(This is an adaptation of a sermon I first preached in 1999. This version was preached September 10, 2017, at Zion Lutheran Church, Brodheadsville, PA.)
In 1999, I was pastor of St. John’s Lutheran Church, in the village of Saint Johns, a few miles north of Hazleton. For the congregation’s 200th anniversary, member Joyce Steinman researched and wrote a history of the congregation. In a section called “Controversy in the Church,” she said the following.
“There has never been a moment of controversy at St. John’s. We are that rare congregation that agrees about everything; totally and unequivocally!”
“Sure,” she continues, “believe that and we’ll tell you there are no sinners in our church either! Actually, we’re like every other Christian congregation. We are comprised of very human men, women, and children and often, among us, differences of opinion arise. Through the years, these differing opinions have ranged from the ridiculous to the sublime.
“We have disagreed about hymnals, liturgy, music, something someone said, something someone didn’t say, appropriate and inappropriate attire for church, what color to the paint the chancel, to remodel or not to remodel, to carpet or tile, to use a worship folder or not to use a worship folder. Many years ago we had one of our most heated disagreements about whether to speak only German at our worship services or to speak English and modernize the church.
As Joyce noted, there was a lot of disagreement in the congregation’s history. Sometimes that disagreement led to harsh words, angry thoughts, and hurt feelings. At such occasions, I’ve sometimes heard it said, “Why can’t we be like the first Christians? If only we could get along like they did.
You see, there’s this idea that floats around that everything was hunky-dory in the first century church.
But it wasn’t so. There was conflict and disagreement and hurt feelings among the earliest believers. Evidence for that is seen in today’s gospel.
In that reading we heard Jesus say to the disciples, “If another member of the church sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone. If the member listens to you, you have regained that one. But if you are not listened to, take one or two others along with you, so that every word may be confirmed by the evidence of two or three witnesses. If the member refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if the offender refuses to listen even to the church, let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.
Words like that are not needed among a community which lives in perfect harmony. Such instruction is needed for those among whom things sometimes go wrong.
Because things can go wrong, the model constitution for congregations of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America includes a section on disciplining of members. It outlines a procedure to be followed, noting that “prior to disciplinary action, reconciliation and repentance will be attempted following Matthew 18:15-17. Those are the verses we heard in today’s gospel. They teach us that sin in the church is to be handled in the Spirit of Jesus. This is a Spirit that does not rush to judgment. It does not seek to blame. It does not seek to separate. The Spirit of Jesus seeks reconciliation and forgiveness.
To live the Spirit of Jesus is to begin in prayer. If you feel you have been wronged, the first thing to do is pray. Pray along these lines.
“Lord, another member of the Church has done me wrong. But before I do or say anything in response, help me think clearly. Save me from feelings of revenge. And forgive me my trespasses, as I forgive those who trespass against me.
“Protect me from the temptation of religious superiority. Remind me that through Baptism all in the Church, including the one with whom I am angry, are brothers and sisters in Christ. And forgive me my trespasses, as I forgive those who trespass against me.
“Teach me anew that your Son died not only for me, but for the one who has done me wrong. Focus my attention on the mercy I have so graciously received from you. Help me to show that same mercy to my offender. And forgive me my trespasses, as I forgive those who trespass against me.”
“Show me the good in the one with whom I am angry. Make me aware of my own failings. And forgive me my trespasses, as I forgive those who trespass against me.
“Lord, hear my prayer.
When we are feel we have been wronged, before doing anything else, begin with prayer. Such is the Spirit of Jesus.
Then seek out one or two of your closest friends, friends who will hold what you say in confidence. There are two reasons why it is important that you talk with them. First, you need to vent your emotion. It’s not good to keep anger bottled up inside. Second, you need their wisdom. They may see things in a different light that you do. They may help you sort things out, and perhaps discover that you have imagined a hurt that isn’t really there.
Pray and seek out people you trust. Such is the Spirit of Jesus.
Then if you are still bothered, go alone to your offender. (But let me add an exception to that suggestion. If there is a chance of physical abuse, do not put yourself in danger. Those who have been abused are under no obligation to see the offender alone.)
But in a case that does not involve abuse, go and speak to the other person. Talk it out. and explain the problem as you understand it, always doing so with respect and dignity. Speak to him or her face to face, just the two of you.
At times when I myself have been unwilling to do that, I’ve realized it’s time to drop the whole thing. If I’m unwilling to talk face to face with one in whom I perceive fault, it is better just to be quiet, and not gossip and spread stories which may be false.
The Lutheran magazine once had a column called “Since You Asked.” Readers wrote in with questions about life and faith. One writer said, “Last Monday, a dear congregation member had a stroke. During the week, we were surprised, then angry, that the pastor had not visited her. On Sunday, the congregation was livid when she was not mentioned in the prayers.”
Imagine the phone calls being made in the congregation that week. Angry words were spoken. Accusations were made. Charges of incompetence and laziness were flying around. The pastor’s character and commitment to Christ were called into question. Finally, someone went to the pastor to express their rage. Guess what they found out?
The pastor didn’t know about the stroke. Throughout the whole week, people had been getting more and more upset. All that anger. All that rage. All those accusations and unkind words. It could have been averted by a single one-on-one conversation.
Too often, we hesitate to hold such talks. We find it easier to talk about people than to talk with them.
It’s easier to be on the sidelines gossiping than to be on the front lines communicating.
It’s easier to jump to conclusions than to check out facts.
Easier perhaps. But not better. That’s one of the reasons Jesus tells us to meet one-on-one with an offender. Because there may be no offense at all.
Pray, and seek out people you trust, and speak to the person you believe has wronged you. Such is the Spirit of Jesus.
We do these things because of all that Christ has done for us. He gave his earthly life so that we might have heavenly life. He forgives us, so that we might forgive one another. Amen.