Community Ministry

  • Hypocrisy? Re-imagining Church Conflict & Community

    blogpic.ConflictCommunityA sermon preached on Matthew 18:15-20 & Ezekiel 33:7-11 at Lutheran Church of the Atonement, Florissant, MO for the 14th Sunday after Pentecost on September 10, 2017

    It took me a long time to stop being surprised by sin. I didn’t want to see it in those I loved, in myself and certainly not in my church. I was well into adulthood before the sin and brokenness in Christians stopped surprising me. I have served three congregations as a solo pastor and two of them suffered from significant conflict.

    It’s why many people say that they don’t come to church—you’ve probably heard it as often I have in casual conversation in daily life: "the Church is full hypocrites." The Barna Group has done research that bears this out. The #1 reason people don’t go to church is that “it seems irrelevant today, and there are too many moral failings of its leaders—they’re hypocrites.”

    When I hear this, part of me wants to say, “welcome to the club!” Of course, we all our hypocrites including those who cite this as their reason for not joining us. There’s not a human being on the planet—not me, not you, not our Bishop, the Pope nor Mother Theresa, who behaves perfectly according to their faith and principals every moment of every day. The Apostle Paul wasn’t kidding when he said, “all sin and fall short of the glory of God" (Romans 3:23).

    But when my husband and I worked in new church development, I was saddened by how many people we talked with who had been hurt by someone in the church—stories from all different denominations, pastors and lay people, members and employees. And it wasn’t just that people had been hurt by the church, but that there was no accountability, no process, no repentance, no effort at healing.

    Perhaps if congregations of every stripe read Matthew 18 with more rigor, there would not be so many people who stayed away from churches because of a perceived hypocrisy combined with a lack of effort at repentance and healing.

    In our text today, Jesus certainly is NOT surprised by sin, brokenness, and pain in the community of his followers. In fact, Jesus EXPECTS conflict to happen in any and every gathering of 2 or 3 people, even among his followers. Rather than criticizing us for having conflict, Jesus gives us two things that distinguish the Christian community in dealing with disagreements and pain.

    The first thing Jesus gives us is a process by which to deal with conflict or hurt when it inevitably happens. Some congregations have even put this passage, Matthew 18, in their Constitution:

    The first step is that you speak directly with the person who has hurt you or who’s behavior is harming the community (I would qualify that by saying, "only as long you feel safe doing so"). This also means that it’s not appropriate to go tell everyone else what so-and-so did when you haven’t spoken to that person yourself. If that doesn’t resolve it, then you bring 2-3 people into the conversation. If that doesn’t resolve the issue, then and only then do you go to step three in which you bring the issue into the public before the whole community.

    Matthew reads as if you do bring your issue before the whole community, that they will see things your way. But of course, the whole point of the passage is that we might also be found in the wrong and in need of repentance. As followers of Jesus, all of us then, must be willing and open to have our sisters and brothers in Christ admonish or challenge our behavior, as much as we are called to do this for others.

    When I arrived at one of the congregations I served, there was a very active couple who were relatively new members. I had a great rapport with the husband, but I could tell his wife did not like me or my style, or my "out there” personality (I admit that when I was younger I was much more “out there” than I am now!). After several months, they each wrote a single-spaced one-page letter to the President of the congregation, which he brought before the Council. It detailed all my faults and shortcomings and excoriated just about everything I did in a cruel fashion.

    Were there things that I needed to learn from what they said? Absolutely, but it was hard to hear them because their method was so deeply painful. Of course, I wanted them out of the congregation, and I was surprised to see a couple Council members who were upset over their possible departure. Did they not just read the same letter I did?

    Jesus concludes his conflict resolution process by saying that if the offending person does not listen to the whole community then, we can treat them as “a Gentile and as a tax collector.” Matthew’s community might have breathed a sigh of relief, like I did, after receiving those letters—at least after doing this three-step process Jesus lays out, we can kick the buggers out!

