WHERE TWO OR THREE ARE GATHERED

Matthew 18:15-20    Romans 13:8-14

Jeff Davidson

We don’t like Matthew 18, at least not all the time. One of the reasons we don’t like it is that it’s about conflict in the church, and most of us don’t like dealing with conflict. If I have a problem with you, it’s easier to cut you off. It’s easier to say something passive/aggressive on Facebook. It’s easier to unfriend you. It’s easier to tell people what a jerk they are. It’s easier to say, “Oh well, it must really just be my issue. It must be my fault.” It’s also easier to just ignore the problem, whatever it is. It’s easier to pretend it’s not there, that it doesn’t bother me, that it doesn’t matter. 

If I have a problem with you, it can be hard to talk to you about it. None of us like uncomfortable conversations – that’s why they’re uncomfortable. It can be even harder to involve a couple of other people in the conversation. They might not agree with me. They might think you are right. They might think I need to change my ways.

It’s hard to have those conversations, but it’s important too. It keeps us from cheap grace. What is cheap grace? It’s a term coined by the German pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer. In The Cost of Discipleship Bonhoeffer wrote, “Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate…

“Grace is costly because it costs a man his life, and it is grace because it gives a man the only true life. It is costly because it condemns sin, and grace because it justifies the sinner. Above all, it is costly because it cost God the life of his Son: ‘ye were bought at a price,’ and what has cost God much cannot be cheap for us.”

Many of you may have heard of Robert W. Lee IV. He’s the four-greats grandnephew of General Robert E. Lee. On MTV’s Video Music Awards last month, he said, “We have made my ancestor an idol of white supremacy, racism and hate. It is my moral duty to speak out against racism, America’s original sin. Today I call on all of us with privilege and power to answer God’s call to confront racism and white supremacy head-on. We can find inspiration in the Black Lives Matter movement, the women who marched in the Women’s March in January, and especially Heather Heyer, who died fighting for her beliefs in Charlottesville.” 

Let me read part of a reflection Lee wrote for today at onscripture.com. “I never fully understood Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s term cheap grace until these past weeks. You see I bear the name Robert Lee, and I am a descendant of the Confederate General who led the army against this nation for state’s rights to own slaves. I had the opportunity to speak up and speak out after recent riots surrounding the preservation of a memorial to General Lee in Charlottesville, VA. On August 27, 2017, I appeared on the MTV Video Music Awards with the mother of the late Heather Healey, a young woman who was killed when a car drove into a crowd of counter-protesters. The hate I have received has been surreal and pernicious. The threats I have received inconceivable. But it all reminded me that Christians are easily tempted by cheap grace.

“I’m positive Jesus would have called out the message boards and angry tweets if they were around when Matthew 18 was occurring. Jesus is clear how to handle disputes, disagreements, and anger in the church. But it seems to me many of our parishioners and clergy glance over this reality for the sake of ‘righteous’ zeal.

“It concerns me that I was told my appearance on the Video Music Awards and speaking up that black lives matter was enough for Christians to come unhinged and want to confront me. Some Christians have become so blind to hate that they have forgotten the importance of Matthew 18 conversations.

“Not to brag, but I’ve been told I sold my soul, that I am not to be celebrated, and that there is a place in hell that belongs to me. Does that sound like how Christ envisioned confronting conflict and discord amidst followers of the Way? Ultimately we’re all in this together. No wonder people say Christianity just isn’t worth it anymore. The discord of our infighting has drowned out the sweet sound of grace…

“I am convinced that the heart of the gospel falls nearer to love and reconciliation than it does to statements, hate messages, and Confederate monuments. So why does it seem that the loudest Christians on the block are issuing statements, conferring hate, and seeking the safety of idolatrous monuments?

“…We don’t have to live this way. In my own mainline tradition, I want to scream that if we don’t speak up now we will lose everything we hold dear. Because Matthew 18 leaves us with great hope… ‘Where two or more are gathered in my name, I am among them.”

“It’s my prayer that the loudest voice in the room will become the voice of sanity. That the voice is a collective voice that can only come from a gathering of people humbled before God’s love and not from a Facebook post gone viral. This is the greatest hope we have, that we are not alone and we can face each other with dignity and respect. This way of thinking shifts the focus of our faith from internal to external, from institutional to missional. To borrow from Dr. King, none of us know what will happen to us, but we’ve been to the mountaintop and seen what’s around the bend… It is costly grace that will lead us home, into the very heart of God in which we all dwell together.”  http://www.onscripture.com/gathering-resolve-hate

What I hear the Rev. Lee saying when he talks about understanding cheap grace is that a lot of people have been willing to write him off without talking to him, without understanding him. A lot of people have cut him loose without sitting down with him and listening to him and seeking God’s presence and will with him. Likewise, a lot of people who agree with him may be making decisions about others without listening to them, without hearing their stories, without praying and reflecting with them. He says he hopes that the voice of sanity “is a collective voice that can only come from a gathering of people humbled before God’s love and not from a Facebook post gone viral. This is the greatest hope we have, that we are not alone and we can face each other with dignity and respect.”  

The Rev. Lee had a difficult conversation with the people in his congregation after his remarks on the Video Music Awards. He ended up resigning his pastorate. That’s an example of the cost of discipleship.

Was God with Robert Lee as he considered making the remarks he did on the Video Music Awards? I don’t know. It’s easy for me to say that God was with Lee, since I tend to agree with most of those remarks. It’s just as easy to say that God was not with those who have been critical of him. And it’s just as easy for people who disagree with me to answer each of those questions the opposite way from what I did.

Our reading from Matthew calls us to invest time in relationships, time in people, and time in conversations before declaring a conflict over too quickly, whether by forgiving and offering cheap grace without repentance or by cutting someone off without trying to work through things. It challenges us to be accountable to one another. It invites us to listen to each other. It calls us to pray with each other and to recognize that God is with us, with those we agree with and even with those we disagree with.

The14th Amendment of the US Constitution deals with due process. It says that “no State [shall] deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law…”  Basically that’s the idea that certain things can’t happen to you without at least some minimal showing of need or necessity or legality. An attorney would find that a horrible summary, and how much process is actually due varies from situation to situation.

Anyway, there is a sense in which our reading from Matthew is a kind of a due process clause for life together in the church. Conflict and disagreement are a reality of all of our lives, and life within the body of Christ is no different. Denominations split, congregations split, congregations leave denominations – recently some congregations of the Michigan District of the Church of the Brethren voted to form a new district and withdraw themselves from the Michigan district. Whether that ends up happening or not we will have to wait and see.

Matthew talks about what kind of process we need to go through before we say, “You’re outta here.” Talking it over with the person, seeking the counsel of church leaders to work toward resolution, prayer and seeking God’s will – all of those things have to happen when we work towards resolving conflict with others, whether that resolution comes in the form of agreement, agreement to disagree, or saying, “You know what? We really can’t be in relationship any more.”

But there’s something else that’s due. Romans 13:8 – “Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law.” Owe no one anything except to love one another. Truly loving someone means taking the time and making the effort to communicate, to reach out, to view the other person as worthy of effort. True love means working towards resolution before breaking things off.

Just as due process is messy in the real world of law, working through conflict is messy in our own lives. It was difficult for the Rev. Robert Lee, just as I am sure it was difficult for many of the folks in his congregation. It is difficult to sit down with people that we disagree with, people who we think are misinterpreting God’s will, and treat them with love and respect. It is difficult to listen to them and see if we can learn from them, and to allow them to learn from us. But it is what we are called to do. It is a part of the costly grace of discipleship. And Jesus promises that as we work through that process, he will be with us. Amen.

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