn: people are people--even in church.  Sometimes we say things we shouldn't.  Sometimes we get angry.  Sometimes we just are not very grace-filled.

We are all sinners.

I heard a wonderful interview with Nadia Boltz Weber, pastor of the the House for All Sinners and Saints. In this interviewshe shares some things that she tells her church folks. This is not exactly what she says, but this is the message I took from her:
I am GOING to hurt you.
I am going to say something or do something that hurts you.
I'm going to mess up like everyone else..
but if you leave the church because of that...
you miss the best part... The forgiveness part
If you leave before God has the opportunity to work grace,
you are missing the best part.

What I appreciated is that she said, not “IF” but “WHEN."  There isn't a question.. I will make mistakes as a pastor and I will hurt my church members. I am a sinner just like everyone else.

In fact, anytime, humans gather together in groups, there are some things that “naturally” happen. We call it politics.  Even in church, politics seem to seep into how we do things.
We begin to choose up sides, we pick our leaders, and we start to do battle.
Paul understood this and this is part of what he writes about to the Corinthians.
Throughout, he is trying to say that the church should operate differently!

For as long as there is jealousy and quarreling among you,
are you not of the flesh,
and behaving according to human inclinations?”   1 Corinthians 3:3

In Jesus' words from the Sermon on the Mount, we have what seems to be three different topics that are covered. First, he talks about being reconciled. Second, he talks about adultery and divorce.  Finally, he speaks about swearing and speaking honestly.

Although these three things may seem like a “list” of how to behave as a good Christian, I would contend that they are all three about being authentic person. And more than that, they are all about how we treat one another.

But, it is not just about how we treat others, it is also about how we think about other persons. Even our thoughts need to be transformed by God's grace. How we think about other people is important.

Jesus says that we will be libel to the fires of hell just for calling someone else a fool!

I think that perhaps this is a good place to say that Jesus is using a bit of hyperbole in this passage, but as Adam Hamilton has said, Jesus uses this exaggeration as a tool so that we will take him seriously; he doesn't expect us to take him literally.

Calling someone a name generates the same punishment as murdering someone?  The point he is making is that we must take our relationships with others seriously.  Even how we think about others.

In this passage from Matthew, Jesus speaks about leaving the gift at the altar and going and making peace with a person with whom you might be in conflict.  This is about reconciliation... about being in relationship with another person.

However, for many of us, we would rather be right than be in relationship!
We care more about “the principle” of the matter than we care about our relationship with the person with whom we have a conflict.  But, which IS more important?
The answer in this passage from Jesus seems to be the relationship!

What is the most powerful example of this?
Jesus on the cross!!
Was it “right” for JC to go to the cross?
Did he “deserve” to die in that manner?
NO! But it was about God's relationship with us.
Sometimes being right isn't as important as remaining in relationship with someone.

I have recently read a book entitled, TheAnatomy of Peace. I highly recommend this book-- READ it, digest it and discuss it!  LIVE it!

One of the insights I gained from this book is quite simple, but one that we often fail to recognize.  When we are conflict with someone, we BOTH think we are right!  Each person passionately believes we are “right.”

When we are in conflict with someone and we don't believe we are in the wrong, we might say, “why should I be the one to apologize when I am not wrong?”

Other times, we are willing to swallow our pride and make the first move, but in our heart of hearts, we may still feel that we are the one being “wronged."

When there is still a conflict within us, our hearts are not peaceful, but they are still “at war.”
Outwardly we might not be fighting, but within us, we know our hearts are not at peace.

So, how do we make peace in our hearts, so that we can offer our gift at the altar?

I think it comes back to the Golden Rule. However, it's not just about behaving toward others as you would have them behave towards you. We also much change our thinking about others. We cannot think about others as objects, rather, we have to come to understand them as people. 

Most of us would probably say, I see people as people not objects!  But, take a minute and really think about that.... how DO you think about others?  When people are very different from us, it can be especially difficult for us to see them as living, breathing individuals with their own thoughts and feelings.  We tend to “lump” people together as a group..
oh, that's how all Duke fans are...
well, every preacher is like that...

When people are "difficult" we say things like, oh, she's just a mean person” or ”he's always angry.”  When we make those generalizations, it's easier for us to see those other people as objects and not treat them as God would have us.

In The Anatomy of Peace  we are offered some guidance about how we can begin to see others as people and not objects.   (note: much of what follows is from the book, but I don't have page citations)

Once we can find a place where we feel comfortable enough, we can ask ourselves some questions which help us think about how other people might feel or think..

These  are the questions as I would summarize them.
  • What are the challenges, trials, burdens and pains of this other person?
  • How am I adding to these challenges, trials, burdens , and pains?
  • In what ways have I neglected or mistreated this person?
  • In what ways have I seen myself as better-than or worse-than this person?
    • or have I thought that I needed to be seen in a certain way?
    • And have these ways of seeing myself obscured my thinking about a possible solution?
  • What am I feeling I should do for this person? What could I do to help?
These are not simple or easy questions to answer!
They are questions that force us to think about someone else's perspective. In reflecting on them, we can try to get outside of ourselves and think differently.

There is a story in the book about a young woman named Jenny. She is running away from a drug treatment program. Her parents have brought her there under false pretenses and when they arrive, she runs away into the city. She has no shoes on and it is summer.. the pavement is hot. Two young counselors from the drug program follow her. They give her some room, but at one point they catch up to her and have a conversation. They are concerned about that Jenny's feet are bleeding. They ask if they can get someone to bring her shoes, but she refuses. So the female counselor sits down and takes her shoes off and offers them to Jenny. Jenny doesn't take them, but instead keeps on running. Both the counselors then with their shoes removed, continue to follow her...for another three hours!
Eventually, in the end Jenny makes the decision to go into the treatment program.

What was the point of the counselors removing their shoes?  At the time, they might not have been able to explain, but in the end, they simply knew it was the right thing to do. Sometimes it's not about what good something is going to do, it's about the good that it invites others to do.

Sometimes when we go to someone and meet them where they are, we are enabling them to join us in reconciliation as well.

Sometimes, we have to “go to” the place where the person is with whom we have conflict. It is only when we can put ourselves in their place at their level that we can begin to build a relationship with them.

We cannot go there with the attitude that we are already right and we condescending to their level. We need to have the attitude that perhaps we might be wrong or at least that we can learn something from the other person.

Reconciliation is a choice we can make, but it is a choice that begins in deciding to see others people not objects and that being in relationship is more important than being right.

Now, I would add this caveat to what I have shared: there are relationships that are toxic,
that are abusive and that are completely unhealthy.  There is a lot more to reconciliation than just seeing someone else's perspective. If you are dealing with a relationship like that,
then I think some of these principles are still helpful, but I would recommend some others as well. 

Even when a relationship ends, we can end it in a way that encourages further healing
and we can end it in a way that will only prolong hurt.

I want to invite you to envision two relationships. The first is a good one.. a relationship that is whole and good and sustains you.  What makes that relationship so good? Why is it important?

Now think about a second relationship: one that is important to you but has suffered some damage. How can you see this person differently? Can you hold this person in prayer? Can you offer him or her to God for God's help in healing? What can you do to take action to move this relationship to greater health?

I would like to believe that we can really live like Jesus wants us to and like Paul calls us to,
but the truth is we are sinners.  The church is a HUMAN institution because it is made up of us sinful human beings.  We are going to mess up. We just are.

But, as Nadia Boltz Weber said, if you leave the church because of that,  you miss the best part.

Because it's about God's grace. It's about working through the hurts and moving past the bad times and allowing God's grace to heal our wounds and make us even more grace-filled.

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