Fighting Like a Family

February 23, 1997


Fighting Like A Family

The sermon title this morning may strike you as strange since this is surely the most harmonious church most of us have ever known. We are now 14 years old and have never had anything even approaching a church fight. That could mean, of course, that we are so lethargic and indifferent that no one has ever worked up enough concern to go to war, except that exactly the opposite is true. We have highly intelligent and passionately committed people who are given to strong private opinions and who are not for a moment reluctant to make them known. That could be a recipe for disaster without some guiding spirit, shared by all of us, that keeps inevitable disagreements from turning into battles. Many of you know the moment when that guiding spirit came into existence — on a beautiful April morning in 1983 when this church was born in such an incandescent and unforgettable unity that it has so far set the tone for everything we do.
So why have I chosen to talk today about “fighting like a family” when we enjoy such extraordinary unity and peace? My answer is that the time to remind ourselves how to handle disagreements is when we are not having any! So far, at least, we are doing much better than some of the early churches described in the New Testament, who got into such serious scraps about all sorts of things that the sermon text _______________ read a few minutes ago gives advice on how to handle them. It proceeds on the premise that if people can keep their personal relationships warm and trusting, the larger differences of opinion about church life will take care of themselves. The verses you heard from Matthew’s gospel suggest that if you feel another member of the church has wronged you, it is your responsibility to take the initiative and try to talk about it when the two of you can be alone.
There are some other steps that can be taken if matters are too serious to be resolved in such a meeting, but what I’m really interested in this morning is the fact that so many of us would never take the first step. If we feel wronged, the temptation is to say: “It wasn’t my fault, and I’ll be damned if I’ll take the first step!” (“I’ll be damned,” by the way, may be prophetic!) The wounded ego sulks and waits, and waits…..until feelings freeze and reconciliation becomes impossible. So the advice from Scripture seems a little quaint and old-fashioned, even an intrusion upon individual privacy. If you feel wronged, it says, seek a private meeeting. If that doesn’t work, try again with a group of carefully chosen friends…..because if the church cannot heal itself, how can it possibly hope to broker peace in the rest of the world?
When I called this approach “intrusive” I was thinking not only of our seeking a face-to-face meeting when we need to resolve personal differences, but also of Matthew’s obvious feeling that sometimes a church member will behave in ways that disgrace the whole church, in which case the church community itself has an obligation to make a house call. Do you see now why I called this quaint and oldfashioned? Can you imagine getting anybody to go to somebody else’s house to plead for a change in behavior? This is why so many ministers would say about this text that it “won’t preach,” that it speaks of church discipline in ways that seem completely foreign to us.
That’s because it values the community over the individual and compels us to think more about what people need than about what makes them feel good. It’s our policy to leave people alone, to respect their privacy, to let them work things out for themselves. If someone in the church goes off and starts doing some major-league public sinning, that’s his business. Who are we to go messing around in his life, telling him that he’s gone astray, and that because we love him we want him to come around, or telling her to come to her senses, to come home? This doesn’t fit the the popular American notion of radical individualism, which on occasion seems to me to pass beyond the boundaries of common sense. I have good friends who insist that the Second Amendment guarantees an absolute right to bear arms of any kind, even if it means we all end up carrying machine guns — that individual rights are more important than the harm that may be done to society by exercising them. We are slaughtering each other at the rate of some 35,000 gun deaths a year, but not to worry: all we have to do is get more guns in more hands, concealed and loaded, and that will make us safer. I can concede that it actually might, on very rare occasions; my fear is that if a gun is pocket-handy during every temper tantrum on the highway, or in the office when the boss rebukes or fires us, there will be more killings than ever. So what do we do? Yield to the argument that nothing must ever infringe on the right of the individual, or make policy that is best for the community as a whole?
Well, my topic is not gun ownership. My topic has to do the church as family, as community, and how we solve problems when they arise. In a Congregational church we extend great freedom of private opinion, but our text from Matthew reminds us that all of us who claim membership in a church are part of a community of believers and owe it a certain level of loyalty. I am not talking, by the way primarily about money, although I have been astonished of late to learn that some who profess how much the church means to them are actually supporting it with less money per week than they spend on a movie, a single meal, a round of golf. I am so surprised and disappointed by this notion of what membership means that I do not trust myself to talk about it at the moment. This sermon is dedicated to a larger issue yet — the idea so clearly set forth in our Scripture text that faith is not, after all, a purely private matter.
If it were, it would eliminate the need for gatherings like this one. Two heads would never be better than one, and the power of the community would never be more important than the experience of a single individual in quiet, meditative solitude. If you have heard me speak before, you will know how far I am from knocking solitude or meditation or quiet communion with God’s created world. Those vitally important moments are approved in every religious tradition. But they are always recommended as preparation or discipline for life in the community. They are means to an end, not an end unto themselves.
I am always fascinated by how much religion is found in golf by those who choose it over church on Sunday mornings. I heard a man in a Dillon’s grocery last Monday who had just bumped into his minister at the check-out stand and who obviously knew that the minister knew why he had skipped church the day before. So he was explaining: ‘“Reverend, I want you to know that I communed with God on the links. I went to the Church of the First Tee, and my opening shot was like a call to worship, and my final putt on 18 was like a benediction.” The minister smiled, and to his credit, so did the parishioner.
