Sunday, September 7th, 2014 – Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost
Gower Christian Church, Gower, MO
Scripture: Matthew 18:15-20
Hymns: “How Great Is Our God”, “Blest Be the Tie That Binds”, “They’ll Know We Are Christians By Our Love”, “Savior Like a Shepherd Lead Us”
“Well, Now, Here’s Your Problem”
I can’t stand taking my car to the mechanic. I mean, yes, obviously it’s a good idea to have it regularly maintained, to get your oil changed, to get the various systems checked over and fixed if necessary. And if something is actually wrong with your car, then you definitely need to take it in to get it fixed.
That doesn’t mean I LIKE it.
It all stems from a car that I traded in some five years ago now. That car was my favorite car that I have ever had. A 1994 Volvo 850 Sportwagon. With a turbocharged 2.3 liter inline five cylinder engine delivering 225 horsepower and 250 pound feet of torque to the front wheels, that unassuming station wagon could – and did – embarrass little street tuner cars with ease. A maroon exterior, a beige leather interior, a moonroof, a Bose audio system – that Volvo was my favorite, and if it hadn’t developed some issues, I would still have it.
But therein lies the rub.
Now, I know that Volvos have this reputation for being immortal tanks that go for hundreds of thousands of miles. And to be sure, when I traded my 850 in with 190,000 miles on it, according to the mechanic at the dealership where I traded it in, the engine was still as strong as it was the day the car rolled off the assembly line in Torslanda, Sweden. But it was starting to have other problems. The intake manifold. The axles. The exhaust system. The fuel system. Multiple parts of the electrical system, including the power door locks – which, by the way, were the only way to unlock the gas tank – the headlights, and the entire dashboard. Worst of all, given that I was living in Phoenix, the air conditioning system.
Every time something went wrong, I would begrudgingly make the drive to Sanderson Volvo in north Phoenix, sigh heavily as I handed the keys over to Brian Lawrence, my regular service tech, and wait. Usually, within fifteen minutes, he’d come get me, take me into his office, sit me down, and say those dreaded words – “Well, now, here’s your problem.”
And the problems were usually worse than they seemed, because when you’re driving a fifteen year old Swedish car, more often than not, the necessary parts have to be shipped from Sweden, which adds to the cost. And so one fine September day – as a matter of fact, five years ago this Saturday – as I was driving to Sanderson Volvo yet again, on a whim, I instead pulled into the parking lot of Power Dodge. Three hours later, I drove away with a 2008 Dodge Grand Caravan.
To this day, I still regret that decision somewhat.
Sure, it saved me money in the long run – the Dodge was a stout beast, only once needing significant repair, and that under warranty – but I miss my Volvo. Perhaps just as much as I miss the Volvo, though, I miss the service ethic of the people who work for Volvo.
You may have noticed that I mentioned that Brian would take me into his office before saying, “Well, now, here’s your problem.” That’s not something I’ve experienced with other mechanics. Take, for example, a certain Toyota dealership here in northwest Missouri that shall remain nameless. About a month ago, I took Caitie’s Camry in to be serviced – oil change, radiator flush, transmission flush, etc. After having been there for about forty-five minutes, the service advisor came up to me with the air filter and the cabin air filter in hand, and told me they needed to be replaced. Total cost? $75.
“No thanks,” I said. “I can get them at AutoZone and take care of it myself.” And I did. And it cost me $30 and took me 15 minutes.
But when he went back to the service bay, I could very clearly hear the service techs talking smack. Profane smack, at that, such that I cannot repeat several of the things they said. The cleansed, edited version: another idiot who says he’s gonna do it, but he’ll come back in 5,000 miles and he’ll have the same old filters in his car. What a bozo.
Needless to say, I will be taking the Camry to a different Toyota dealer next time.
