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Pentecost 14A Sermon
Matthew 18: 15-20
September 10, 2017


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May the grace, mercy and peace of God our father be with us, in the name of his son, our risen Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ; Amen.

What do you think? Is our gospel reading from Matthew 18 important to the church today as words of advice for dealing with conflict? Do you consider this passage a sort of, “code of conduct” when dealing with troublemakers in the congregation? Many people have read it that way over the years. Many church constitutions have referred to these verses as the basis for dealing with people who have been the source of conflicts. It sounds pretty easy, doesn’t it? If someone offends you, tell them about it. If that doesn’t work, try an intervention. If that fails, cut them off and kick them out. It seems straightforward, and we like straightforward teachings, don’t we. It seems like one of the few times that Jesus just puts it right out there like it should be.

But what if this is not so much a way to reprimand sinners in the church as it is a challenge from Jesus on being a loving, forgiving church to build up our community? What if this difficult passage is all about how we are to regain our brothers and sisters with whom we disagree, or who live and speak differently than the gospel of Jesus does? What if the major concern addressed in these words is not settling disputes, but creating an environment where Christ’s presence continues to bring forgiveness, healing and joy? What would make me say such a thing?
Consider this: In the previous five verses is found the parable of the lost sheep. It is all about a shepherd who has one hundred sheep, and upon losing one of them, he leaves the 99 safe ones behind and goes out to find the one which strayed away. So it is with God; God is relentless in going after those who, for one reason or another, don’t want to be part of the group anymore … even to the point of doing something reckless and illogical, like leaving all else to go after him or her.

You and I are part of many different communities: families, neighborhoods, political groups, service organizations, card clubs, and many more. We know from our history that each community, because it is made up of individuals and personalities, includes conflict. Conflict will happen in every group or community, even in church. We might even say that wherever two or more people are gathered, because it they are sinful human beings, the potential for conflict is there among them.

At the end of this passage, Jesus promises that whenever two or more gather together, that he is there among them as well. Whenever we gather in Jesus’ name, there he is with us. We gather for many different reasons as the church – for worship, for Bible study and conversations about current issues and our Christian responses to them, for church council and committee meetings, for dinners and breakfasts, congregational meetings and budget deliberations. Whenever we gather in Jesus’ name, there he is among us … and that is important because whenever we gather in Jesus’ name, there is the potential for conflict. Even so, we gather, and we discuss and sing and pray and learn and listen. We confront and defend, and sometimes we even get our feelings hurt in the process.

Last Saturday I met with one of the groups I belong to outside of the church – my Fantasy Football League. We had our draft at Roosters, a sports bar and restaurant on Henderson Rd. I co-own a team with an old college friend, I’ll call him Fred), who himself is a lay leader in his congregation in the Cincinnati area. After about three draft picks my friend’s cell phone rang. He didn’t recognize the phone number on the screen, but he answered it anyway. He said, “Oh, hello (I’ll call her Doris); yes, but I warn you, I am attending my Fantasy Football draft, so if it gets loud here, that is what is going on.” And those were the last words I heard him say for literally 10 minutes. You see, they have a new pastor at their church. They were without a permanent pastor for a couple of years, and they finally have one and Fred is hopeful he will be a wonderful pastoral leader for them. But for some reason, the new pastor said something about their WELCA group that did not sit well with Doris. Now, we pastors know that there are some things in congregations that we just shouldn’t try to mess with too much, and the Women’s groups are usually listed among them. After all, for decades Lutheran Women’s organizations have thrived as lay leaders in our congregations. I certainly consider our WELCA folks as among our most active ministers of our church.

Fred finally got a chance to first acknowledge that he heard her and acknowledge that he understands why she is hurt. He then asked if she minded if he talked with the pastor about their conversation, and if the three of them could meet together. I think Doris resisted at first – as is the case, sometimes folks don’t really want a resolution to conflict, but want to be validated in their opinion. But Fred guided her and I think that she agreed in the end to the meeting. I was very impressed with Fred – who is in a life-long process of discerning if he might be called to ordained ministry himself. He wasn’t thinking to himself, “Now what are the steps of Matthew 18?” He was only thinking, “How can our community remain a strong witness to Jesus with a new pastor and the differences that are certain to happen?”

It is always Jesus’ intention that healing and restoration happens. We know this because we know how Jesus himself dealt with those who don’t even listen to the church. They are to be treated as Gentiles and tax collectors, people with whom Jesus ate and drank and talked with and forgave and welcomed as lost sheep

Authentic community is hard because conflict is always present. But with Jesus present, it is not only possible, but it is a powerful witness to the world! I want to ask you to participate in a little exercise a little later in the service. While people are coming up for communion, I want you to look around; I want you to see the people gathered here in this place as gifts of God given to us, so that together we can become the people and community God wants and needs us to be. Imagine what needs, hopes, hurts, and dreams those people hold, and how together we might go out into the world God loves so much armed with the courage and compassion of Christ. Think about all that Helen Ish has seen and experienced in her 100 years of life; think about how much life will change for my now 17 year old daughter in the next 80 or 90 years. Think about how much all of us need the gift of community, gathering in Jesus’ name and presence to love each other and to love God and to love the world in God’s name.

There is so much that is challenging in our world right now: hurricanes, displays of hate, injustice and intolerance just to name a few; and the world desperately needs us to be the Body of Christ. Moreover, there is so much going on in the lives of those people with whom you will receive Jesus’ body and blood today, from heartaches we barely sense to hopes we can scarce imagine. We all need to be cared for by, and to be part of, the Body of Christ. And so I’ll say it again: authentic community is hard. But also powerful … and healing … and it’s a tremendous witness … and it’s a heck of a lot of work, to be sure, but always worth it. May it be so, in the name of Christ our Lord; Amen.