Misbehaving and Labor Day Weekend
The Rev. Leonard Oakes
Last Sunday, we were confronted with the letter of Paul to the young church in Rome full of advice. Paul gave guidance in the early days of the church to a young community that is already experiencing some problems, some conflict and challenges, as they learn to live together, rooted in a clear, “community,” interdependent kind of love.
Today, our Gospel reading according to Matthew, our Lord Jesus Christ teaches us how to confront conflict in the church. We all know that even in the most Holy Ground, when our feet are bare to feel the presence of God, there is still bitterness and hatred in the heart of some. This bitterness will sometime escalate supported by gossips, and lack of prayers. People are nice on face to face value, but when they turn their back, eyes are twisted to the side, jaws dropped. People cling to the very hatred they have been keeping every single time and remain at a perpetual distance from each other. Try to reminisce those mischievous past, they sometime either make you smile or make you swing your head.
I was blessed to have been visited by two of my elementary and high school mates over the weekend. It was great to reminisce the past, some were fun and some were to remind of my mischief. They reminded me a story of the time when there were no intercoms yet in school.
A story is told of an incident that took place when intercoms were first introduced into this one school. The story goes that there was this one little boy that was disrupting his class. For the sake of the story we will give him the name Leonard. Leonard had disobeyed the teacher quite often and had been sent to the principal’s office. The principal had a long talk with Leonard, after which, Leonard promised to do what the teacher said.
Well the very next day the principal decided to use the intercom to listen in on Leonard’s class to see if he was keeping his promise. And guess what? Leonard was giving his teacher a hard time. The teacher would tell him to sit down and he would make an excuse. When he did sit down he would get up again in a few seconds. Finally the principal decided to remind Leonard of the promise he had made to do what the teacher said. So the principal used the intercom and said, “Leonard, do as your teacher tells you.” That sound resonated around the room. At that, Leonard sat down in his chair, broke out in a cold sweat, looked around and said “Yes God, I will.”
The point of the story is that when the cat’s away the mice will play. It is human nature to be good when you know you are being watched, but it is when there is no one watching that’s when misbehavior breaks out. Those days just couldn’t leave me alone at times.
Just as children sometimes make misbehaviors in class, God’s children sometimes misbehave in church. People who are part of the church make unbecoming behaviors that could be misconstrued as un-Christian, people in the church acting as if they were out of it.
Our Lord Jesus Christ perceived that this would be a problem for the church so he gave us some guidelines on how to deal with it. Jesus said to his disciples, “If another member of the church sins against you…” Jesus is talking here about those who confessed Christ as their Lord and Savior but are not following his teachings in an open way.
Jesus offered us a model of a step by step process for dealing with sin in the community of faith. It is the biblical basis for excommunication and church trials.
Jesus said, “The first step is to go to the offender personally.” Don’t go anywhere else telling anybody about the incident trying to gain support to validate your opinion. This is a private meeting. The purpose is not to embarrass or humiliate the person it is to help them to live right. They may not realize that what they are doing is wrong or they may be ignoring that fact. This is a sensitive way of calling them to their moral senses and saving them from the pain that the sin will cause if it continues.
The next step is, if the person does not turn from that sin, then you go with one or two friends. The purpose of the extra people is to engage a little positive peer pressure. Maybe it is also to enable the offender to realize that the one who came to him before is not alone in their belief that their actions are sinful. The biggest advantage in this approach is it provides witnesses. That way if the offender refuses to repent, then there is more than one witness who can testify to it.
If it gets to this point then Jesus says that it is when the whole church should get involved: The priest, the bishop committee and others. At that point the whole church confronts the person. If then they refuse to turn from their sin they are to be treated as an outsider. In baseball, you have heard of three strikes and you are out. Here are the original three strikes and you are out. If an offender refuses to repent when an individual comes to them that is strike one. If they further refuse after a small group confront them then strike two. Finally if they refuse to repent when the whole church confronts them then strike three and they are out.
But Jesus doesn’t stop there. If he had, I wouldn’t be wasting my saliva prolonging my sermon to meet the 10 to 15 minutes guideline. After laying out a rather simple plan Jesus lays some serious theology on us. He says, “Truly, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.” Then he follows it with “Again I say to you, if two of you agree on earth about anything they ask, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven.”
This concerns us. If God gives a rubber stamp to what we decide, then we are all in trouble. The church here on earth is notorious for making bad decisions. If we take these verses literally then where had Galileo been between the time of his death and the recent proclamation by the church that they were mistaken in excommunicating him? Certainly God does not enforce the decisions that we humans make out of prejudice or ignorance. I believe that what these passages are talking about is our responsibility. If we fail to live out the righteousness of God then those who fail to see it are the ones that pay for our mistake. Our decision not to live righteously is ratified in heaven by those who remain unsaved because we did not proclaim the truth to them in our community life. Likewise if we go around excommunicating people from the church without sufficient cause, then we cut them off from the influence of godly people and give them up to the world. Then our decision is realized in heaven by those who suffer eternally due to our legalistic zeal.
But Jesus puts all this into context in his final verse. He says, “For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I in the midst of them.” We often refer to this passage as a way of affirming God presence in our gatherings no matter how humble. But here, it has a quite different meaning. It is saying that God is always watching.
We often get careless in our conduct when others are not watching. It is easy for even the most devote Christian to become frustrated with a misbehaving believer who refuses to repent. Sometimes we act rashly with those who are hurting themselves and others through their sinful conduct. But Jesus reminds us that God is in our midst.
Even if it is just you talking to a friend about his or her sinful actions God is there. And we can call on God to work on that person’s heart to bring them to repentance. Like Leonard in the story, we need to be reminded that God is watching us in church. And we should be careful how we deal with those who are misbehaving; after all we are God’s ambassadors in this world.
It is Labor Day weekend. I am glad to see you around. Day in and day out most of us go to work, even with the economy as bad as it is. Our culture sets aside a day, Labor Day, to celebrate work by taking a day off from labor. A person’s work often is used to define them. When people first meet you, they ask, “What do you do?” They are not asking for your hobbies. They are asking what kind of work you do. That is why unemployment can be so psychologically and emotionally devastating. In the words of the unemployed, “I have labored so much to find a job and yet it continues to hide from me.”
Since work makes up so much of people’s lives and is so important, maybe the church ought to say something about it. Maybe we should start by celebrating what we do for a living and thank God that we have such a blessing and pray for those who are seeking, that they too may enjoy the fruit of what labor can give.
So take the day off tomorrow and enjoy your time together with your family and friends. But on Tuesday morning, don’t call in sick to extend you vacation, and please refrain from coughing on the phone to prove that you are sick, instead go to work, or wherever you go, including the unemployment office. And go to play your part in redeeming the world as you serve God in your workplace!