The thing is, it’s the personal touch that matters. Look at today’s Scripture. We see Jesus saying, “If another member of the church sins against you, go and point out his fault when the two of you are alone.” Now make note that Jesus said member of the church. He isn’t talking about if somebody ticks you off in your private life. No, this is within the church. If somebody in the church has sinned against you, you need to go to them in private, sit them down, and say, “Well, now, here’s your problem.” It’s like if I say something from this pulpit that offends somebody. The right way to do things isn’t to go talk about it behind my back, gossiping with other people. No, the right way to do things is to come to me – or, if you’re uncomfortable with that, go to Kristin Meyer as the chair of the pastoral care committee – and make your grievances known. Talk about it, work it out. And so far, when I’ve said things to offend, y’all have been pretty good about doing exactly that.
Of course, if you had an issue with me, you talked to me about it, and I still didn’t respond, that’s when you have to take the next step. Now, again, the next step is not to go back into the service bay and talk trash about me with your buddies about when I might replace those air filters. No, the next step is to get a couple of other folks – perhaps elders, board members, even the pastoral care committee – and get them to go to the person who has “sinned against you” with you. Again, you try to talk it out, and see if they’ll repent of their sin.
Jesus makes it very clear in this text that this whole process is vitally important. In Jesus’ time, the church was like a family, and maintaining the strength and ethical integrity of that family was vital for its survival. Our church today is still like a family, though perhaps somewhat more diverse than it was in the first century; nonetheless, the strength and ethical integrity of the church is no less important today than it was two thousand years ago. When confronting a problem like this, it is important for the person who has sinned to understand that they are still a beloved and accepted member of the family, and that the people speaking to them are only doing so out of a sense of love and care for the person who has sinned.
Of course, sometimes even after those steps, the person who has sinned against you will still be unrepentant. Whether out of a sense of pride or a belief that they haven’t actually done anything wrong, some people simply won’t back down from what you perceive to be the sin against you. And that’s when you must take them before the entire congregation.
This, Jesus says, is the last step, and is indeed the measure of last resort. Reason being: if the person is brought before the congregation and STILL remains unrepentant, then he is to be expelled from the congregation. A harsh punishment, to be sure, but one that is sometimes necessary in order to keep the church in good health and strength.
I’ve seen this carried out before, with no less than the pastor of the church. At this church – which shall remain nameless – the pastor – who shall also remain nameless – had basically let their position and accomplishments go to their head. A workplace environment that can best be described as “hostile” developed within the church. Membership began to crumble. A “cult of personality” of sorts developed around the pastor
At first, a couple of people went to the pastor, trying to get the pastor to change their ways. Without success, they came back with the church board, and yet to no avail. Finally, it was escalated to the level of the congregation, and when it was apparent that the pastor was yet unrepentant, that pastor was fired.
Legal issues ensued for both the pastor and the church, and as part of the proceedings, information was brought to light about the pastor that made that individual recognize that they had done some truly heinous things. In talking to this pastor now, it is quite clear that they recognize the error of their ways and indeed are repentant for the sins that they have committed.
It’s just too bad that when the first member walked into the office and said, “Well, now, here’s your problem,” a deaf ear was turned to that member’s concerns.
And yet, it’s good that that church followed the proper protocol. Because you see, when you turn into the Toyota dealership service bay and gossip chamber, the pitchforks and torches are not far behind. That serves nobody. The pastor will flee in terror, the church will disintegrate under the weight of its own distrust. No, in order to properly resolve a conflict within the church, you have to start at its root, and then work your way outwards as necessary.
I’m not saying that this is an easy thing to do. I hated it every time I had to drive my Volvo up to north Phoenix and hear those dreaded words, and similarly, it is within human nature to resist conflict wherever possible. But sometimes, you have to take a deep breath, sit down with the person who’s sinned against you, and say, “Well, now, here’s your problem.”
If you want to fix the problem, you first have to confront it. If you want to make sure it gets fixed right, you have to confront it the right way. Similarly, if somebody comes to you and says they have an issue, you need to be willing to hear them out.
A church in conflict will be a church divided. But a church that can embrace its differences and figure things out with those who have sinned will be stronger than ever.