Jesus said to his disciples, “Occasions for stumbling are bound to come, but woe to anyone by whom they come! It would be better for you if a millstone were hung around your neck and you were thrown into the sea than for you to cause one of these little ones to stumble. Be on your guard! If another disciple sins, you must rebuke the offender, and if there is repentance, you must forgive. And if the same person sins against you seven times a day, and turns back to you seven times and says, “I repent,” you must forgive.” The apostles said to the Lord, “Increase our faith!” The Lord replied, “If you had faith the size of a mustard seed, you could say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it would obey you.
Jesus says, “If another disciple sins, you must rebuke the offender, and if there is repentance, you must forgive.”
On his very first Sunday at his very first church, a young pastor was appropriately nervous. He tried to make sure all the elements of worship had been taken care of: enough ushers to take up the offertory, a volunteer to lead the children’s message, and a witty (but to the point) sermon that helps to convey the gospel. All things considered the service went very well and the congregation was remarkably kind in the comments immediately following worship. “Maybe this isn’t going to be so hard after all,” the young reverend thought.
And so, after ditching his robe in the office, he locked up the building and made his way into the parking lot. There standing beside an old pick up truck was an older man who seemed more worn and tired than his vehicle. “Great” the pastor thought, “I haven’t even been here for one Sunday and I’ve got people out in the parking lot waiting for something.”
The older man walked quickly across the lot with determination and stopped right in front of the novice preacher. “I know I’m not supposed to do this,” he grumbled, “but I’m the pastor that you’re replacing. I’m not here to tell you what to do, or to warn you about certain people, or even what to preach about. I just wanted you to know that in your office desk I have placed three envelopes numbered accordingly. You look like your fresh out of seminary, so you probably wont even need them. But, just in case: If things ever get really tough open the first envelope.” And with that he turned around, got in the truck, and drove off never to be seen again.
The first nine months in the church went by like a breeze. This was the honeymoon period that the new pastor had heard about in seminary. The laity were quick to volunteer, and excited about the prospects of starting new programs and opportunities. Church attendance grew a little, but more importantly it did not decline. And the best of all, people were getting along with one another! There was no bickering, no gossip behind closed doors, no confrontations. The young man thought he had it made!
But then, as if it happened over night, everything fell apart. Disagreements about the nursery led to many volunteers no longer attending church, frustrations with the facilities led to disgruntled shufflings during the worship services, and the chair of the church council resigned because his chili did not win during the church chili cook-off. Try as he might, the new pastor could not change anything. He attempted to have meetings with individuals and groups to help create reconciliation, he added more communion services, and he prayed fervently for the church but nothing worked.
One day, while working in his office, he came across the three letters from the former pastor. Seeing as how he was quickly running out of ideas, he presently opened envelope number one and found these words from the former pastor: “I’m so sorry that its come to this. If you have opened the first envelope things have become fairly tumultuous. My advice: Blame it all on me. I’m long gone and most of those people will never see me again. Blame me from the pulpit, in conversations, wherever you see fit and I promise, things will get better.”
Though initially nervous, the young pastor was thrilled to discover that it actually worked. He got up in the pulpit the following Sunday and preached a condemning sermon about the former pastor. “All this fighting, all these disagreements… they’re his fault! He didn’t love you enough, he didn’t pray enough, and he didn’t proclaim the gospel well enough.”
And it worked! People started loving one another again. Attendance picked back up. And there was a positive buzz in the worship space every Sunday morning. However, within a few months, they were back to their same fights and disagreements. It seems that the plan had worked, but it was only a temporary fix for a much bigger problem.
The young pastor then decided it was time for envelope number two: “Blame it all on them! I know this sounds crazy but try it. Show them the error of their ways, that their sins have blinded them from the gospel, and they need to repent. Trust me, things will get better.”
The following Sunday the young pastor stood in the pulpit and preached the most fire and brimstone sermon the church had ever heard. People were quaking in the pews, afraid that the floors would open up, pulling them to the deep pit below. They were confronted with their sinfulness and everyone left in silence.
Again, for whatever reason it worked! The pastor was so thrilled with his ability to so quickly turn his congregation around and make them a people of love rather than hate.
But it was not to be. Before too long they were back to their familiar shenanigans, arguing about Christmas tree sales and Spaghetti dinners, ignorant of the needs of one another, and generally displeased with all things church.
Feeling nearly defeated, the young pastor held on to a smidgen of hope while cradling the third and final envelope. “This one has to work” he thought, “this is my last chance.” And so, upon opening the letter, these were the words he found: “start preparing three envelopes.”
Sadly, over the last century, this is how church has been played out in a lot of communities, particularly those of the United Methodist persuasion. Doing church often feels more like a roller coaster ride than a community sustained by love and forgiveness. Fights break about between congregants, arguments over scheduling and planning dominate most conversations, and old grudges are sustained throughout decades. Moreover, pastoral changes occur in an almost rhythmic fashion when things become particularly tough and a congregation is given the opportunity to start all over again.
