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September 4, 2005 (Sunday 23 · Time after Pentecost)—“Owe Only Love”

Pastor David Barber

Romans 13:8-14; Matthew 18:15-20

Sisters and brothers, grace be unto you and peace from God our loving Creator and from our Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.

A couple of weeks ago when we had our final session on congregational history, Jim Niermann asked for observations about what we had learned from our history.

One of the observations that has also been expressed before was in regard to past council presidents. It's not true today, but in some previous years, council presidents would either drop out or leave the congregation when they completed their term of office.

Perhaps their role as council president gave them a dose of reality about the congregation and its problems at that time. As a result, they became disillusioned, disheartened, and burnt out from their tour of duty.

Because this isn't an uncommon occurrence, I'm surprised that some television producer hasn't realized that congregational life would be fertile ground for a new reality TV show.

Most of the titles of current programs could certainly apply to some congregations. "Survivor," "Fear Factor," "Last Man Standing," and "Desperate Congregations" could all be appropriate descriptions of congregational life. I've discovered that there's never a dull moment when you serve a congregation.

Sometimes we wonder why this is, and some folks just can't accept that unhealthy behavior happens within faith communities. After all, we're followers of Jesus--called to love and to serve one another.

But why should unhealthy behavior surprise us or disillusion us? We all come from families. And if we look at our families we see a whole range of well-ness and dysfunction.

All families have their secrets. All families have their ways of handling conflict, and most families don't confront conflict in a healthy way. Far too many families are also riddled with deceit and dishonesty.

Many times these behaviors are all packed up and brought right into the center of congregational life. Unfortunately, these dynamics can be present and operating in our midst even without our awareness.

From that standpoint, I've tried to learn not to react too quickly to every criticism or complaint leveled against the congregation or my ministry. I'm not always successful in this, and if I was I would be a candidate for the new TV show premiering this fall--"ELCA Idol."

Often times such complaints have nothing to do with the congregation. It's just part of that baggage that many of us carry with us without even realizing that it's still packed away in some corner of our suitcase.

The fact that our Gospel for today was even included in Scripture seems to imply that Jesus himself didn't expect a perfect church--whatever that means.

Or if we assume that these words came from a later church community, this would tell us that the church from the beginning had to confront problems within their faith community. Believe it or not, believers don't always get along, do they? They sin against one another and that's been true from the very beginning.

Even Jesus and his disciples didn't always see "eye to eye." Or if we look at the writings of St. Paul, he's brutally honest about the problems that arose within the early church.

So consider this situation. Imagine that you're sitting in a church meeting or attending a church function. Somebody does something or says something that is clearly destructive to community life. It's completely contrary to what the church stands for.

Maybe it's a piece of nasty gossip, or a snide comment about someone, or a racial and bigoted remark. Maybe it's a statement that elevates one ministry of the church over another. But whatever the comment, it's hurtful to the life and the vitality of the community. So what do you do?

Matthew outlines a process that is a part of every church constitution. It's included in our constitution and you'll find it in the section entitled "Discipline of Members." That sounds like we're in school and we're going to be sent to the principal's office, doesn't it?

I don't why they refer to it as "church discipline." This isn't "three strikes and you're out." That's not what this passage is about. At the root, it's really not about church discipline, but rather regaining your brother and sister in Jesus Christ. It's about restoring a relationship that's been broken.

Matthew suggests that when such an offense has occurred you go privately to your brother and sister in Christ and you talk to them about their behavior. If the offending party doesn't listen to you, then return with one or two other witnesses, hoping that active listening and healthy intervention will restore the relationship.

The witnesses may also find that perhaps there is fault with both parties or that both have a valid grievance. It's not just one-sided. "But if that doesn't work," says Matthew, then tell it to the whole church so the entire community can be involved in this work of restoration.

For lots of different reasons, perhaps you're finding such a process objectionable and unworkable. Maybe you've been a part of a faith community or heard of faith communities where this has been abused, and folks in power have taken advantage of the weak.

Besides the potential for abuse, we may also ask, "Who are we to invade the privacy of others? Who are we to judge the actions of others and call them into account? Who says that we're right and they're wrong?"

This is also an age where individualism and consumerism exist even in the life of the church. There's little accountability or binding commitments to our brothers and sisters in Jesus Christ. If I'm confronted about my unhealthy behavior or I'm the victim of someone's destructive words, I'll just find another church. I don't need all this hassle in my life.

In spite of our objections to such a process, the alternatives that we often pursue can be just as dysfunctional as the behavior that caused all the turmoil in the first place.

The informal conversations in the church parking lot or the phone conversation the following morning are generally not very constructive or helpful. Yes, we may be eliciting two or three witnesses, but witnesses for our side, letting them know how much we've been wronged and how hurt we are.

That's not what Jesus had in mind when he said: "Where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them."

The church is not often viewed as a group of believers in covenant with God and with each other. As a result, it's difficult to hold other folks accountable for destructive behavior, and at the same time affirming them with support, encouragement, and prayer.

And yet, this is what Jesus encourages as a way of life in his new community, and also what many of us thirst and long for. "We long for genuine community and mutual growth rooted in accountability. We long for a community where the bottom line is not perfectionism, but the possibility of grace lived in the cracks and the crevices of the daily grind."

That's what our Gospel is about on this day. It's not about how we can put another brother or sister in their place, or how we can catch one another in our sinfulness.

But rather the emphasis is on gaining a friend. It's on restoration and reconciliation. The focus is on community--faithful and healthy community--and how we keep brothers and sisters, and yes, even ourselves at times from breaking out of the embrace of the community.

The context of our reading for this morning is important. Immediately preceding these verses is the story about the lost sheep. Jesus leaves the 99 sheep that are safely in the fold in order to go out and look for the lost lamb. The Shepherd is always working for restoration and reconciliation.

And then immediately following our Gospel, which will be our Gospel for next Sunday, we have Peter asking Jesus, "Lord, how often shall my brother sin against me, and I forgive him?" And Jesus says, "There are no limits on the forgiveness asked of you."

Our Gospel--as well as the context that surrounds it--shows us that we're not just talking about disciplinary guidelines here, but underneath it all is extravagant grace. This extravagant grace encourages all of us to work hard at maintaining and nurturing relationships within the faith community.

Extravagant grace doesn't mean that I will ignore your sin if you ignore my sin. Extravagant grace calls us to speak the truth to each other, but we do so in a framework of mercy and forgiveness.

We work hard at restoration because God was in Christ putting his arms around all of us. And now, these arms of reconciliation belong to each person in this faith community.

In these last several weeks when we've focused on our history, we were also forced to remember some painful and difficult moments along with those times of joy and celebration. Like most congregations, we, too, have endured times of conflict, congregational squabbles, and behaviors that certainly wouldn't be described as "our finest moments."

That's a part of our history, too. Although we can look back and smile a bit and even laugh at our foibles, our shortcomings, and our sins, at the time it was painful and excruciating along with some causalities.

And yet LCH would not be where it is today without reaching out to each other in such times with honesty, with repentance, and with the grace and mercy of Jesus. This congregation would not be what it is today without the giving and receiving of extravagant grace and gathering together around this table of mercy as forgiven sinners.

As a community we are being called to live as if Christ is among us, which he is. We are being called to honor his presence with both individual accountability and community compassion.

We are being called to stretch out our arms toward one another in love, in honesty, and in care for each other.


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