One of my favorite theologians is Jerry Clower who was from Route 4, Liberty, Mississippi, which ain’t near nothing. And so the only things they had to do when they weren’t workin’, their only two extracurricular activities, were to go to church or coon hunting. One of Jerry’s most famous stories is, in fact, titled The Coon Hunt in which he takes Southern humor to its pinnacle in describing how the dogs treed a “coon”, rushing out to the biggest sweet gum tree in all of Amit River swamps. It was huge. Jerry didn’t think that John Eubanks could climb that tree and it made John mad. John proceeded up that sweet gum and the boys on the ground said, “Knock him out John,” him being the coon. But as it turns out, it warn’t no coon. It was a lynx. “Knock him out John.” Why that lynx, that supped up wildcat, just about killed John. John yelled, “Shoot this thing.” And they said, “We can’t do that John, we might hit you. “And John replied, “Go on and shoot up here amongst us. One of us has to got to have some relief.”
In 1995 Wedgewood was in the midst of major turmoil, conflict day in and day out for a year. As with most conflicts, it was complicated. Some of us were tired of the Southern Baptist Convention’s statements on women, Jews, gays, and the Bible, and we were ready to leave the denomination. Others wanted to hang on to a denomination that was a disgrace to its rich heritage. Also in the mix: old timers, who said they wanted the church to grow, who had trouble incorporating new people into the congregation. It got tense. Seventeen families withheld their money. I offered to do the secretarial work, and did end up doing it. The moderator tried to prevent a vote on leaving the SBC based on his own opinion, and during the congregational meeting I pointed out he didn’t have the authority to do that. The conflict went on and on. We eventually hired a congregational consultant to lead us through a congregational healing process. I remember leaving one session thinking about Jerry Clower’s coon hunting story. I thought, “I’m so tired of conflict. Just shoot up here amongst us. One of us has to got to have some relief.”
Well, eventually, we went from 170 members to 20.
On his way out the moderator wrote a not so nice letter to all the Wedgewoodians. I’ve always said, and I’m not being sarcastic, “he’s one of the nicest people who has hated me.”
Folk who had eaten Christmas breakfast with me in my home for years headed to the exits.
And Christians just tired of conflict found other steeples.
One charter member, before she left, came into my office with a scowl on her face and threw all her church keys across my desk.
She is an artist. When we were on her good side, she gave Vicky and I a beautiful painting titled “Consider the Lilies.” It hangs in our bedroom. I see it every morning when I wake up and every night when I got to sleep. It’s a reminder to us that church can be difficult and it’s important to consider the lilies.
For a long time this sanctuary which seats 300 had only ten people in it on Sunday mornings. Our scripture lesson says “when two or three are gathered together.” Well, we almost got down to two or three. Our ensmallment campaign, our revival, almost got us to two or three.
So you can imagine that it is with great difficulty that I read and preach on today’s text on church conflict.
I bet you get tired of conflict too. Is anybody just dying for more conflict at church, more conflict at work, more conflict with your extended family, more conflict with your spouse?
Hey, God, send some more conflict my way. I love conflict.
I wish I could guarantee you a conflict free church, but I can’t. What I can tell you is that the good news is we’ve handled the kingdom of God issues at Wedgewood and those are really the only issues worth getting out of whack for. Amen.
The hard battles have been fought. So enjoy.
This is a church which incorporates new folk right off the bat. We are organic. We are a permission giving church. We are a church suspicious of church and Christians. We’ve set it up so that if you want to do something for Jesus it’s hard for anybody to get in the way. We can’t make church conflict free but we’ve tried to take as much conflict out of the equation as possible.
There are, of course, differences on worship preferences and what color to paint this or how to do this or that.
Personally, I wish we would throw out every pew in the sanctuary and put a communion table in the middle and set up pew chairs in a circle and see each other when we pray and sing. I wish our use of space matched our theology. But when I brought that idea up ten years ago only five people’s heart went pitter patter about the idea. So I dropped it. There were more important things to focus on.
I could tell you ten other things I would change, but I won’t.
There will always be differences on the details of doing and being church. We have to learn to live in community.
But live in community we must. There is no way to be a Christian by yourself. Church means you have to at a minimum two or three have to be gathered, which means being church will always some level of conflict.
So here’s what we say at Wedgewood.
Enter this community and you will be cared for by some and you will have the opportunity to care for some. Everybody at Wedgewood will not celebrate your birthday. You are going to get on somebody’s nerves. And somebody is going to drive you crazy.
I often say to Wedgewoodians, “If I haven’t gotten on your nerves lately please be patient. I’ll get around to you soon.”
Some people in the church, like some individuals outside the church, will exhaust you.
But remember this. As St. Paul says, we are members of one another. We have to do the hard work of being bound up together in our gifts and in our oppositional disorders, bound up in our idiosyncrasies and personal preferences and our ministries. We are sinners and saints. Luther said, and he was right, we are simultaneously a saint and a sinner. No one is totally a saint. No one is completely a sinner. We are a church founded on the bodies of sinners and saints. We are knit together in such a way that the gates of personal hells can never prevail against us.
Our scripture lesson reads “If another member sins against you.” It’s not a matter of it. It’s a matter of when. It will happen.
Our scripture lessons reads, If someone refuse sto listen to you. Yep. That will happen too.
Then there’s his advice: if the offender refuses to listen even to the church, let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.
Of course, we know how Jesus treated tax collectors and gentiles.
The invitation today, as it always is, is an invitation to communion.
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