I’ve seen the sun rise over a few golf courses in my life, and seen the morning dew on silver fairways, and been inspired. It has given me a sense of peace and tranquillity (except when I hooked or sliced) and caused me to count my blessings at being in such lovely surroundings. But I have never confused it with church. Nor have I ever considered moments of solitude, which I enjoy as much as anybody, to be a meaningful definition of the life of faith. Church happens, according to Christ, when people gather in his name to worship and to renew their commitment to a life of service. So far as I can tell he did not think of his times of solitude as substitutes for worship in the synagogue wherehe presented himself on the Sabbath.
I see some of you at various times during the week, at a Men’s Club breakfast, at a choir practice, in a conference, at a movie, in a store — and it’s always pleasant, but it’s not the same as being with you in this room sharing song and prayers and spoken words in an hour of worship. Trite as it may sound to you, we belong to a family and Sundays are reunions. When families work right they are God’s way of teaching us important things, like how to share and how to work together and how to take care of one another. They teach us that we can’t have everything our own way, that we have to give up some things we want so other people can have some of the things they want. This is part of what it means to become fully human. But you may be surprised to hear me say what I am about to say next.
Families teach us how to fight. If you were lucky enough to grow up with brothers and sisters, you know that fighting with your siblings was what you did — and you did it a lot, far more than your parents ever know unless after you are grown up and and safe from discipline you write about it. Which is what my preaching son Robin did in a sermon which he mailed to me the other day. It was such an interesting confession I thought you might like to hear it.
“I have an older sister and a younger brother,” he told his church, “and I fought with them all the time. It never occurred to me that I was supposed to do anything else. We weren’t any kind of Norman Rockwell family (if there is such a thing, and I doubt it). We went at each other like cats and dogs. I used different strategies depending on whether it was my sister I wanted to drive crazy, or my little brother. Whenever I had to do the dishes with my sister (she washed and I dried), the tactic was simple and highly effecdtive. I did almost nothing , and on top of that I did it slowly. Karen was a busy person with boyfriends calling and homework to do, but I had all the time in the world. Sooner or later she would scream, ‘Just get out of here! I’ll get done faster if I do it myself!’ So off I would go, shaking my head in mock amazement. ‘Suit yourself….I was only trying to help.’”
“With my little brother I had other methods. First of all, because he was seven years younger I resented his arrival. I was the youngest before he came, and would have been spoiled accordingly. But no, my parents had to have a late child that would deprive us all by demanding more of their time and money. Looking back on it, I realize I thought of Devon as a kind of rag doll — a not-quite-fully human nuisance. I put a June beg in his bed once. I sent him off to find things that didn’t exist. Once, when he was napping, I put my hand over his mouth and pinched his nose shut just to see how long it would take before he began to squirm and turn blue from lack of oxygen. I wasn’t going to kill him, mind you, but he was my little brother and so naturally I experimented on him.
“I would have to apologize, because we knew how to fight in my family and we also knew how to make up quickly because there was an unwritten rule in our house that grudges were not to be carried over from one day to the next. The point of family life isn’t to look right, to be color-coordinated, scrubbed, radiant and always cheerful and lovely. The point of family life is to learn about what it means, ultimately, to stick together.” (End of confession). So I have used a Scripture this morning in which Jesus makes the same point about the Christian family, the church. Knowing there will be disagreements at times he says that in the household of God when your brother or sister wrongs you, you must go and talk about it, and if that doesn’t work that you must go back again, taking other people with you — doing everything in your power to make things right.
Notice, please, that there are two curious things about the advice Jesus gives. First, that he puts the burden on the victim, on the person who has been wronged, which doesn’t seem quite fair at first. But when you think about it you realize that if you wrong someone there’s a double burden in having to take the first step toward reconciliation: first, an admission of guilt, and second, an apology. You don’t have to deal with either one if you are the innocent party. With freedom and grace you can go to the person who wronged you and say, “Our friendship means so much to me that if I have given offense in some way I’d like to make things right.” Talk about unnerving a person who has done you wrong! How easy it then becomes for that person to say, “No, I’m afraid it was my fault and I’m glad we have a chance to talk about it.”
In his book The Great Divorce , C. S. Lewis paints a symbolic picture of hell that has haunted me since the first time I read it. Hell is a vast grey city, Lewis says, a city inhabited only at its outer edges with rows and rows of empty houses in the middle — empty because everyone who once lived in them has quarreled with their neighbors and moved away, leaving empty streets full of empty houses. This, Lewis says, is how hell got so large: empty at the center and inhabited only on the fringes, because everyone in it chose distance instead of confrontation as the solution to a fight.
I have known churches like that, with wounds festering because they were never dealt with: gossip that harmed people who never knew they were being harmed, and had no chance to defend themselves. People split by their loyalties to some particular issue, on this team or that team with regard to politics, generation gaps, or whether you like the old doxology or the new one. Incredibly, perhaps irritatingly, Jesus is telling us that relationships count for more than victories, that when someone crosses us we are called to be the first to reach out — even when we are the ones who have been hurt, even when God knows we have done nothing wrong. We are called to into family life where one person figures out how to get out of drying the dishes, where another enjoys all the benefits but won’t help carry the load. This is what we are called to do: to confront and make up, to forgive and seek forgiveness, to heal and be healed — and when it happens to throw a block party so full of music and laughter and mutual affection that some of the other alienated residents come creeping back from their distant outposts to see what all the happiness is about.
The truth is that if you intend to belong to a family, a real family, you have to learn how to deal with a fight if one comes, and then learn what it means — what it really means — to win.
Gracious God, we are forever being tempted to prefer the wisdom of the world to the
foolishness of the gospel. Make us holy fools for the kingdom’s sake. Amen.