Time after Pentecost #23 (A)
In the Name of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Grace, mercy, and peace be with you. Amen.
I was serving as the pastor of St. Paul Lutheran Church – a small congregation in Dayton, Ohio – when I first met Greg and his family. He and his wife Rebecca and their two small children visited our church and soon joined. They became a very special part of our congregation in so many ways. They came to worship almost every Sunday – their five-year-old son especially loved coming up for the children’s sermon (and believe me, we loved him too because he was such a delightful character!). Greg became active in our men’s group, Rebecca in a women’s circle – and I can go on and on. They were more than just members – they became a beloved part of our congregational family.
But then one day after they had been with us for two years, I received a letter from Greg that shocked me to the depths of my being. It was in August 1997 – and our denomination of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America at its Churchwide Assembly had just rejected a proposal to enter into a “full communion” ecumenical relationship with the Episcopal Church. Greg, a former Episcopalian, was extremely upset about that – and decided that he and his family could therefore no longer belong to the ELCA – which also meant, of course, that they were therefore resigning from our congregation of St. Paul Lutheran Church.
I called Greg and asked if I could visit with him about this. He was cordial, and assured me that his issue was not with me or any of the members of the congregation – but also said that his decision was final – and that they would not be coming back.
I shared Greg’s letter and an account of our subsequent phone conversation with our congregation council – and as you can imagine, their shock and sadness was every bit as great as mine. But together, we decided that although Greg and his family had decided to leave our church – we would still pray for them, reach out to them and let them know that we loved them, cared about them, and missed them.
And that is what we did. In a number of ways we kept in contact with them. Many of us sent them Christmas cards, and also “get well” cards when one of their children became ill. One day, Rebecca saw me in a store and told me that they all really missed our church family – but her husband was still stubborn in his insistence that they could no longer be a part of an ELCA congregation. I told her that we surely missed them too, and that we would always love to have them come back.
And then one Sunday morning – the family showed up for worship. I will never forget how glad everyone was to see them! They were received with hugs and tears of joy! It truly was a holy moment – a real life experience in which all of us there shared the wonder of God’s reconciling love.
I went to see them at their home the next day. After I shared how happy we were that they had come to worship, Greg said: “Pastor, I’ve been doing a lot of thinking. I’ve come to realize that even when I might disagree with some decisions and actions of the church, what is really important is that we are a family. Thanks for not giving up on us – and we are so glad to be back home.”
And this family has been “back home” ever since. Greg later was elected to the Congregation Council and served a year as the congregation’s president. Carol and I got to meet him and his now nineteen-year old son when we went back to Dayton, Ohio this past March and visited our former congregation there. And it sure was great to see them and so many of our old friends!
Yes Greg and his family – and all of us – learned that what is really important about the church is not that we agree about everything, but that we are a family – a family in Christ who love and care about each other.
I believe that this is what today’s gospel text is about. In our text, Jesus gives instructions about how to handle disagreement and conflict within the church – of what to do when “another member of the church sins against you.” Actually, this translation is a rather poor one – it is literally “when your brother (or sister) sins…”The word “member” does not adequately convey the relationship Jesus is obviously referring to – that this person is someone whom we love and care about.
Today’s gospel text too often has been misused as some kind of a legalistic order of discipline to be followed in the case of wrongdoing by someone in the church. We tend to focus upon words such as “fault”, “evidence”, and “offender” – with the implication that we are the ones who are in the right and that the other person is in the wrong – and that it is our “job” to get this person to repent or else drive him or her out of the church.
But the ultimate purpose here is not to prove that the other “member” is wrong, but rather to seek healing and reconciliation with a brother or sister whom we love. As long as there is disagreement and conflict, the entire church community – the entire body of Christ – suffers. THAT is what Jesus is referring to in today’s gospel passage. Jesus is telling his disciples that when there is a problem, it should not be ignored or allowed to fester. Rather, if one of us has an issue with someone, we should go to that person and try to work things out – and not with an attitude of “I’m right and you’re wrong!” We should always have an attitude of humility, which understands that perhaps we could be the one who might be wrong, or that perhaps both of us may be in some ways. The point here is that we need to listen to each other with love and with the hope that our issue can be resolved.
If the issue is not resolved, then the next step is to seek the help of other Christian brothers and sisters – again, not with the purpose of trying to get “evidence” against the person – but rather with the hope that they may be able to assist us in resolving the issue when we are unable to do so by ourselves. And once again, when this step is taken, it should be with the understanding that we both may need to change some of our thinking and actions.
And if even that does not suffice, Jesus says that then the church – the entire community – should then be involved. But again, not with the intent of “judging” the “offender”. What Jesus is getting at here is that sometimes when we have a disagreement within our midst, a decision must be made by the community as a whole. (Even if that decision is simply that “we will agree to disagree.”) And when a decision is made, then the one who has a different understanding needs to decide whether he or she will listen to the community or – as initially in the case of Greg and his family at St. Paul Lutheran Church – decide that they can no longer be a part of the community.
When a person excludes oneself from the church community, or when the church may have to exclude a person from its community because of his or her actions – no one ever “wins”. It is a painful sundering of the unity that Christ wants us to have with one another. Jesus says that such a person who is now outside of our community should be to us “as a Gentile and a tax collector.” This does not mean that we should look down upon or despise that person, but rather that we should continue to love and reach out to the person who is now outside of us – just as Jesus did to Gentiles and tax collectors and other “sinners” of his day – always with the hope that those who are now separated from us will eventually become a part of our community again.
That is what happened with Greg and his family at St. Paul Lutheran Church in Dayton, Ohio. Even though they were separated from us, our people kept love and reaching out to them. And eventually, that love won them back. Greg never did agree with the ELCA’s decision (which eventually, of course, was changed – now we are in a “full communion” ecumenical relationship with the Episcopal Church). And from what I understand when we went back to Dayton this past March, Greg doesn’t agree with the ELCA’s latest controversial decisions relating to human sexuality.
But – he and also many of us – have learned that even in these kinds of conflicts, we can agree to disagree – because our love for each other and our common love for Jesus is far more important than a disagreement on a particular issue.
May we always remember this. Disagreements and conflicts may arise among us from time to time – but when Christ is in our midst our love for him and for each other will always keep binding us together. When Christ, may we keep on listening to each other, reaching out to each other, forgiving each other, and growing together in love.
For as Jesus says; “For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.” Let us always remember this in our life together. For Jesus is here! Christ is here! Thanks be to God! Amen!
Pastor George Karres
418 W. Main St.
Sidney, MT 59270