You Can Be Sure I’ll Be There
Scripture: Matthew 18:15-20
The Message (MSG)
15-17"If a fellow believer hurts you, go and tell that person—work it out between the two of you. If he or she listens, you've made a friend. If he or she won't listen, take one or two others along so that the presence of witnesses will keep things honest, and try again. If the person in error still won't listen, tell the church. If he or she won't listen to the church, you'll have to start over from scratch, confront the offender with the need for repentance, and offer again God's forgiving love.
18-20"Take this most seriously: A yes on earth is yes in heaven; a no on earth is no in heaven. What you say to one another is eternal. I mean this. When two of you get together on anything at all on earth and make a prayer of it, my Father in heaven goes into action. And when two or three of you are together because of me, you can be sure that I'll be there."
While I was ministering in our Ravenna church, First Congregational UCC, an aging member, newly retired from the school system, decided he wanted to serve as the church librarian. His name was Paul Shivley, and Paul had been a former school principal and educator. While there was no apparent need especially for a church librarian, Paul wanted to volunteer. He had a vision for the library and wanted to dig into the archives and feature some of the history of the church for those who might be interested in learning of our historical roots.
I was sitting at my desk in Ravenna one day, and this of course was before Starbucks which was why I could be found at the church, and Paul came in with a very large and ancient ledger, opened in his arms. With much excitement, Paul announced that I was not going to believe what he had come across in reading the minutes of the church official board – the Church Council.
Coming up alongside of me at my desk, Paul placed before me this large book opened to a handwritten account of the church’s dealings with a certain member who happened to be a farmer. I am calling the farmer, whose name I do not remember, Jeb Kerns. I am using that name because Jeb Kerns sounds like a good name for a farmer in the middle part of the 1800’s. Kind of rugged with, I imagine, a rough beard, a dusty hat and lots of hay to get into his barn.
Now, if you lived in Ravenna and went to First Congregational Church, you might have known that the first church to be established in Ravenna was the Congregational Church, which was founded in 1822. In 1824 the Methodist Church held its first meeting, and later formally organized in 1831. The Presbyterian and the Disciples of Christ Churches were organized in 1830. In 1842 the Catholic Church in Ravenna was dedicated. So good ol’ First Congo, as we called it, was the first formal presence of the Good News of Jesus for a community named, as the signs declare upon entering Ravenna, by founder Benjamin Tappan after a famous Italian City. There is no record of why he picked Ravenna as the name. Tappan was born in Northampton, Massachusetts in 1773, the second child and oldest son of Benjamin Tappan and Sarah (Homes) Tappan. Sarah was a grandniece of Benjamin Franklin. Two of his younger brothers were abolitionists. In 1799 Mr. Tappan moved to the Connecticut Western Reserve and founded what is now Ravenna, Ohio, laying out the original village in 1808.
Anyway, back to farmer Jeb. As memory serves me the story that unfolded in the ledger went something like this. And much of this is paraphrased from memory.
“It was reported that Mrs. Henry Jackson noted on her way to Sabbath services that Mr. Jebediah Kerns, who owns and operates a farm on North Chestnut St., was clearly visible in his field working on that Lord’s Day. Mrs. Jackson dutifully reported this observation to her husband, Mr. Henry Jackson, and Mr. Jackson reported the activity to Pastor Schmidt. It was determined by Pastor Schmidt that appropriate actions needed to be taken to reprimand Mr. Kerns of his violation of church policy to be working in his fields on the day of rest and worship. Pastor Schmidt intended to seek the company of an officer of the church, Deacon Chairman Thomas Peterson, to discuss with Mr. Kerns this breach and encourage him to be in attendance as his membership in our fellowship duly dictates, for worship each week.
Pastor Schmidt and Deacon Peterson did visit Brother Kerns at his home the following week. They reminded Mr. Kerns of his spiritual duties and sought to bring him back into the fold. There was some discussion about the work of the farm in the harvest season and the need to accomplish numerous tasks in a timely fashion for the survival of his farm and livelihood. Pastor Schmidt and Deacon Peterson pointed out to Mr. Kerns that dis-fellowship could result from continued absences.
In the following weeks it was noted that Mr. Kerns did not attend worship, and he was seen later in the day on frequent occasion working in his fields on the Lord’s Day. Pastor Schmidt and Deacon Peterson took with them a larger contingent from among the brothers, to once again encourage Mr. Kerns of his responsibilities to the Lord, and to restore him back to fellowship in our church.
Again, the rebuke was ignored and the matter was then brought to this board for consideration and action.
After much discussion and in reviewing the biblical mandates for restoring a brother, it was determined Mr. Kerns should be immediately be stricken from the membership record of the First Congregational Church of Ravenna, Ohio, and removed from the joys and benefits of fellowship.
The matter was presented, reviewed, voted upon and unanimously passed by the Church Council and Mr. Jebediah Kerns has been removed from our membership record.”
Remember, I filled in some of the details to make the story a bit more detailed, but this is exactly what happened to a farmer in Ravenna when he did not keep the expectations of his church family and refused to be corrected in what was considered quite a grievous affront to the church on Sunday – the gathering of crops. Of great interest to me was that the church apparently found direction and inspiration from our passage this morning in Matthew 18. And as I read the original record years ago, I was amazed that they mostly followed the steps as Jesus laid them out. In one translation I was amused to read, “If he (which is the offending party) refuses to listen to the church, then treat him like a person who does not believe in God . . . or like a tax collector.” Tax collectors cannot get a break! If you refuse to listen to the leadership of the church, you are treated like a pagan, a heathen, a reprobate, one who has fallen away – or just treat the offending party like a tax collector.
