Welcome to St. James! We Will Disappoint.

Good morning! Welcome to all our kids starting their new school year! Mo. Eliza and I can’t wait to bless your backpacks. We’ll do that just after the baptism. 

Speaking of, welcome also to the Borelands, Angie and Anthony and their son Luke, who will be baptized today. Luke’s brother Maxwell  was baptized here a few years ago, as well as his cousin Jaxon, all of them grandsons of Lyn, a longtime parishioner. We’re so happy to welcome you and all those with you today.

As we begin a new school year, with all the joy but also stress that brings, I want to make sure our families here know that this is not a place where you have to be on, or pretend to have it all together. That’s not what church is for. I know how in the suburbs it can feel like everyone around you is doing great. I also know that’s not the case. But it can be hard for people to be vulnerable.

At St. James, we can be vulnerable. If there’s anything I hope I can offer you from my family’s very difficult last year, it’s that we can live imperfect lives and let others see that. It’s OK. 

And speaking of imperfect lives, our Gospel reading for today addresses just that. I love that we kick off our year (I don’t pick the readings, by the way. They’re set many years in advance); I love that we kick off the year with instructions on how to navigate conflict in the church. What a rousing start! Underlying this, though, is a refreshing admission that, like us, the church isn’t perfect and never will be. The sooner we can get that out there and all agree, if on nothing else, then on at least this, the better. 

A Lutheran pastor and writer, Nadia Bolz-Weber, founded a church in Denver called the Church for All Sinners and Saints. I’m an admirer of hers from afar. A lot of the people who join that congregation had negative experiences in prior churches and come to hers because it's accepting of everyone. She herself  has tattoos all over her body, which isn’t really that out there any more, but I guess for clergy, it still is. 

It’s a lovely church. But those who are drawn to it tend to come with very high expectations because this is often their last stop before giving up. Pastor Bolz-Weber tries to get out in front of this. She writes: 

I have a regular spiritual practice of warning people that I will disappoint them. A couple times a year, we host a Welcome to House for All Sinners and Saints brunch for newcomers. Everyone goes around the room saying what drew them to this community or what keeps them here ... I'm usually the last to speak at these events and when I do I always so how great it is to hear all of that, but that I need them to hear something. And that is that this church will disappoint you. Or I will fail to meet your expectations, or I’ll say something stupid and hurt your feelings. It’s not a matter of If. it’s When. Welcome to House for All Sinners and Saints. We will disappoint you.

So we’re not perfect. But neither should we leave it there. We should all, as Christians separately and together, strive to be as much like Christ as we can.

Which brings us to Jesus’ instructions for church conflict. One scholar described these as “severely practical and ruthlessly idealistic.” And in fact, I prefer to think of them not as instructions for managing church conflict, or dealing with bad actors, but rather, As instructions for bringing two members of the community who are estranged, back together. It’s a guide to Reconciliation. 

And it begins, with honesty. 

The Gospel this morning starts like this: “If a member of the church sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone.”

A translation I prefer, has it this way: If a brother or sister hurts you, go and tell them you're hurt. That’s a version by a scholar who felt the word “sin” had accumulated so many layers of meaning as to make it almost meaningless. Often behind our animosities lies something harder to acknowledge: we are hurt. Sin is really just that, hurting another. I have to think that no one who makes their way through these doors and commits to or even just dabbles with the Christian message wants to hurt anyone.

That’s the second assumption underlying these instructions: the first, that we’re not perfect, the second, that we’re not evil; we’re trying. 

If someone hurts you, go right to them and tell them you’re hurt. There's a good chance they’ll listen, if you put it like that. The Biblical Scholar N.T. Wright wrote: “If [this] works--and I have known the joy of it on more than one occasion, sometimes when I’ve been rightly accused of something and sometimes when I’ve had to confront someone else--then it’s wonderful. ‘You’ve gained a brother or sister,’ says Jesus, and that really is what it feels like. Reconciliation often creates a closer bond than you had in the first place.”

No one wants to hurt or be hurt, especially in the safe space of the church. But if we’re brave enough to be honest and open and direct, it creates an incredible opportunity to grow closer to someone.

This first step doesn’t always work. Maybe feelings are running too high to listen, time has still to do some work; or maybe your approach wasn’t as generous as it could have been. Whatever the reason, If you don’t resolve the matter one on one, then Jesus says find two or three people to help you through the next step. These aren’t two or three witnesses to the wrong done. They’re not two or three people who will side with you against the other. They’re people to listen, to catch what you’re not seeing, maybe to put the whole thing to a stop, with their wisdom, and perspective. 

Things do sometimes get to this third step: bring the matter to the wider community and discern together what ought to be done. You may even need to consider that person as a Gentile or tax collector, meaning someone irrevocably outside the community. Only, this raises an interesting question in the context of the Gospel. Let’s remember, Jesus favors outcasts and tax collectors above even the leaders of the synagogue. Matthew himself, the disciple and Gospel writer who wrote down these instructions, was a tax collector. 

So how much are we ever supposed to condemn, and exclude? Jesus makes it sound like, Almost Never. 

In our reading from the letter to the Romans, Paul says “Owe no one anything, except to love one another.” That’s the best summary of the Gospel there is.

So again, I emphasize two points: None of us are perfect, but we’re all trying. 

Owe no one anything, except Love. 

We’re going to have a wonderful year, and we’ll begin it, with the baptism of a new member of our faith.