Church is Messy

Exodus 12:1-14
Psalm 149
Matthew 18:15-20

Reverend Dr. Stephen Caine


18:15 “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. 16 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. 17 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. 18 Truly I tell you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven. 19 Again, truly I tell you, if two of you agree on earth about anything you ask, it will be done for you by my Father in heaven. 20 For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.” (Matthew 18:15-20, NRSV)


Let us pray: Holy God, you call us to harmony and peace. Teach us the importance of love, that we may love you with all our heart and strength, and learn love for one another.  Turn our feet from evil paths, our hands from shameful deeds, our minds to your wisdom, and our hearts to your grace. In Christ’s name, we pray. Amen.


Whoa. This is some heavy stuff from Matthew’s Gospel, not exactly the warm and fuzzy scripture lesson for a celebration like we have today in Riley Jane LeBlond’s baptism.  That’s a first impression anyway.  Then on second thought, it is the perfect text for the baptism of an infant into the life of Christ’s church.  Life in the Church can get messy and difficult and uncomfortable.  People get their feelings hurt, people leave the church and let’s be honest, the church has done many hurtful things and damaging actions to people throughout its history.  So, let me explain why I believe that this is the perfect text for the baptism of an infant.  As the Presbyterian Professor Tom Long asks in his commentary on Matthew, “at this crucial point in his life and ministry, why does Jesus choose to teach a workshop on church (governance) polity?”[1]


The first reason, I believe this text is appropriate for today is Jesus understood that the church was not, is not, and will never be perfect and without problems and issues and divisions and fights.   So, what Jesus is pushing for is reconciliation and healing.  This text is not about punishment or retaliation or settling scores or gaining power or revenge for past wrongs.  It’s about healing and restoration.[2]  Jesus is speaking to the gathered community of faith, what we would call the church, and instruct them how to respond when people don’t get along and they fight to the point of serving relationships with each other.  He calls on both individuals and the community of faith to intervene against unacceptable behavior.


This is tough stuff.  Not only what Jesus says, but the reality of the context of these words.  It’s really, challenging when people who care about each other are hurt by each other.  It happens at work; it happens at school; it happens at home, and it happens at church.  And it’s always difficult.  But it is what the church is called to do.  I think we have all dealt with this in at least one aspect of our lives where someone we care about leaves, whether she leaves the relationship, he leaves the marriage, quits the team, the group, the church, what-have-you and so often we are stuck there.  They were upset, they were mad, to hell with them, let them go…and we never follow through and reach out because it is hard and it hurts.


Never-the-less, Jesus instructs us to reach out and communicate our concerns—again not for punishment or ridicule but for loving reconciliation.  To continue to reach out following Christ’s example, as he eats meals with the outcasts and sinners; the most despicable people to the Jewish culture, the Gentiles and tax collectors.


We are the Church, the embodiment of the kingdom of God on earth, and we are more than just another organization that needs members and their money.  We are more than a civic club or a service organization looking to fund our budget and support our bottom line.  We are the church, the body of the living Christ and we too live as the church.  Jesus gives us these words in order to live out the countercultural body God envisions.  When we who lose our way, we are not forgotten but we are sought out and restored, where the people of the church cultivate mercy and forgiveness with one another.”[3]


Take a moment and look around the sanctuary (room), especially those of you who have been members of IHC for a long time.  Do you notice some people who are missing?  Why aren’t they here?  Did they get upset and leave?  Did they get angry at a sermon or a preacher?  Did they get upset at the Vestry Session or the Bishop or the Presbyterian Denomination?  Did you think to reach out to them?


Jesus calls us as individuals and the gathered body of the church to have a responsibility not only to our neighbors but to the greater body of church.  I would like to share with you 3 ideas for reaching out to those who have left us no matter their reasons


First, it is about healing and restoration, not punishment or revenge.  We should work at repairing the ruptured relationship instead of simply writing them off.

Second, this kind of healing and restoration is best-done person to person and in and with the community.  Two or three going in person to visit the individual.  Further, when a first approach doesn’t work, we are invited to try again and to draw in other members of the community.  It sometimes helps to have other eyes and ears in the room when we’re talking about difficult things.  But you don’t quit when it gets difficult, keep trying to repair the damage.


Third, and this is the sad truth, even our best efforts don’t often work.  Sometimes even the best efforts to repair relationships or to point out where a colleague or friend is struggling or failing fall short.  And it can lead to a severing of relationships but don’t ever view it as the last word.  Forgiveness is the last word. And with God all things are possible and that is why this text is perfect for the celebration of Baptism because in life and in death Riley Jane LeBlond and all of us belong to God through the waters of baptism and the blood of Christ.


The church won’t be perfect for Riley, just as it hasn’t been perfect for any of us.  Furthermore, Riley won’t be perfect.  As much as we look at a precious baby girl and we can’t believe it but there will be times when she will not make the best choices.  There will be relationships that struggle, feelings hurt…after all she is human.

So, what do we do with this story?  Again, I invite you to look around the sanctuary (room) and notice who is missing.  When you get home today think about that person, give them a phone call.  Or reach out to that friend who is hurting, or set up a visit with a missing church member, and invite George or I to go with you to see them and say I/we am here and I/we care and I/we miss you. And where two or three are gathered God is present too. It is the messy work of the Church but it is what we are called to do.


Let us pray: Forgiving God, we praise and thank you for continuously calling us to return to you each time we stray. Please be merciful with us when we are too quick to reprove and too slow to forgive. Guide our communication so that we lovingly reconcile with our neighbors. Amen.


[1] Reverend Dr. Alyce McKenzie, Trip Advisor Comments: Reflections on Matthew 18:15-20 August 28, 2011

[2] Reverend Dr. David Lose, Matthew 18:15-20

[3] Reverend Dr. Alyce McKenzie, Trip Advisor Comments: Reflections on Matthew 18:15-20 August 28, 2011(Long, 202-3)