    Well, not so fast. We have to ask the question, “how did Jesus treat Gentiles and Tax collectors?” Well, he hung out with them, he healed them, he called them to repentance, he forgave them, and he kept reaching out to them to bring them into the fold of God’s love!

    But the sinful behaviors needed to be changed, and I think this is the hardest part for us in the church. We jump so quickly to Christianity as some milk toast pablum of “being nice” which sometimes allows harmful and hurtful behaviors to go on unchecked. When Jesus engaged with sinners, he wanted the harmful behavior to stop: Jesus told the woman caught in adultery to go and sin more (John 8:1-11); Zacchaeus, the tax collector paid back those whom he had defrauded 4-fold, and he needed to stop cheating (Luke 19:1-10). Even today’s passage in Ezekielaffirms this need for repentance, “As I live, says the Lord God, I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that the wicked turn from their ways and live.” But once confronted and amended, the person then must be forgiven and welcomed and restored to community.

    A couple of weeks after those awful letters arrived, there was a crisis in the family of the couple who wrote them. Their adult daughter had attempted suicide and she was in the ICU. They had not transferred their membership even though they had stopped coming to church. I was still their pastor. To be honest, I wanted to run screaming in the opposite direction; I knew that I did not have the emotional nor spiritual strength to go to the hospital. I went into the sanctuary and kneeled at the railing. I stayed there and prayed a long time—I told Jesus I didn’t want to go--but Jesus kept me on my knees until I could go to the ICU and make my visit about them and their daughter, and not how deeply they had hurt me.

    When I walked into the ICU, they were as surprised to see me as I was to be there. After a prayer, the mom and I went out to the waiting room and she said to me, “I’m so sorry I wrote that letter, I don’t know why I did it or what got into me.” If Jesus hadn’t make me go, I probably never would have received her apology and the healing that resulted.

    How many times do we forgive and welcome them? Is three tries enough? In verse 21 of Matthew 18, four verses after our passage today, Peter asks this question of Jesus, “Lord, how often will my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? As many as 7 times?” Jesus said to him, “I do not say to you seven times, but 77 times." Seven is the number of completeness on the Bible, so in other words, your willingness to forgive needs to be limitless—just as God’s love and forgiveness of YOU is limitless.

    And that is the second thing that Jesus gives us when conflict happens—first he gives us a process, then he gives us a promise—the promise of his presence: “For where two or three are gathered in my name, there I am among them.” When the woman who wrote the hurtful letter apologized, it was Jesus’ presence with us who helped me say, “I forgive you.”

    Jesus promises us as his followers that he is with us—in the process, in the conflict, in hurt, in pain, in forgiveness, in restoration and in community. When we’re running the business of the church, it’s easy to forget that Jesus is right there in that room, around that table with us. Maybe we should make sure there’s an empty chair at every church meeting as a visual and concrete reminder that Jesus is sitting right there and calling us to love our neighbor as he loves us.

    That couple never did come back to church, but I would call them periodically and see how they and their daughter were. During one phone call, they told me that she was doing great and was engaged to be married.

    I have a colleague who, when she does her new member class at church—she tells them up front:

    We are doing our best to be a loving community for each other. But we’re human and we make mistakes. There will be some point when we hurt or disappoint you—not because we want to, and not because we don’t love you and love Jesus, but because we are human and we’re all sinful. And when that happens, I hope that rather than leaving, you will stick around and talk with me or our church leaders about it. Because being aware of our sins, and asking for and receiving forgiveness is when the really great stuff happens—a deeper sense of belonging, a profound connection to each other, and the power and presence of Jesus Christ is seen and felt and experienced.

    A seminary professor at Luther told another story of one such community. One of his students came from the Mennonite tradition. In his congregation, when someone’s behavior needed to be admonished or corrected, they would not have a one-on-one “confrontation”, but rather, they had a “care-frontation”. The offended person would bring sandwiches and have a “care-frontation” with the person that hurt them—so that the wrong-doer would know that they came in love, with a desire to keep them as a loved and growing soul in their church.

