This past Sunday, after the service as I was greeting people, two visitors introduced themselves to me. One of the visitors was a pastor and the other a pastor’s wife. The pastor’s wife had commented on watching my wife with our three kids. I commented as usual that my wife bore a great burden on Sunday morning. The pastor’s wife though was one of the first who mentioned my burden in having to push them out of my mind at times. And this is certainly true. A couple of weeks ago though I could not perform such a separation and I needed to reflect quickly on my feet.
The practice at our congregation is that people come forward to the rail and kneel to receive the sacrament. Our oldest chose the pew the rest of them sit in as I am up front. He chose for them the front row immediately under the pulpit, whichhttp://www.blogger.com/img/blank.gif means that my family is the first in the congregation to receive the sacrament since I start on that side. For the longest time, he has been the first in line to receive the sacrament. But my middle child, my five-year old son (whom I wrote about last year here), has started the struggle with his older brother as to who will be first. If I had chosen to name the boys Jacob and Esau, it would have been appropriate. I have seen near wrestling matches recently as they strove to be the first.
I have tried to explain to them that there is no “first” at God’s table. But a couple of weeks ago I nearly lost it. They had been pushing my buttons all morning, starting with getting ready in the morning to misbehaving during the children’s sermon to antagonizing each other in the pew during my sermon (which of course was directly below me since they sit directly beneath me in the pulpit). So when the wrestling match began, the pastor in me was not what responded. Rather the dad reacted.
It is our practice to withhold whatever is the currency that holds sway. If we have to take away television, computer or handheld games, we do. Sometimes if the offense is egregious enough, they might lose all three. That morning I told them I had had enough. My oldest tried arguing with me, but I wanted none of that at the altar rail. And I was about to tell them that they lost the sacrament. Something stopped me. Just before I levied that discipline, which I would have felt obliged to keep if I said it, I paused. Was this offense worth excommunicating my kids?
Now let me be clear, I do think there is a place for withholding the sacrament. Public, egregious and unrepentant sins have no place in the community. We do not sin so that grace may abound. Excommunication is meant to be a evangelical tool to bring about repentance and amendment of life. It is not shunning and exclusion, but a means to reach out anew with the proclamation of the gospel. But I would think about it in connection with something severe like abuse or extra-marital affairs. Two brothers elbow jockeying? Hardly. Not without warning and conversation first at least.
So I pulled back from the brink. I told them to stop and that if they kept it up they would get served last. They stopped. I communed them, after I communed their mother and sister. This past Sunday, after a week off since we were on vacation, I called them to me before we left the house. I reminded them of the respectful behavior we should exhibit when taking the sacrament. And THIS time, I did tell them, that if there was a problem there would be no sacrament for them. The middle child still misbehaved during the children’s sermon, acting out and making loud noise seeking attention. But when we celebrated the Eucharist, all was quiet. All was still. Jesus’ presence calmed the boys, and the dad. A mystery to be sure.