In our scripture this morning, Jesus paints a very different picture of what it means to be the body of Christ…
Jesus said to his disciples, “Arguments, disagreements, fights, they’re all bound to come, but don’t you dare be the ones to bring about these problems! It would be better for you if your feet were cemented in a bucket and you were thrown into the lake, than for you to be the cause of this frustration! Pay attention! If someone in the church sins, you must confront them, and if there is repentance, you must forgive. Even if that same person bothers you seven times a day, and turns back seven time to apologize, you must forgive.” Then the apostles responded to their Lord, “Please increase our faith!” But Christ responded, “If you even have a smidgen of faith, faith the size of a mustard seed, you could say to all the trees in your yard, “be uprooted and thrown into the sea,” and they would obey you.”
Now, I think all of here can sympathize with the people who look at Jesus and see only a noble teacher, or only the bearer of ethics, or only a political revolutionary. After all, who Jesus was, what he was trying to accomplish, was far from self-evident. There were people who stood in Jesus’ midst and said, “Truly this is God’s son,” but there appear to be more people who said, “this guy is nuts!” (Willimon, Collected Sermons, 206)
Did you hear what Jesus said to his disciples? “It would be better for you if a millstone were hung around your neck and you were thrown into the sea than for you to cause one of these little ones to stumble.” Really Jesus?
As I’ve remarked on another occasion, there are many passages in scripture that are never read aloud in church, and this is one of them. It makes sense to me why its not part of the lectionary: Jesus is pretty upfront about what it means to be in community, the ramifications of such, and how it gets played out.
Time and time again Jesus said things we wish he had not. I’m not sure of the full ramifications of “hate your mother” or “go and sell everything and give to the poor,” or “turn the other cheek”… Well, to be honest, I do know what he meant when he said those things, but I don’t like it! For most of us, it isn’t that we’ve listened to Jesus and found him perplexing; it’s that we’ve listened to him and found him to be too difficult. (Willimon, Collected Sermons, 207)
Contrary to the church in the story I started with, Jesus calls his community to enter into confrontation, when necessary, while being prepared to forgive. Jesus’ followers are not to stand at a distance from the sinner, observing from safety, but are instead called to actively seek the sinner’s restoration. Rather than being a community where everything is solved from the pulpit, the community of faith according to Christ is one that is lived out between the pews.
Far too often have churches relied on blaming someone or something to solve the surface level problems. Though it was an exaggeration, many churches do in fact function under new leadership by destroying the former pastor. Similarly, many pastors stand in the power of the pulpit casting a shadow across the entire congregation saying you are wrong and I am right. Neither of these practices accomplishes anything, other than a pastor having to start writing his or her own three letters.
One of the ways that we can live into the type of community Christ called us into, rather than one of our own devices, it to remember our Wesleyan roots. John Wesley, and his Methodist movement, always emphasized the responsibility of Christian believers to discipline one another. As the movement spread and Methodist societies/groups began to sprout up, Wesley implored them to begin their weekly meetings by asking each other: “What known sins have you committed since our last meeting?” or “How is it with you soul?”
The Wesleyan movement was largely successful because of this type of practice. Rather than church simply being a thing to do, Wesley rediscovered the importance of living in a community that held one another accountable to the gospel of our Lord.
Now let me be clear, though Wesley had the right point, I’m not advocating for us to greet each other with “so Ken, what sins did you commit this week?” every Sunday. However, I believe we need to reclaim Christ’s call for us to love one another so deeply that we become genuinely concerned with the well being of our brothers and sisters in Christ.
Sometimes this type of faithfulness and forgiveness feels impossible. To continually love someone so deeply in spite of his or her shortcomings is not easy. Yet, with God all things are possible. God raised a man from the dead. Even our small faith cancels out the impossible; our faith lays hold of the God with whom nothing is impossible, and it is God who empowers the life of discipleship. All it takes is a smidgen, the tiniest amount, of faith to give rise to practices even more extraordinary than we can possibly imagine.
Therefore to do this, to follow Christ’s call from the scripture today is not in any way extraordinary; rather, it is simply part of the daily life of those whose lives are oriented around the majesty and mercy of God.
We are NOT a church of three envelopes! Look around the sanctuary, no literally look around at those in worship, we are all brothers and sisters in Christ, we are the fellow disciples that Christ speaks to from the scripture today. Living the way that Christ has prepared for us will be difficult, but our faith, even at its weakest moments, is enough to sustain us as a whole. There might be people in this sanctuary who frustrate you, who get under your skin, and bother you tremendously. There might be people who are bringing down those around them and causing them to stumble. There might be people here that you have never said a word to. Our church is the place where we have the freedom to speak the truth toward one another out of love, the type of place where we forgive when repentance is present even if someone sins seven times against us a day.
In a few moments all of you will be invited to Christ’s table to receive his body and blood. This celebration encompasses for us the entirety of what it means to be Christ’s church. We all fall short of God’s glory and he still waits for us with open arms, beckoning us to join him at the table. As brothers and sisters in Christ we are privileged to nurture one another in faith, to respond with repentance when confronted with our shortcomings, and to be forgiven and continuously reconciled unto one another.
So as we prepare to feast together, remember that living in a community of faith and repentance was so important to Christ that, for him, it was worth dying for.
(preached at St. John’s UMC on 10/6/13)