In our culture today, imagine me pointing you out for washing your car this afternoon, or picking some flowers, or tomatoes. You would think I was a kook if I did this.
But what if you, as translations say, hurt me, or sin against me, what is the message Jesus has for us. Same procedure. First we talk about it. You come to me and let me know how I have hurt you. Then, if I persist, you get a couple of others who are believers to witness your efforts to work out our differences. If that fails, then it comes up in church – the matter, it says, is to be taken before the church, for efforts to resolve. And in the failure of those efforts – you have the right to treat me like a tax collector!
I recently heard a news report about Libyan leader, Muammar Gadaffi. It seems he had and has a real thing for former US Secretary of State, Condoleeaza Rice. He had many pictures of her and even had, I am told, a room in his house dedicated to her. The new report mentioned how infatuated Gadaffi was of her and how, in almost biblical fashion, when Gadaffi got out of control with the rest of the world, Ms. Rice would go see him and lead him to pacify some of his political positions.
It’s the biblical mandate that we work on the harms in our life ourselves with the one who has hurt us. If unsuccessful, we then we take witnesses with us. Finally, we try to work it out as a church believing that the community might have within it the resources to bring the kind of resolution we believe is possible when focusing on Jesus.
I think this means of reconciliation is remarkable and helpful, and there have been times when folks have engaged me in this process from some intentional or inadvertent harm I have brought to them. It is never easy, but there is redemption in the fact that Jesus brings peace.
Moving on to the second paragraph of these verses from Matthew, we find what some have called the best definition of church.
I was raised in good ol’ First Congo of Ravenna. The church of my childhood and youth was the first church I served when I became a minister. I was there for 11 years before coming to Federated. It was my home church growing up, but I didn’t really come into what I call faith appreciation or application until I met the Jesus People. Simply put, Jesus People, or more warmly referred to as Jesus Freaks, were mostly hippies who loved God. We had house churches and we had long hair and we would hold two and three hour meetings we called “Fellowship.” We believed we were in the End Times and that women were to be submissive and that TV’s were akin to Satan and we practiced lots of pretty fundamentalist theology. It was great fun for the men and not such a great experience if you were a woman. But I learned a lot and it made me grow up in my faith a lot – which is why I am not in a Jesus People-like church and here instead.
The Jesus People loved this part of Matthew 18. Let me read it again for you. “When two of you get together on anything at all on earth and make a prayer of it, God in heaven goes into action. And when two or three of you are together because of me, you can be sure that I'll be there."
I can remember going to lunch or late snacks at 24 hour restaurants after Fellowship and ordering food and when it came, we would pray and always, always, always someone would mention this verse and say we were having church.
It was not a bad thing, to treat every small, informal get together as church. It encouraged us to talk about God and not the fact that Roy and Greta bought a TV and said there is nothing wrong with that. We did talk lots about God and we shared what we were discovering in our Bible reading. It was an interesting time. We would refer to just about anything as “church.”
Well, enough of this history lesson. It seems that this view was not original or novel, and we, as the Jesus People, were carrying on a view of church that has been with us since the earliest days of Christianity. Some theologians observe that two or three easily describes about the minimum you need to have a family. Some teach that the family is the beginning blocks for the church. You have church when you are with your mate or partner if you intentionally make time together a prayer. I like the idea that time with others can be a prayer or church, and it is true my favorite spiritual or theological discussions are most often with my wife. We are both pretty big Bible readers and we like to share the things we are reading and learning. So we talk about the Bible with some frequency. In some ways, are having church.
Am I saying that we might as well disband this great Federated Church and just have church at home? Of course not. Scripture is rich in reference and direction on not neglecting the gathering of ourselves together. But it is sort of a cool image to see the Church, ours or anyone else’s, being created out of many mini-assemblies of two or three.
Today we have tried to create a service under the theme of God’s promised presence. Our verses and readings remind of that. Alex shared how he experiences God’s presence. I looked for hymns with that influence, and Jesus caps it all with his promise in Matthew 18, “And when two or three of you are together because of me, you can be sure that I'll be there."
In recent weeks, I visited an ailing teenager in the hospital and I assured her that God is with her in her pain and uncertainty. I officiated at a funeral celebration for a member who was part of our fellowship for 58 years, and I extend to the gathered mourners the promise that God is with us in our suffering. I recently held hands someone who soon after died, and assured him that Jesus would soon be holding his hand. At a wedding Friday night, I blessed the couple in a prayer, and reminded them that God is in this ceremony, ever present and joining the celebration. Am I making it happen – nope. I can’t invoke God any more than I can turn water into tapioca. But I can raise the awareness of what I believe to be a reality. God is present with us.
In a moment we will sing a chorus celebrating that God is with us as we enter into Communion. Communion is another spiritual reminder of the presence of Jesus with us in the eating and drinking. And in these moments of quiet singing and receiving elements of faith, I hope you will open yourself to the presence of God. Don’t think about it, simply be open to it and trust that God is with you. For indeed, that is the truth. Jesus says , “I am with you always…” And I believe he is.