Broken and Beautiful
Fifth in the series: Ordinary Good News
First Lesson: Psalm 119:33-40
Second Lesson: Matthew 18:15-20
Rev. Scott Dickison
As we noted two weeks ago, the church is not something that Jesus talks a lot about in the gospels. In fact, Matthew is the only gospel in which the church is directly mentioned at all. Mark, Luke and John never speak of the church directly, but Matthew always has an eye to the church.
I’m sure Jesus knew something of all the joy that would be found in this new community: the fellowship, the potlucks, the ice cream socials, Vacation Bible School, dinner theaters, children’s celebrations in the fellowship hall, Christmas pageants—the Little Grey Donkey!First Tuesday breakfast with the senior adults, women’s retreat, men’s retreat, couples retreat, beautiful music and choirs and prayers and gripping, life-changing sermons. I’m sure Jesus suspected all of these things would be a part of this new creation called the church. But he doesn’t spend much time talking to the disciples about all that. In fact, he doesn’t mention those things at all. When Jesus describes the church he mainly talks about two things: suffering and conflict.
Last week we saw how he told his disciples that to follow him was to take up a cross: to live lives of sacrifice and service to others—to live good lives, as we said: good, rich, full lives—but not easy lives.
And now he tells them what they should do when conflict arises in the community. We should note that Jesus assumes conflict here. And not just conflict—plain old disagreements—but wrongs. And not because he anticipates the church will be an especially troubled group of people, but because he knows they’ll simply be a group of people. Jesus knows that even while the church will point to something beyond itself—something greater, something higher, something holy—it is still made up of humans. And so it will be bound to the same limitations of any other human institution: there will be conflict. Mistakes will be made, sometimes even grievous mistakes. There will be disagreement and unrest and fractures and ill-will and pain and hurt and all the rest of it. Jesus knew this and the rest of the New Testament writers knew it too. The book of Acts is filled with stories of conflict within the early church. A vast majority of Paul’s letters deal directly with conflict within churches—sometimes the typical, petty “he said, she said” sort of thing, but at times conflict that would make you blush; conflict that reads like the script of a bad soap opera. Conflict has been present in the church ever since there’s been a church and even before. Each of the gospels record infighting between the disciples: right there, sitting at the feet of Jesus and they can’t do right. What hope do we have?
Christ knows there will be conflict—this is just the way of things, even in Christ’s church. But he tells them what will set the church apart is how they’ll deal with conflict. It won’t be ignored or swept under the rug where it can fester or spread. It’ll be addressed head on. He gives clear, practical instructions on what will be done. There will be direct communication with the offending party—always face to face. No gossip or triangulating, or behind the back angling. One on one to begin with, but if that doesn’t work, then you take someone else with you. And if that doesn’t work, then it comes to the church. And if the offending party still won’t budge, only then are they removed from fellowship, to become like “a Gentile or a tax collector.”
And we need to say that this feels a bit cold, maybe even a bit harsh—at least for Jesus. Jesus gathers the children around him; Jesus reaches out to the lost, brings everyone into the fold. And yet even Jesus respects the importance of accountability in relationships and in community. And notice how each step in this process is focused on restoration for the offender not revenge for the offended. The point, in the church, is to keep that one in the fold, to keep the community intact and in harmony—not necessarily at peace, if peace means looking the other way. Health at times means addressing the sickness.
And note too that should reconciliation not be reached, the offending party isn’t simply written off—this is not what Jesus is implying when he says they’ll become like a “Gentile or a tax collector.” Remember, Jesus ate with tax collectors and reached out to Gentiles. They were simply outside the fellowship but always invited in. Exclusion here isn’t the last word. The hope is always that the lost sheep will return. Reconciliation, restoration is always the hope. And this is so different from the world outside the church—our penal system for instance—where reconciliation is hardly the goal.
But nonetheless, this passage is difficult. It’s a sobering reminder that church is not some high-minded thought experiment. It’s real, and practical and hard. Community is hard. Relationships are hard—they’re messy and fraught and painful and above all fragile—relationships are so fragile, maybe especially in the church. When church is working as it should we’re bound together by the deepest bonds there are: the bonds of love and hope and a shared vision for what’s good and right. But this makes it all the more painful when church relationships are ruptured. Jesus is clear about this delicate balance within the church, of fragility and power. On the one hand it’s as fragile as human relationships, with our egos and insecurities, but on the other, it’s as powerful as the presence of God in the world. It’s fragile enough that its health must be vigorously defended, fragile enough that one offender left unchecked can throw the whole system out of whack, but powerful enough that Christ promises to be present within it wherever two or three are gathered.
But the great mystery of the church, which is the mystery of incarnation—that God would take on our human frailty and weakness—the great mystery if these things is that it’s our fragility, our brokenness, you could say, that in the end can be our strength. Because only people who know they’re broken can be healed.
