“What a Shame to Run Out of Stories” September 6, 2020

“What a Shame to Run Out of Stories”

Romans 13:8-14

Matthew 18:15-20

We have some friends in Portland who have attended First United Methodist there for a number of years, and naturally I had a few questions to ask. He described their music program, bragged about their choir, and told me of all the great programs that this church offered to the community. When I asked about the pastor he confirmed that Donna Pritchard was awesome. At the time, Rev. Pritchard was being considered for the Bishop’s position, and he let me know that he secretly hoped that didn’t happen. Now, because I’m still the new guy in this conference, I had to ask about the previous pastor at First Church Portland just to get my history straight. He told me his name and said that they liked him a lot, but then he said – and I distinctly remember this – he said, “Yea, he had to move on. It was a conference decision, I guess. It was just as well, though; we had heard all his stories anyhow.” Like I said, this stuck with me. “What a shame,” I thought to myself, “what a shame to run out of stories.”

Our reading today from the 18th chapter of Matthew is kind of a story within a story, you might say. It’s only a small part of a conversation between Jesus and his disciples about the Kingdom of Heaven; and it all started when the disciples approached Jesus to ask a question. Now the way I interpret this is that the disciples have been talking on their own. For months, Jesus had been telling them about the Kingdom – the kingdom of God is like this, the kingdom is like that – but they were having trouble. On this particular day, they had been talking amongst themselves about this Kingdom thing. I suspect there was even a bit of an argument going on. And so it was that they decided to ask the master. (Matt. 18:1) At that time, the disciples came to Jesus, saying, “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” “Who is the greatest – who is going to be ranked up at the top in this kingdom that you are telling us about?” I have to say, at first glance, this question seems absurd. Of all the things to be arguing about, this is what they came up with? Who is the greatest? But let’s let that stand because the real beauty of this dialog is that Jesus picks up the question and runs with it. (vs. 2)  He called a little child to him, and placed the child among them. And he said: “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Therefore, whoever takes the lowly position of this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. And whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me.                                                                                                                

Kingdom greatness, he goes on to say, comes to those who do not cause these little ones to stumble in their faith. (vss. 6-9) Greatness in the kingdom of heaven is gifted to the one sheep that is lost, more so than the 99 that are gathered together. (vss. 12-14) By asking “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven,” the disciples opened a window into a whole new way of doing things. It was an eye opener, for sure. Who would have thought that the greatest thing about the kingdom of God that Jesus brought to the world would be love – true love, honest love – of the children of God.

Which brings us to our reading today starting at vs. 15. When Jesus tells us: If a fellow believer hurts you, go and tell him—work it out between the two of you. If he listens, you’ve made a friend. This begins a 3 step process for what we now know of as “conflict resolution.” Now, we’re all well aware that churches hardly ever have internal conflicts that they need to deal with, but let’s follow along here anyways. “If that doesn’t work,” he goes on to say, “then bring others from the church to talk with this fellow. And if that doesn’t work, then take it before the church body.” I’m summing things up here, but you get the idea. The kicker comes in how different translations interpret the last step; when you bring this ‘fellow’ before the church. The most common understanding can be found in the NKJV: But if he refuses even to hear the church, let him be to you like a heathen and a tax collector. Other translations read that this ‘fellow’ should be kicked out of the church – excommunicated – which seems a little harsh. This is not the workings of a kingdom church. This is surely not the workings of a church body that understands greatness as dropping everything to go and search for that one lost sheep. It seems to me that a kingdom church will act in the way that Eugene Peterson interprets vs. 17 which reads: If he won’t listen to the church, you’ll have to start over from scratch, confront him with the need for repentance, and offer again God’s forgiving love. Jesus isn’t saying this is easy. He is saying, however, that it’s necessary. In the kingdom of heaven, great love is not a minor thing – it’s the only thing. And it’s the great love of Jesus Christ working and moving in our church that always has and always will make for the greatest stories.

So, what makes for a great story? Colorful language, a great story teller? Sure. But if you narrow it down, a great story always begins with a problem or conflict. “So there I was, stumbling around in the dark when suddenly I spotted a mama skunk with 5 little babies. Her tail went up and….” The possibilities are endless, but what always clinches the story is the telling of how you resolved this conflict – even if that involved taking a long shower with a can of tomato sauce and vinegar.

The church in general, and our churches in particular, have a wealth of stories to tell. The life and ministry of Christ inspired the teachings of the Apostles which led to the establishment of a zillion different “churches” and on and on it goes. Along the way, a zillion stories have been born: some great – some not so great. But if you think about it, the stories that we hold dear – the ones that we treasure – are the ones where the church held true to its kingdom message. In the words of Karl Jacobson: “Jesus says, essentially, that being a member of the church means you have a responsibility.” We still tell the stories of Martin Luther, of Wesley, of Arminius, and of the countless bishops and street preachers and circuit riders who came to a conflicted people with nothing more than a message of faith and of hope. It was a message of reconciliation, but they never gave up. They never gave up and it changed the world.

So what are your church’s stories? We’ve all been established long enough that there’s bound to be quite a collection. Unfortunately, without historians who wrote things down over the years a lot of those great stories are lost. But thanks be to God that we who continue as the body of Christ will continue to live out this story. I can only imagine what we will have to say when we look back on these times we live in today. It’s been hard, it’s caused conflicts. But I am confident that when it’s all said and done it will be the stories of our faith that will rise to the top; of a Spirit that wouldn’t fade and a love of Christ and community that wouldn’t die. Our stories will be of a stubborn people who against all odds still continued to gather together in the name of Jesus Christ.

What a shame to run out of stories. Well, you know what? I don’t think we will have that problem.

Amen & Shalom

“Real churches have – or should have – real conflicts. The only real harm that will come to a church community is to refuse to deal with conflicts. Conflicts do not kill churches. Refusing to deal with conflict kills churches.”  ~ David Ewart  2011

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