As usual, this reflection from David Lose is worth reading.
Grace and peace to you from God our Creator and our Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
How many of you really enjoy policies and procedures? Who gets excited by good, organized directions?
I have a confession: I actually like clear policies and procedures. I like flowcharts and step by step, logical guides. I think it’s related to being a computer programmer. When you’re writing a computer program, you know exactly what’s going to happen. It’s complicated, but it’s clear and logical and organized.
As a pastor, I get weirdly excited by things like making sure the congregation’s records are in good order or working on consistent job descriptions, or this week, reading the insurance policy before the council meeting. Most people don’t enjoy that kind of thing, but I think it’s kind of fun and important.
Also, the church constitution says they’re part of my job, and the fact that I know they’re in the constitution proves my point, because I’ve actually read the church constitution. Several times. It’s a good document. Let me know if you want a copy.
I like good, functional policies, which makes today’s readings really interesting to me. Today’s gospel reading from Matthew might be the only place where Jesus lays out a policy and procedure manual.
In the first part of this reading, Jesus gives the church a procedure for resolving a disagreement, and it’s such a clear policy it’s actually in our constitution. I looked it up: It’s section C15.01.
It’s a good policy too. If you disagree with someone, go talk to them directly, alone. Don’t drag others into it. Don’t complain about how unreasonable the other person is. Don’t spread rumors about them. Go talk straight to them.
I saw a list this week from another pastor of things Jesus does not say in Matthew 18. Here are a few things Jesus doesn’t say:
“If another member of the church sins against you, withdraw quietly yet in disgust, go home in a huff, and stew about it for a few months.”
“If another member of the church sins against you, silently hold it against the ministries they love, and decline to support any of them for a year or two.”
“If another member of the church sins against you, bottle up your feelings until they come spilling out sideways on a future occasion, preferably at a congregational meeting or at coffee hour on Easter.”
“If another member of the church sins against you, cut your participation in half, and after a while, leave the congregation permanently without telling anyone.”
None of those are what Jesus says to do. Instead, he says, approach the person directly as a brother or sister in Christ. As Martin Luther says in the Small Catechism in his 8th commandment explanation about not bearing false witness against your neighbor, assume the best about the other person until proven otherwise. Give people the benefit of the doubt.
Of course, a one on one conversation doesn’t always work, so there’s another step. Go talk to them again, but this time, bring someone with you. If I had a major issue with someone in the congregation, I’d probably take someone from the council with me.
And then there’s the hardest part. Sometimes, even going with witnesses, even telling the whole church doesn’t solve the problem, and Jesus recognizes that. Eventually, you might have done everything you could do to solve a problem, and reconciliation just isn’t happening. There’s a procedure for that too: “Let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a sinner.”
The part we miss in there is that treating someone as a Gentile and a sinner does not mean we kick them out of the church or ignore them. It means we reach out to them even more, just in a different way. It means we pray for them and continue to see them as God’s beloved children who need to hear the good news of Jesus. There’s a whole other sermon we could do about what Jesus says about Gentiles and sinners.
But these are good instructions. They make sense. The fascinating thing is that they’re here at all. What does it say about the church, this organization that is the Body of Christ, that we need these instructions?
On the one hand, it seems to say Jesus values good order and procedures in the church, laws are important, and we need clear procedures. But on the other hand, the fact that this section is here says that community itself is important. It says community is worth working on, worth repairing when it breaks, and it’s going to break.
I struggle with Christian community sometimes, because it doesn’t behave the way I think it should. I’ve heard of at least two different situations this week where people in just our congregation have felt wounded or offended by the church. When I hear stories of the church letting people down, I want to apologize, because that’s not what we’re supposed to do.
We’re supposed to be welcoming like Jesus. We’re supposed to treat everyone as beloved children of God. We’re supposed to reflect Jesus to the world. As the ELCA slogan says, we’re supposed to be doing God’s work with our hands.
Sometimes, we live up to that call, and it’s important to notice and celebrate those times. I really do believe God is at work here among us. I believe God has called each one of you to this community, and I thank you for answering that call. You are vital to this congregation. When you aren’t here, something is missing and we are less. I’m afraid we don’t say that enough.
But so often, we don’t live up to our call. Sometimes we get bogged down in things that don’t really matter, sometimes we turn ourselves inward and focus too much on ourselves and ignore our neighbors and our world, sometimes we turn ourselves too far outward and we ignore our brothers and sisters right here among us. Being church is hard. Recognizing Christ in each other, recognizing ourselves and this group as church, as the body of Christ, is hard.
“The person who loves their dream of community will destroy community, but the person who loves those around them will create community.”
I don’t know about you, but sometimes the church doesn’t live up to my expectations. Sometimes it’s this congregation, sometimes it’s Christians in the news elsewhere in the world or in our country, often it’s myself.
In those times when I get frustrated with the church, I need to hear that message. “The person who loves their dream of community will destroy community, but the person who loves those around them will create community.” I need to be reminded to love the people around me, because that’s how we love Jesus.
Bonhoeffer goes on to say:
“Those who love their dream of a Christian community more than the Christian community itself become destroyers of that Christian community even though their personal intentions may be ever so honest, earnest, and sacrificial.”
Dreaming of what our church can be is good. Remembering and even celebrating what our church used to be is good. But let’s also celebrate what God is doing here among us now. Let’s remember to love our church and each other as we are, not as we wish we were, because that’s the way God loves us.
Paul gives good instructions in the Romans reading for how to live in community. We have all these commandments, like don’t commit adultery, don’t murder, don’t steal. These are all good and important for living together.
I hope I can live out what I’m preaching about forgiveness and reconciliation, but it’ll be a lot easier if we refrain from stealing and murdering each other. Do not covet. All these commandments are summed up in this word: “Love your neighbor as yourself. Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law.”
Of course, the command to love each other brings up the question of how exactly we go about doing that, which leads to all the other commands. Love does not murder. Love does not steal, or commit adultery. The basis of every command from God is to love one another as God has loved us, and that means forgiving each other when we fail to love as we ought to.
Our call as Christians is to love and serve our neighbors, and it’s not something we can do alone. We need each other to be the body of Christ. As imperfect as we are, we are called to love these people, to love this community, to love the neighbors God has given us, not to wait for some impossible ideal church or the people we wish were here.
When we get too caught up in the procedures Jesus lays out here, we miss his point: Community is essential to the Christian life. God has chosen to build the church out of people, real, live, flawed human beings. God works through sinners like you and me.
The key verse in this passage is the last one in our reading. Where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.
We can try to follow as many rules and procedures as we want to, and it doesn’t do any good without Jesus. With all of its flaws, and there are plenty, the church remains the body of Christ, because Jesus is here among us.