I heard a story recently about a deeply troubled church that couldn’t keep any pastor for more than a year or two. Eight pastors had come and gone through this little Methodist church in eleven years, all of them at the request of the congregation after controversy with one of the long-time leaders. The bishop called a special meeting which included several key leaders from the troubled congregation and lay and clergy members of the Annual Conference. When everyone had had a say, the bishop addressed the whole gathering, saying, "Brothers and sisters, what are we going to do? Whom shall we send?" She then invited everyone to pray silently with her. The silence lasted for a long time and continued even after she said, “amen.” Until At last one of the older pastors from the back of the room spoke: “I'll go,” she said.
There was a collective gasp followed by buzz. Everyone knew Deborah. How she’d been on leave of absence for several years after having left her last church in the wake of a scandalous divorce. She’d become an alcoholic, twice convicted of drunk driving, and had spent six months in prison and a month in a chemical dependency treatment center. Since she was so near retirement she’d been allowed to keep her credentials in consideration of her many years of faithful service and the progress she’d made in her rehabilitation program. The bishop and the superintendents had hoped to place her with some small, quiet, caring congregation where she could serve her remaining years without stress.
"Are you sure, Deborah?" the bishop asked. “This is a congregation in pain," Deborah said, ”I know something about pain. I think I should be the one to go."
Deborah and the district superintendent met with the leaders of the troubled congregation after the meeting and they agreed to accept her as their pastor. She told them it would be her goal to visit with every member of the congregation before she performed any other pastoral duties, including preaching. She wouldn’t lead worship or attend any meetings until that task was finished, and that she’d let the know when she was ready to preach.
So she did—she went from house to house, apartment to apartment, hospital bed to nursing home bed, introducing herself as the new pastor and asking each one, as she went, to respond to two questions: 1) How did you come to love Jesus, and 2) Why have you chosen to serve him in this congregation? She visited morning, afternoon and evening for over a month and was warmly received by every member of the congregation but one. Then she went home, called the lay leader, and told him she would be prepared to preach the following Sunday.
The sanctuary was packed that day. Almost every able member was present. When it came to for the sermon, she walked up to the pulpit, looked out over the congregation and told them, "I want to share two things with you today: How I came to love Jesus, and why I believe God has called me to serve him with you in this congregation." And she did.
But at the close of the sermon, just as she was about to ask them to join with her in prayer, a man stood up in the back of the sanctuary and shouted out at her. It was Harry, the man who had refused to see her when she called at his home. He was the long-time leader who had stirred up so much trouble with the many pastors before her. On her visits, some had confided in Deborah that he’d never recovered from the death of his wife, Mildred, many years before.
"Who do you think you are, sister?" he yelled. "We know all about you. You couldn't keep your husband and you are a drunk. You're the last thing we need in this church. We've got enough problems as it is!"
He stood glaring at her, his face red and his knuckles bulging white as his hands gripped the pew in front of him. Deborah looked back at him. She didn't speak for several seconds. The sanctuary was silent. And then she spoke: “I’m a broken person, Harry," she said, looking straight at him. "A broken person who’s been healed. And I've come to serve with broken people: broken people who have been healed." Then she stepped down from the pulpit and walked up the long center aisle to where Harry was still hanging on to the back of his pew. She put her arm around his shoulder, looked him in the eye and said just loud enough for him to hear, "I am so sorry about Mildred. She must have been very dear to you." At that moment, it was as if something washed over him. He let go of the pew, fell into her arms and began to sob tears that had been a long time coming. When he was finished, Deborah bid everyone to gather round. They joined hands and she led them in prayer. She would later remember how when they all said, "Amen," it felt like a collective sigh of relief. The demons were gone.
She served with them for twelve years. Just before he died, Harry told her that she had been an answer to his prayers.
What sets the church apart in the world is not that we’re holier than everyone else or less likely to fall short or mess things up—God knows that isn’t true as well as we do. The church is set apart when we’re aware of our brokenness. When we know how broken we all are, and so we find ourselves ready to be healed. And then with our own wounds still mending, we find ourselves ready to wait for and work for and pray for the healing of others. We can’t write anyone else off because we’ve not been written off. And it’s to the extent that we commit ourselves to this kind of healing work within our own walls, our own relationships, that the church—through our very being—proclaims the good news we’ve been given.
The good news Jesus offers isn’t some abstract notion of salvation when we die: it’s the promise of living resurrected lives in the here and now. Lives of redemption and wholeness. Lives once broken that through the power of the Holy Spirit working through a community are repaired. Relationships once torn apart that are restored. Hope once thought to be lost that’s rekindled through acts of grace and mercy and forgiveness—this is the good news; that this kind of resurrected living can happen now among us, in us. Even in the church. Even in you. Amen.
 Thomas G. Long, Matthew, Westminster John Knox, 210
 Thanks to dear friend, Alan Sherouse, pastor of FBC Greensboro, NC, for passing this story along. Originally found in Lectionary Tales for the Pulpit.