The Good and Bad of Having Churches like Families

The text for this sermon is Matthew 18:15-20.

Now, this is complicated, so pay attention.  There was this cousin who did not go to a baby shower because, well because it was a baby shower and really who wants to go to baby showers?  She had a reason of course, a big project due at work. She sent a present with her sister and then went to Easton with friends.

Well, husbands of the women who were at this shower were at Easton, too. They had planned their own baby shower at Fado’s Irish Pub and the cigar shop next door.  Guys know how to throw better baby showers.  So the husband mentions casually to his wife that night, I saw your cousin at Easton, wasn’t she invited to the baby shower?  The wife immediately got on the phone to her mom to tell her that her cousin had skipped her baby shower to shop.

The mother was furious. So when a month later there was a graduation party for her nephew, the brother of the woman who skipped out on the shower, she not only didn’t go but told her kids not to go to the party either.  It isn’t that big of a family and their absence was not only noticeable, it was awkward.

The mother of these warring sisters, grandmother to all of these cousins, went ballistic.  She didn’t know anything about the baby shower no show, but the graduation abandonment was hard to miss. She called up her daughter and read her the riot act. The daughter tried to make her case, but the mother would not hear it. She told her daughter she always was making problems in the family, like the time she stole her older sister’s boyfriend in high school, twenty five years ago.  Her daughter was a troublemaker and needed to grow up. The daughter’s feelings were so hurt that she swore not to talk to her mother until she apologized.

This was in the spring…7 years ago.  The mother is now in her 80’s and still she has not heard from her daughter.  Of course, she isn’t about to pick up the phone and make an apology because she did nothing wrong.  It was her daughter that embarrassed her and ruined her grandson’s college graduation. She said nothing to her that wasn’t true. For seven years this family has not been whole.

This is how families seem to work.  Because they are so close to each other, they have the greatest power to hurt each other.  Strangers can never disappoint you as much as family. Once at a Cleveland Browns game against my Minnesota Vikings a whole section of people, hundreds of them began to chant a bad word at me. I am not obnoxious at games. I had on a Vikings hat, but not the full Vikings regalia of helmet, yellow pig tails and sword. I was surprised they singled me out, but I laughed.  It was funny.  Now, if I walk in here one Sunday morning, and you start a similar sort of chant, I would take it pretty personally and be hurt. We expect more from those we “love”.

Jesus imagines our churches will be more like families than strangers at professional football games.  The Greek in the original text actually has Jesus saying if a brother sins against you, not a member of your church.  Because of the persecution the early church faced from the government, and the outcast status you would earn if you went off and joined this crazy cult, early church members had to rely on each other like family.  They had to become like brothers and sisters for each other.

Of course, brothers and sisters can hurt each other like only family can.  So what do you do if a brother or sister sins against you?  When we try to imagine the unnamed sin Jesus had in mind, we usually come up with all sorts of awful scenarios that do occasionally happen in a church: adultery, embezzling money from the offering plate, even sexual molestation. These things do happen, not often, but sometimes.  What if Jesus had in mind sinfulness much more common to a family, like the scenario told earlier?

Katherine had been part of a Cheers! Group for five years.  Cheers! Groups are monthly gatherings at Messiah of ten or twelve people.  Mostly, they get together eat, share about their life, pray and laugh. Katherine had huge medical problems that appeared suddenly, nothing life threatening, but certainly life altering. After the surgery, she had to miss work for two months and felt pretty cruddy for months afterward. Not that it was a big deal but she did notice that not one person from her Cheers! Group called.  Not one stopped by with a hot dish and conversation.  No one seemed to notice that she missed four gatherings in a row.  When she returned, they were all anxious to hear how she was doing, but frankly she could have used the concern a few months earlier.  That was the last Cheers! Group she attended.  She dropped out the next year.

Sure we have the occasional and tragic scandal, but like your family, the sins that really ripple our waters are when we are simply not Christ for each other. I made Katherine up, but I am sure there are several people here today that are wondering if I am talking about them.  This sort of disregard sadly happens often at Messiah, just as my first story, also made up, sadly happens often in our homes.

My first stab at a sermon this week, was a long boring thing, different than this long boring thing, that looked at the process carefully that Jesus laid out for churches to solve such problems.  I threw it out because I am not sure the process is really very relevant for the 21st century.  Kicking someone out of the church was a big deal then, now, not so much. If we kicked someone out of Messiah, there would not only be another church anxious and happy to have them, their likely would be one that celebrates and honors the particular sin that got them kicked out.

Instead, I want to focus on just one part of Jesus’ instructions for resolving conflicts in the church, the responsibility of the one who was sinned against. In Jesus’ formula, it is this person who approaches the one who hurt them to seek reconciliation. If the woman who threw the baby shower would have just called her cousin who skipped it and told her honestly that she was hurt, her mother would likely be talking to her grandmother today.  If Katherine had told a member of her Cheers! Group that she was disappointed they had not visited, this would have drawn that group closer together, instead it was torn apart.

If I had a nickel for every time someone said I didn’t do anything wrong, so why should I make the first move, my pockets would be full. If I had a dollar for everyone that left a church I led without telling anyone about the event that disappointed or angered them, I would have quite a savings account.  It takes courage to approach someone who has hurt you and honestly tell them how this affected you.  It takes the presence of Christ to approach that person with love, open ears and heart, and the willingness to listen, understand and forgive. Notice, Jesus promises to be present when one brother approaches another.

When we read this complicated formula from Jesus in the first century, we could dismiss it as archaic; it wouldn’t work in the modern church.  Yet, we still have sin.   Because our best churches, like this one are still modeled on the family, where people are encouraged to not just call each other brother and sister but to rely on each other, this sin still has the power to cut deeply and shake us.

Maybe, we don’t need the formula, one then two, then the entire congregation, maybe instead we simply need the reminder, that when a couple of us gather in Jesus’ name, he promises to be there.  If Jesus is there, than we can trust that our words of hurt will be heard with love.  If Jesus is there, we can understand and care for the one who hurt us, because heck what are you going to do, it’s your brother.  Amen


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