Our son Heath’s middle name, Morrison, comes from my great-great grandfather. Romulus Morrison Tuttle was a captain in the 94th North Carolina regiment, we was wounded four times in the civil war, including at Gettysburg. In the course of the war he, ‘got religion,’ enrolling at Davidson College, then Union Seminary. Upon his graduation in 1872 he was called to the Prospect Presbyterian Church down in Mooresville, where he served until October 1875. My dad was doing some family history research some years back and scrounged up some session minutes from his tenure at Prospect. Ole’ Romulus was a product of his time, and sessions in those days didn’t spend as much time hearing committee reports and looking over financial documents. They took their charge of church discipline quite seriously.
Here are two fantastic examples – and those of you who have ever taken minutes for a session meeting will especially love this: August 9, 1873 – "The case of J. C. Johnston charged with drunkenness… Elder J.S. Beatty was called to the moderator chair and R.M. Tuttle introduced as a witness and after having been duly sworn said he saw Mr. J.C. Johnston drunk at the store of H. B. Reece on the 28th of June last and that was manifest to all the bystanders and as Mr. Johnston … acknowledges his guilt and as he had been arraigned on two former occasions for the same offence … therefore the Session was unanimously of the opinion that the charge was sustained and that … he is hereby suspended from the sacrament of the church till he give evidence of repentance."
From November 29, 1874 – "it having been rumored that (name omitted) was guilty of fornication, a committee was appointed to visit her and ascertain the facts. Rev. R.M. Tuttle and Elder J. S. Beatty were appointed. They afterward reported that the rumor was true and that she was unable to appear before the Session at present. This case was postponed till she might be able."
Chapter 18 begins the fourth of five major teaching sections in Matthew’s gospel. The Galilean ministry is finished; the story of the crucifixion is about to begin. And here, chapters 18 through chapter 20 – Palm Sunday begins chapter 21 – right before the events of Holy Week, Jesus takes time to speak with his disciples about how they are to live together. What does leadership look like? he asks. How do you take into account the fact that people are in different places in their spiritual lives? What do you do when conflict comes?
In one sense this text is quite practical. If someone does something that hurts you, go talk to them. Don’t complain to your friends, don’t stir others up. I am willing to take a bit of an interpretive leap and say don’t send a scathing email. Go find that person and talk with them. We pray that brothers and sisters can speak and listen, admit that there is usually plenty of blame to go around, and find a way to move forward. But if that doesn’t work, the next step is to take someone with you. I tend to really want folks to work things out one-on-one, because in a group people can, for good reason or not, feel ganged up on, get defensive, not act as their best self. But, even if bringing a group of people – this feels kind of like an intervention to me – doesn’t work, Jesus says to boot them right out of the church. Let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector. Ostracized. Ignored.
Beyond the practicalities this text also forms part of the biblical foundation for the exercise of church discipline, firmly entrenched in our tradition. The Scots Confession, in our denomination’s Book of Confessions cites the marks of the true church as: "1) The true preaching of the Word of God; 2) The right administration of the sacraments, and 3) ecclesiastical (church) discipline uprightly ministered, as God’s Word prescribes, whereby vice is repressed and virtue nourished." When was the last time you thought of this church’s purpose as to repress vice and nourish virtue? Question 86 of The Heidelberg Catechism asks: "How is the kingdom of heaven shut and opened by Christian discipline? A. In this way: Christ commanded that those who bear the Christian name in an unchristian way either in doctrine or in life should be given brotherly (or sisterly) admonition. If they do not give up their errors or evil ways, notification is given to the church…if they do not change after this warning, they are forbidden to partake of the holy Sacraments and are thus excluded from the communion of the church and by God himself from the kingdom of Christ…" We have an entire section on discipline in our Book of Order, a portion of which we will read as our affirmation of faith.
While certain members of the church, my ancestor included, might have taken this instruction too far, scripture is clear – and we know this from experience – that everything is not okay. There are boundaries to be crossed, outside of which one is behaving in ways unacceptable to the community. As much as the church used to drill down on token immorality – the drunkenness and fornication noted in those lovely session minutes – I wonder if we might have fallen too far the other direction, in our desire to not been seen as too puritanical. The church probably ought to be speaking a bit more about addiction in all its forms that we do – but to support families as they engage a disease, not outright condemn. We ought to be doing our best to support healthy marriages, strong, committed relationships for all people. These categories are among the most dramatic examples, but there are plenty of other kinds of things that trouble our relationships. Ambition. Pride. Being too consumed in what we are doing that we don’t notice someone else. Thinking our needs are so much more important than another’s. Being just slightly rude, in a subtle, passive-aggressive, southern kind of way. Those things also poison communities.
So, I must admit, this makes for a bit of an odd Rally Day sermon. We gather back in two services, in our comfortable places, we kick off the year with excitement, filled with opportunities to be together – Christian Education opportunities for all ages, Sunday School, groups to gather throughout the week. I really hope you’ll spend time with this insert and think about where you might find a place. But, even though it’s not so pleasant, maybe this is exactly the kind of text we need. If what we are is a community, a group of people who gather together to sing and pray, to listen to each other when times look good, and when things are really hard. If what we are is a group of people gathered under Jesus Christ, then HOW we gather is really, really important.
I’d love it if today we recommitted ourselves to pay careful attention to how we are community. Some of that may be following the model Jesus sets out, and having a conversation with someone who hurt you. It also may be – before we get into the business of feeling like we have a biblical mandate to do tell people what we think is wrong with them – to do some real soul searching ourselves. How do you tend to the people around you? Who do you go out of your way to seek out? Who do you overlook? We tend to be a community of people who do our best to look and act like we’ve got it all together. But all of us carry pain. All of us nurse wounds. All of us would benefit from someone taking a little extra time to check in – not a trite, How are you? Good. Good. But being willing to listen. There is so much really scary stuff going on in the world that feels so far beyond our control. This is something we can DO. I would love it if we could be the kind of community, this Rally Day and beyond, that was really careful about how we were together – with the people in the pews we dearly love, and the people around us who we don’t love quite as much, not yet, but one day could.
The best news of all is that we are welcomed to this table. We’ll all come in a moment, we who have been wounded, and we who have wounded others. We who have been guilty of an unkindness towards someone, and we who have been excluded, gifts dismissed. All of us will come, have a little bred, dip it in a some juice or wine. And Christ will welcome us all to the table of reconciliation, breaking down boundaries, bringing us all together. It is to this table he calls us, that we might be nourished, that we might be given what we need so we might be faithful. All of us. Together.
All praise be to God. Amen.
1. I am grateful to the Rev. Joanne Hull, the present pastor at Prospect, for finding some of this background for me.
2. I am grateful to the Rev. Bob Tuttle for passing on these session minutes.
3. Tom Long, WBC: Matthew, (Louisville: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1997), page 202.
4. PC (USA) Book of Confessions, 3.18