    This is the kind of community to which Jesus Christ calls us. Not perfect and surprised by sin, but human and broken and accountable and forgiving and reconciling—a place where Jesus’ presence is seen and felt and experienced in one another. That’s what people today want in a church—a community of integrity and grace and care, where harmful behavior is not excoriated and beaten with the stick of judgment, nor allowed to flourish unchecked, but rather, one characterized by Matthew 18 and its instructions for “care-frontation”.

    When we show up in the world with these values and behaviors, people out there will know what kind of community we are in here. Our story doesn’t end at hypocrisy—that’s where the really good stuff begins! For amid our human failings, we are a church where the process, the promise, the presence and the power of Jesus Christ is alive and active in every one of us and where two or three are gathered in his name. Amen

    Photo Source: http://www.kcisradio.com/2017/04/05/matthew-1820/


  • The Butterfly Effect, God-Sightings and Missional Church

    blogpic IwoJima2 butterflyIf you find a small piece of art placed in a public space, especially a butterfly, pick it and read it for you’re in for an experience of hope and transformation!

    My Dad and I just returned from a trip to visit both my sons at college: Jacob in Washington DC and Daniel in Sarasota, FL. Our last activity before departing for the DC airport  and heading to Florida was a visit to the Imo Jima Memorial in Arlington, VA. As we approached the memorial from the parking area, I noticed a decorated cardboard butterfly leaning against the stone railing alongside the steps. It looked like a collaged piece of art and I wondered why someone would leave it there and if it was related to the upcoming Veterans Day holiday.

    While Jacob and my Dad walked around the memorial, I picked up the butterfly art and found instructions on it. I was asked to take a picture with it in the location where I found it, email, text or instagram said picture to the address listed, and they would donate $250 to a charity of my choice! But the email address was for a school; how could a school be involved in a philanthropic effort like this? I responded to the instructions immediately by emailing my picture (at right) and was excited to learn more about this butterfly project and its spirit of joy, generosity and philanthropy.

    The Butterfly Effect project was founded by Tasha Wahl, spouse of artist Erik Wahl who distributes free art in a treasure-hunt like fashion: he places his art in different locations with clues on where to find them on social media; the person who finds the art becomes the new proud owner. Tasha, who was nick-named, “Butterfly” as a child expanded on this idea when she combined her favorite phrase first uttered by Mahatma Gandhi, “be the change you wish to see in the world” with the 1963 theory presented by Edward Lorenz which stated, “a butterfly can flap its wings and set molecules of air in motion, which would move other molecules of air, in turn moving more molecules of air—eventually capable of starting a hurricane on the other side of the planet.”

    Tasha wanted to be the change that would “hopefully set into motion molecules of hope that will set into motion molecules of faith that will set into motion molecules of love.” Once a week during her global travels and at home, she leaves a butterfly somewhere with clues on social media and the instructions I found on the Veteran’s Day butterfly. The butterfly is the finder’s art to keep, but the gift to charity in their name creates “the molecules of change that will bring hope, rebirth, faith and love to the world!!"

    Middle School educator Jennifer Cauzza of a Julian Charter School in southern California discovered Tasha’s mission and has made the project the theme of this school year. The goal is to teach the students that like a butterfly, the small acts that we take to help others can effect big change for someone else in the world! They have garnered sponsors for their philanthropic gifts, and every week during the school year, they too are dropping a decorated butterfly in a public spot to encourage the finder to join them in being butterflies who change lives around the world through love and generosity. You can follow their butterflies and gifts on Facebook and their website. You can see by reading their Butterfly Stories the wonderful effect and learning that is taking place! The sponsor of the Veterans butterfly that I found is Telacu Construction Management (if you live in Southern California, please commend and patronize them!). 

