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Dear friends in Christ, grace and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.
Twenty some years ago, Janna and I were sent to the newly independent Baltic nation of Latvia to establish an English-speaking congregation. We were young and naïve. There was no training course at Luther Seminary for setting up churches in the former Soviet Union, nor an Augsburg Fortress Publishing House for purchasing church supplies. We arrived in Riga in September on a passenger ship in the container harbor with two suitcases each, a black preaching robe, a 20 pound reading Bible and 50 green hymnals. We stood there a moment, with our mouths gaping, looking out at the moored, rusting ships, and sighed. Our driver from the church office bribed the customs officers with a carton of Marlboro cigarettes. As we swerved out onto a street still being observed by Soviet soldiers, we wondered what we had gotten ourselves into. But we trusted in the Bible verse, “Where two or three are gathered together, there I am present in their midst.” I remember that blind trust and confidence in God’s ways that allowed us to move steadily forward in building a church- but our eyes were also wide open.
So it never ceases to amaze me when I meet young believers, new to the faith, who join a church for the first time, and are equally buoyed with naïve innocence. They believe that when they join the church they will leave the imperfect, money-grabbing, secular world behind and will enter into some sort of holy, monastic Christian community where everyone is good and kind. For some, it takes a little more time, but sooner or later they begin to think that Jesus must have been misquoted. Surely, he must have meant to say, “Where two or three are gathered in my name, there’s bound to be an argument.” Or worse yet, “Where two or three are gathered in my name, there is politics.”
In this morning’s scripture, we are reminded that even Jesus knew that that the church he had come to establish was not perfect and that there were going to be disagreements and fights. He must have heard the poet writing on the sidelines.
I think that I shall never see A church that’s all it ought to be;
A church whose members never stray-Beyond the straight and narrow way;
A church that has no empty pews, Whose pastor never has the blues,
Where gossips never peddle lies, Or make complaints or criticize;
Such perfect churches there may be, But none of them are known to me.
But still, we’ll work, and pray and plan, To make our own the best we can.
Well, enough said about congregations. Truthfully, I haven’t met a perfect pastor either. Mind you, I am proud to serve the Church of Christ, and it has been my honor to be a pastor for nearly thirty years. But I know that I am not perfect. Although I am proud to say that I have made all of the worshipers in all seven of the congregations that I have served happy. Yes, they were all happy. Half were happy when I arrived, and the other half were happy when I left. Even the most sainted, church members, have a way of surprising you with a back-handed compliment.. I was visiting Esther Mork, an elderly church member and celebrating Holy Communion with her when she sighed tactfully, “O Pastor Haug, I haven’t heard anyone say a bad word about you- lately.” No, I am not perfect- and I must confess that I have never seen or experienced a perfect church.
You see, when well-meaning people gather together his name, they don’t all see eye to eye on what it means to be the church of Christ. Just as in a marriage, the issue is never whether there will be fights and disagreements; but the question is always how will Christians live and work together when conflicts do arise. A marriage, a friendship and a church are a lot alike.
Three years ago in December, my wife Janna and I celebrated our 25th wedding anniversary. I still remember one of the cards we received. It outlined the four stages of marriage. The same could be said of involvement in the church. First, The honeymoon. Second, The shock of reality. Third, The adjustment, and finally, Fourth, The stage of quiet contentment. Inside the anniversary card read, “If you two don’t hurry, you’ll never get past the honeymoon stage!” It was a nice thought.
The truth is, however, sooner or later every couple moves out the honeymoon stage. The same is true of life of the church. But let me assure you, if you are patient and persistent, you can grow to enjoy a richer and fuller relationship, especially in the crisis moments. In this morning’s lesson Jesus outlines a pattern for dealing with life’s disputes.
Jesus begins by recommending straight talk. If you’ve got a problem with someone, your spouse, a co-worker, or someone in the church, Deal with it directly. Don’t embarrass that person in public — deal with the person one-on-one if you can. Don’t do it on the telephone; certainly not in a letter. Words on paper can be misinterpreted. Don’t text them, and try to include all the smiley face that you can. Do it in person; and don’t beat around the bush or sugarcoat it. Get right to it. But that’s hard for some of us stoic Lutherans to do. So we don’t. Instead, we talk behind others people backs, tear them down without them ever knowing about it or getting a chance to respond in person. If you’ve got a problem with someone and you don’t have the nerve to go to that person yourself, then keep it to yourself. More harm has been done to others with the phrase, “I shouldn’t be telling you this, but did you know…?” than with any other words. On the other hand, some people don’t seem to have any trouble with straight talk. In fact, the trouble is they seem to enjoy it too much. For these, scripture reminds us that we to speak the truth in love.
If straight talk doesn’t work in resolving the problem, Jesus then instructs others to get involved. It’s a process. Try to settle disputes and differences of opinion with a few wise, patient, and loving friends. Finally, if that doesn’t work, and if the person still refuses to listen the counsel of others, then, treat them as Gentiles or tax collectors. Yes, treat them as your enemies. Send them away from the church and from your life. There’s only one problem with this approach. Jesus would have never done that. Jesus taught instead, “Love your neighbor as you your love yourself. And love even your enemy.” Jesus did not abandon the Gentiles and the tax collectors. He went out to meet them and to dine with them. In turn, he was criticized by the religious leaders of his time because of how he treated those whom they had cast aside.
Now, you may be wondering: so why is Jesus’ teaching on disagreement and disputes so important to the church that it would be included in Holy Scripture? Certainly, it would have been easy for St. Matthew to overlook this passage on discipline and good churchly order. But throughout these past weeks, as we have read the story of Peter and the first disciples, we have been reminded Jesus chose imperfect and fallible men to proclaim the good news of God’s kingdom. That’s good news for you and me. God is counting on you to make a difference. You are the church of God, and you have a holy purpose.
Our church in Riga, Latvia was not perfect, nor were we beautiful. Our altar was a wooden board across two saw horses. Our cross was a wooden funeral cross atop a movie tripod. Our communion ware was the remnants of dissolved churches, and the baptismal bowl was a casserole chafing dish. But regardless, we did the work of God’s kingdom with a handful of imperfect, hungering souls and an imperfect pastor.
My friends, as we begin the fall again, ask yourself two questions: First, Why do you need the church? And second, What does the church need of you?
So why do your need the church? Perhaps you need to hear the sweet sound of the gospel of Jesus Christ, his word of forgiveness and the promise of new life. Perhaps, you need a quiet place where you can speak intimately with God. Perhaps, you need to be surrounded by a company of fellow believers. Perhaps, you are hungering and thirsting for the gifts God offers at his holy table. Or perhaps, your need is less defined. You are still searching, but you know that what you are ultimately searching for is here to be found. There are many reasons that you and I need the church.
And what does the church need of you? This morning you are being invited to find ways to exercise your time and talents through this church. Perhaps it is singing in the choir, teaching Sunday School, counting the offering or serving coffee. But remember, volunteering through the work of this church is only one small aspect of your total Christian witness. Primarily the purpose of the Church is to bless you, so that you may be a blessing to others. That is why we all need the Church, for where two or three are gathered in my name, there Jesus promises to be present in their midst. That is the gift God has called you and this church, as imperfect as we may be, to share with others.
Such perfect churches there may be, But none of them are known to me.
But still, we’ll work, and pray and plan, To make our own the best we can. Amen.
May the peace of God which passes all understanding keep your hearts and mind in Christ Jesus. Amen.