Not If, but When

Message for the Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost, Year A (9/10/2023)

Matthew 18:15-20


In a time of cultural change, it’s only natural that we see changes in our congregation. And, it’s easy to become preoccupied with departures. It can be disheartening to lose touch with fellow members, regardless of the reason for their distance. And, we’re justified in feeling that our church is diminished in their absence. Each person who comes among us blesses the congregation with their presence and their gifts, and we befriend each other easily– how could we not miss those folks we don’t see as often anymore?

Of course, in every time the Spirit of God also gathers new people to Peace, folks who are drawn here for a variety of reasons. It’s a brave thing to walk through the doors of a church in hopes of making a connection with the community and with God. And, I’m always thrilled to hear how you, guests and new members of Peace, found your way here, and to imagine how our congregation will continue to change according to your gifts and passions.

I am wary, however, of overstating our case. People on the lookout for a new church have high expectations, as well you should. And, for as sincere as we are here at Peace about our desire to be a place of belonging and growth and spiritual vitality, we’re also a collection of human beings. So, we’re subject to human foibles, just like every other church.

Consider today’s Gospel from Matthew. Jesus certainly grasps the reality of the human condition. “If a sibling sins against you…” he begins his teaching, but really he means “When….” Jesus has no illusions that his followers will love each other perfectly, but instead he presumes that the people who gather in his name will experience conflict and hurt. Friction is the way of human community from the beginning, and the church is no exception.

I’ll never forget the way Pastor Nadia Bolz-Weber addressed new members at House for All Sinners and Saints (HFASS), her celebrated mission congregation in Denver. The pastor was always the last to speak at “Welcome to HFASS” events, and by design, she wasn’t all smiles and rainbows. In a book she wrote while serving that congregation, she explained:

I tell [new members] that I love hearing [all the things they love about the congregation] and that I, too, love being in a spiritual community where I don’t have to add to or take away from my own story to be accepted. But I have learned something [that I want them to hear]: This community will disappoint them. It’s [not a matter of if, but when]. We will let them down or I’ll say something stupid and hurt their feelings. I then invite them on this side of their inevitable disappointment to decide if they’ll stick around after it happens. If they choose to leave when we don’t meet their expectations, they won’t get to see how the grace of God can come in and fill the holes left by our community’s failure, and that’s just too beautiful and too real to miss.

Welcome to House for All Sinners and Saints. We will disappoint you.[1]

There’s a melancholy yet deeply honest wisdom in that message. It gets at the truth of what a church can and can’t be for its members. As badly as we’d like to be part of a spiritual community that is a perfect match– a congregation that consistently reflects our values and priorities and preferences, a congregation that never lets us down– the fact is that congregation doesn’t exist. We’ve often heard that you can’t please everyone all the time, but in the church, it may be that you can’t really please most people most of the time. I’m reminded of a meme I recently came across that offers sensible advice to all of us, no matter how long we’ve been part of this congregation: “Instead of looking for the perfect church, go worship a perfect God today with a congregation of flawed people who need grace as much as you do.”

Well and good. But, once we’re here, how do we address the inevitable hurts and frustrations? As soon as we make a commitment to be in relationship with each other– as soon as we decide that this is indeed our church– we accept that we have a shared destiny, whether in woundedness and withdrawal or in healing and peace-making. Which will we choose? To quote the late Archbishop Desmond Tutu, “We are created to live in love and connection with one another. When there is a break in that connection, we must have a method of repair.”[2]

The teaching in our Gospel from Matthew is often consulted as just such a method. And, here we find pragmatic steps for addressing particular offenses, steps that involve both the one who suffers harm and the one who causes it, as well as the rest of the community, if need be. According to Jesus, repentance and reconciliation are priorities for the whole church.

But, as is often the case, the first step is the hardest. “If a sibling sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone. If [they] listen to you, you have regained that one.” That’s harder than it sounds. The fact is we don’t often deal with conflict and hurt in especially healthy ways. We are afraid of rocking the boat, so we tend to keep our grievances to ourselves, risking resentment and even ruptured relationships. We are more likely to disconnect from each other than we are to address our hurts head on.

But, avoidance is not the way of Jesus. Instead, he calls us into the messy work of mending relationships with the assurance of his enduring accompaniment, even “where two or three are gathered.” God elects to be in relationship with us, so God takes an interest in our relationships with each other, fraught as they may be. When we work up the nerve to name the ways we’ve been injured, Jesus redefines the rules of engagement in order that we might “regain” each other as beloved kindred. And, by encouraging courageous steps toward healing in his church, Jesus trains us to take those same steps in every area of our lives.

Friends, welcome to Peace Lutheran Church. We will disappoint you. When we do, will you stick around? Will you choose the hard work of truth-telling, repentance, and reconciliation? If you do, you might get to witness how the love of Christ can overcome our foibles and fears, sustain our life together, and make us instruments of his peace.

[1] Pastrix, 54-5.

[2] The Book of Forgiving, 46.

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