    After we left the Iwo Jima Memorial, we dropped Jacob back at school and Dad and I were off to the airport and were in Sarasota, FL for Veterans Day. As God would have it, we went to a Veteran’s Day picnic with a group for whom Daniel works called, Florida Veterans for Common Sense, which serves disadvantaged veterans. Daniel has helped them start a farm project for both training and income purposes. My $250 contribution from the Veterans Day Butterfly Effect project will be donated to them! It's a wonderful God-sighting to be in one state and encounter a "butterfly drop" and a few days later, be in another state having a picnic with a non-profit celebrating the theme on that butterfly.

    This really got me thinking about missional churches (which needs to be every congregation) who ask, “what is God up to in our community and how can we help?” Just imagine what wonderful connections could arise through a congregation participating in this project with a focus on their own community! The butterfly is often used as a symbol of Jesus’ resurrection, after all. There are such rich opportunities to expand hope, faith and love in one’s town or county by building relationships in person and on-line with individuals, artists, businesses, schools and others who want to “be the change” along with charitable organizations that serve our communities and need our concentrated support. The Butterfly Effect puts hands and feet on God’s work of hope, resurrection and new life. Contact Tasha Wahl if you'd like to find out more about being another Butterfly Effect project site: shoutout.wix.com/so/cL3vBudA!

  • Together in the Boat: Everyone's Included

    Life Groups SunsetMessage for Pentecost 12 on Matthew 15:21-28 and Acts 2:37-42 given on August 20, 2023 at St. Luke's Lutheran Church in Richardson, Texas. Because we are starting Life Groups in the fall, I changed the New Testament reading to Acts 2. 

    Our theme right now is “Together in the Boat” (which is funny because there are no boats in our readings today!). It refers to our Gospel last week when the disciples saw Jesus walking on the water in the midst of a storm. Peter walks on the water briefly before the wind scares him, but the storm only calms down when Jesus and Peter get back in the boat together with the rest of the disciples. Dealing with life’s storms and challenges is more successful when we are together in the boat with Jesus.

    We have a problem today, however, because our Gospel reading seems to challenge this theme—like Jesus himself is pushing the idea that not everyone is welcome in the boat of faith with him. But that doesn’t really sound like Jesus, so we need to take a closer look. He seems awfully rude to the Canaanite woman, while they are up on the border with what is now Lebanon. But I wonder if his comments are not really intended to teach the disciples a lesson.

    Jesus has just finished instructing the disciples about eating with unclean hands—that it is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but what comes out of the mouth—it is what one says that defiles, because this comes from the heart.

    In their encounter with the Canaanite woman, it is the disciples who speak of her negatively, that is with defiled hearts. Granted, she is their enemy, and Tyre economically exploited Israel, especially with grain futures, leaving only crumbs for the Israeli farmers. This woman clearly benefited from these economic structures because she is wealthy—her child sleeps on a bed not simply a cot like most of the poorer peasants that they know.

    So the disciples have no patience for this wealthy enemy, and they say so: Send her away Jesus, because she keeps shouting at us. She is a nuisance, a pest and the kingdom is not for her anyway. Send her away – the Greek word is apoluson

    But her daughter is sick, and no amount of money has made her well. She acknowledges who Jesus is, Lord, Son of David. This woman actually has the posture and the words of worship – Lord have mercy on me. She is speaking the traditional language of Israelite prayer and worship. Kyrie eleison.

    Do you hear the alliteration in their words?—eleison---apoluson. The alliteration in Greek sets up the contrast between the woman and the disciples. The woman--an enemy--has the mind and heart of worship and asks for mercy - eleison. The disciples, have the mind and heart of superiority and exclusion and say– "go away" -- apoluson

    Apoluson – this is the same word in Matthew, Mark and Luke in the feeding of the 5000. The disciples say to Jesus, "send the crowds away, we have nothing to offer them." That was pretty recent, and the disciples have not learned the kingdom way, yet.

