Sermon for the Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost – September 10, 2023
Dear friends, grace to you and peace from God our Father and our Lord Jesus Christ.
I saw a picture of a church sign someone shared on social media recently. It bore a message that didn’t come across in quite the way it was intended. It said, “We love hurting people.” Now Martin Luther encourages us in the Small Catechism to make a habit of interpreting other peoples’ words in the most charitable light, so we can assume that what this congregation meant to say is that they love people who are hurting. That’s a good message! But that’s not how it sounds at first glance, does it? It sounds like this congregation gets a perverse joy out of inflicting pain on others! “We love hurting people!”
Sadly, this sign’s unfortunate wording conveys an all-too-frequent truth about the church: sometimes we hurt each other. I don’t think most church members set out to do this. Most of the time it isn’t intentional. I certainly don’t think any church member actually loves hurting people. I can’t think of anyone I’ve ever met in church who actually takes pleasure in it.
But the sad truth about life in the church is that sometimes we do hurt people. Sometimes we hurt each other. And the hurt that happens in church can be particularly painful because we rightly believe that church should be a safe place. The hurt that happens in church is similar to the hurt that happens in family life. It hurts more because we have higher expectations in those contexts. It hurts more because these are the people we should be able to trust. It hurts more because we believe these are the places we should experience love and care, not hurt. Like our families, if church isn’t a safe place for us, it seems like nowhere is, and the world can then seem awfully cruel and hopeless.
I know church hurts hit differently because I hear about them all the time. They make a big impact on people. I’ve had people turn down invitations to serve on council because they have PTSD from the last time they were on it decades ago. I’ve heard of how people have bravely stepped forward to volunteer for something, putting themselves out there, making themselves vulnerable, trying something new, and then they are snapped at by someone for not doing it the way they think it should be done. That hurts! I’ve heard of people being hurt because they were overlooked or not included in something, intentionally or not.
I know too that I as a pastor have caused hurt. I sincerely cannot think of a time I ever did so intentionally. I certainly don’t love it when it happens. But it does happen. Sometimes a lame attempt at humor or a poor choice of words comes across as flippant or uncaring. Sometimes I fail to remember something important about someone, an important detail, even a name. Sometimes my head is full and I can seem distant.
Church hurts hit differently, and I can’t promise that I won’t be the cause of some of them, however unintentionally. I know church hurts hit differently, because I’ve been hurt by them too.
The good news in our gospel reading for today is that Jesus knows this about his church. Jesus anticipates that church members will sin against each other. He knows that when he calls a bunch of sinners together to live as brothers and sisters and appoints another sinner to be their shepherd that there are going to be problems from time to time. I find great comfort and hope in the simple fact that Jesus already knows this about us! While church should be a safe place, while it should be a place of love and care and not hurt, Jesus knows that we will not carry out this calling perfectly. Jesus knows this and yet he calls us to live together as his people anyway.
And as he calls us together to be his church, he gives us a template for how to handle the inevitable hurts that happen when sinners are placed in close proximity to one another. “If a member of the church sins against you,” Jesus says, “go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone. If the member listens to you, you have regained that one.” Jesus encourages us to be intentional about seeking reconciliation. Rather than spreading the hurt by sharing it with everyone BUT the person who inflicted it, Jesus instructs us to go to the source in an effort to restore the relationship.
If that doesn’t work, Jesus continues, bring two or three other members with you – not to gang up on anyone, but to serve as witnesses, as mediators to help sort things out. Again the goal is to “regain that one,” to restore the relationship.
If that doesn’t work, Jesus says, it should be brought before the entire church. This doesn’t mean standing up in the middle of a service and pointing fingers. It means bringing it to the church authorities for their help. We have an entire chapter in our constitution dealing with church discipline, and our bishop’s office has a standing committee on discipline to deal with things when they get out of control. But even here the goal is always reconciliation. The goal is always to “regain that one” whenever possible.
But what if that doesn’t work? What then? “If the offender refuses to listen even to the church,” Jesus says, “let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.” What does this mean? Honestly, I’m not sure. It is highly debated among biblical interpreters. Some suggest it means putting them outside of the fellowship, keeping your distance, which is how Gentiles and tax collectors were commonly treated by pious Jews in Jesus’ time. They say it means establishing healthy boundaries, as we might say today.
This makes some sense to me. There are times when this is necessary. For instance, pastors or other church leaders who engage in abuse need to be removed from their positions. Full stop. In some rare, extreme circumstances, church members need to be removed from congregations. I have a pastor friend who had a woman in his congregation who was being stalked and harassed by another church member. When he refused to listen to the charges or change his ways, he had to be barred from attendance at all church functions. Jesus, then, might be speaking to those situations where the hurt is too deep or the danger is ongoing and it just needs to be stopped.
Others, however, have pointed out that Jesus came to include Gentiles and tax collectors. He came to graft them into the people of God. He continued to offer forgiveness to Gentiles and tax collectors along with every other kind of sinner. In fact, Matthew, the very author of this gospel, was himself a tax collector at one point! Jesus has a proven track record of reconciling both Gentiles and tax collectors, so perhaps Jesus has a proven track record of reconciling both Gentiles and tax collectors, so perhaps he is calling us to redouble our efforts at reconciliation, with him as our example.
These two interpretations aren’t mutually exclusive, I don’t think. We can recognize that there are times when toxic people or situations require drawing lines and establishing boundaries, while at the same time we never give up on praying that repentance, forgiveness, and reconciliation would happen in one form or another, trusting that ultimately it is Christ’s job to make it happen, not ours.
These instructions are so very helpful. They are so important. Jesus is teaching us to lean into the inevitable conflicts that arise in church. He is teaching us to see every dispute as an opportunity for pursuing reconciliation, an opportunity for building community, an opportunity even for spiritual growth as we put our trust in him.
But Jesus gives us something even better than instructions in our gospel reading for today. He also gives us a promise. “Where two or three are gathered in my name,” he says, “I am there among them.”
Church life is messy and sometimes even painful. When you gather together a group of sinners to live together in close proximity, there is going to be trouble. We are going to step on each other’s toes from time to time. There are going to be misunderstandings. We are going to fail one another in ways that are hurtful.
What makes it all worth it is that Jesus is here. “Where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.” Jesus gives us the safety we seek. He provides the love and care we long for. He forgives us all our trespasses and teaches and empowers us to forgive those who trespass against us. Even in the midst of all the failings of his people – which he himself anticipated! – he is here.
Because Jesus is here, our hurts can be healed. Because Jesus is here, the church is a place of reconciliation – first with God, and then with one another. Because Jesus is here, people who are hurting do indeed find love.
Our love will always be imperfect at best. His love is perfect and eternal.
And he is here today to give that love to you.
Thanks be to God. Amen.
Rev. Jeffrey R. Spencer
Oak Harbor Lutheran Church