    Jesus lays bare what the disciples really sound like, to hear the exclusion and defilement that was coming out of their hearts; how it sounded when they thought that all the good stuff of God was just for them:

    So using sarcasm, Jesus says to the disciples (not the Canaanite woman), Well, yeah, I was only sent to the lost sheep of the house of Israel

    The disciples hear how ugly the sound. And it gets worse before it gets better. The Caananite woman then kneels before Jesus, now with the posture of worship to accompany the words. With an urgent cry she says, Lord Help me. Again, acknowledges Jesus as her Lord and Savior.

    Jesus then magnifies the cost of exclusion and control rather than inclusion and embrace: It’s not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs. He is voicing the disciples’ frustration over the economic exploitation of Israel at the hands of Tyre, but personalizing it to this woman—it does sound so awful.

    Maybe the disciples are shocked at Jesus words – maybe they feel they are justified—but we do not hear another peep out of them. One hopes they really hear and see the defiling sin that can come out of the human heart.

    The Canaanite woman argues her position –even dogs eat the crumbs that fall from the children’s table. All people deserve God’s grace and favor, even a crumb. Because God's grace is so fast, even a crumb is sufficient!

    The gospel is preached by a pagan, foreign woman – even she, on the lowest rung of the social, political and religious ladder to the Israelites – is not beyond the reach of God’s mercy. Jesus commends the woman’s faith and worship and wisdom. She’s inside the boat—and so is her daughter. So are the disciples, recipients themselves of Jesus’ mercy and learning.

    The disciples more deeply grasp the truth that no one falls outside of the embrace of God. Then I imagine the disciples start to remember:

    • Jesus healed the Gerosene demoniac – who was also outside of Israel—he’s in the boat
    • Jesus touched and healed lepers, the lame and those wracked by demons – all unclean and outside of the social and religious communities in Israel—they’re together inside the boat
    • Jesus even healed the Roman centurions’ slave – another enemy and oppressor of Israel –and they’re together inside the boat

    Maybe this trip to Tyre and Sidon at the border had to happen for the Pentecost that was to come after Jesus resurrection to make sense at all.

    Because by the time of the Pentecost event in our Acts passage the whole Mediterranean world was visiting Jerusalem for the festival, and the disciples stopped asking who was in the boat and who was out—they just up and baptized 3,000 people! As you recall at the beginning of Acts Chapter 2, there were Parthians, Medes, Cappadocians, people from Phrygia and Pamphylia, (and all the other names you hope you don't have to read as Assistant on Pentecost!). There were wealthy and poor, women and men, single and married, kids and elderly. They were all gathered together in one place.

    The point is—everyone was together in the boat with Jesus. Now, they did not have a mega church building—so they gathered together in small groups and house churches.

    Our Acts text says, They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.

    Like the disciples did in the conversation with the Canaanite woman, they experienced transformation in their shared life together through the presence of Jesus’ power in their gatherings! They came to a deeper relationship with Jesus and with each other—they experienced healing, new life, and new relationships, so they invited others to join them! And that’s how the early church grew.

    We hope to grow this way too—spiritually, numerically, relationally, devotionally, missionally—by starting Life Groups in September. This is one way to practice living faith together in the boat with Jesus.

    Some of you have participated in Life Groups at other congregations—or done them here with our Rooted groups a few years ago, some of you have been in a dedicated Bible study group, or women’s group that share many patterns of a Life Groups. For others, this will be a new practice.

    We are hoping that everyone will give it a try for the 6 weeks of our Spiritual Growth Challenge in the fall, we hope groups will continue beyond that. This week I invite you to pray about joining a Life Group yourself. Then begin asking God to show you someone you can invite to join you in a Life Group, especially someone from a different background, like the Canaanite woman in our Gospel reading, so we too can be transformed through new relationships. 

    We are expanding the boat at St. Luke’s and we want to practice our All Are Welcome invitation with intention and love. With Jesus, no one is supposed to be sent away; everyone is welcome to receive the love and goodness of God.

    It’s time to let as many people as possible know that St. Luke’s is a place where they are invited into the boat together with us and Jesus! Amen.