September 10, 2023. The Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost. Sermon preached by Rev. Carolyn H. Eklund

For 15 years I worked for a pharmaceutical company. I started as a salesperson selling lab products to clinical and hospital labs in five states in the Mid-West. After a few years of sales, I was called to corporate headquarters to work in training and then marketing.

Instantly, in that corporate setting, I learned how ruthless the competition was for promotions. The path to promotion was arbitrary and not transparent. Soon, I learned from my colleagues the phrase, “Don’t commit a CLM.”

        A CLM (C.L.M.) is an acronym for “career limiting move.” A CLM was an unforgivable corporate mistake. A CLM could definitely keep you from being promoted. A CLM could be as petty as showing up to a sales meeting in your company car having failed to wash the yellow pine pollen from it. Or it could be serious, that you failed to make your monthly sales quota.

        Not all corporations are this unforgiving, though. In reading Christian literature on forgiveness, I learned of a corporation that managed their employees by giving them much responsibility in excellent jobs and a tolerance for making mistakes – well, at least ONE mistake.

Charles Handy in his book, “The Age of Unreason” writes about such a corporate culture. He writes, “I asked an American the secret of his firm’s obviously successful development policy. He looked me straight in the eye. ‘Forgiveness,’ he said. ‘We give them big jobs and big responsibilities. Inevitably they make mistakes, we can’t check them all the time and don’t want to. They learn, we forgive, they don’t make the same mistake again.’” And then what happens if they repeat the mistake…we all probably know that answer.

This Church, St. Paul’s, is not a corporation. We are a Christian community. Our Christian mission is forgiveness and reconciliation, not for worker productivity. But to nurture our relationship with God and with Jesus and each other. Our faith relationship is based on love and forgiveness and helping to regain someone who has strayed. The lesson from Paul’s Letter to the Romans and all his letters is “love one another.” “Love your neighbor as yourself.” “Love does no wrong to a neighbor…”

At the heart of the gospel lesson from Matthew today is reconciling love. Jesus gives the Church a process for forgiveness. The goal is to regain someone who has transgressed another person in the community and help bring them back to the community.

We learn from Jesus today a very specific pattern for restoring someone who has sinned against another person back to the faith community. Jesus teaches the way to do this is to make several attempts to “regain your brother” or “your sibling,” after they have made a breach in the relationship.

Jesus’ way is not a process of corporate, business behavior or a threat after a “CLM” is committed. Instead, it’s a real-life and challenging process Jesus gives the Church for winning an offender back to the community. It is to strengthen both the offended person and the offender in Christ’s reconciling love.

Jesus said in the gospel lesson today, “If another member of the church sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone. If the member listens to you, you have regained that one.”  Jesus is saying that when someone sins against us, or behaves in an unacceptable way to us, go and meet one-on-one, in order to not shame that person publicly, in order to enlighten and in order to demonstrate a heart of reconciliation. It gives the offender a chance in private to learn of the offense on the chance that it was an innocent mistake.

Jesus provides a continued process with two witnesses if the offender rejects the first attempt. If that attempt is rejected, then “tell it to the Church.” Make it public. Always loving the offender. And accepting sorrowfully that they might choose to leave the community of faith.

In his small book, “Life Together,” Dietrich Bonhoeffer, German theologian and pastor, writes powerfully about what Christian community is. He formed the Confessing Church as an authentic, Jesus-following community against the Nazi incursion of churches all over Germany. Bonhoeffer was killed in 1945 after being imprisoned for participating in the attempt to kill Hitler.

Bonhoeffer writes about Christians authentically living together against the evil that surrounds them. He wrote, “…It is by the grace of God that a congregation is permitted to gather visibly in this world to share God’s Word and sacrament….Christianity means community through Jesus Christ and in Jesus Christ. No Christian community is more or less than this…We belong to one another only through and in Jesus Christ.”

        And that’s why our patron Paul wrote “…put on the Lord Jesus Christ” as a garment on a body.  Using the metaphor of the human body, St. Paul writes, “I cannot say to another member of the church, ‘I have no need of you,’ as if the hand can say to the head, ‘I have no need of you.’”

The goal in the faith community is to seek reconciliation in love. WE NEED each other. If there is an offense, we are to make every attempt to point it out to the offender in love. Without resentment. And with firmness and love. Sadly, sometimes in this broken, physical world, the person chooses to leave the community.  Or the community turns hateful instead of loving.  Above all, though, Jesus calls the community, the Church, to persist in love for all.

        I listened recently to a podcast called NOMAD. Three British former evangelical millennial Christians explore the Christian faith in our fast-moving time of transition for Christianity worldwide. The topic that day was spirituality and how to nurture it. Their conversation gave the listeners a refreshing monastic-like way to connect with God.

But they also counseled their listeners that individual spirituality isn’t complete for a Christian. Spirituality must also be nurtured in the community. I loved it when one of the speakers said, “You really also need liturgy, singing, preaching, and hanging out with each other.”

“You also need liturgy, singing, preaching and hanging out with each other.”

This phrase has been on my heart for weeks as I prepare to retire and leave my ministry with you. Every single Sunday during these 10 years with you I have LOVED worshiping, singing, preaching and most of all, ‘hanging out with you!’ Every single Sunday, no matter how tired or sleepy I feel, no matter how challenging Sundays were in the pandemic when we were closed and tried to figure out HOW exactly we would worship, sing, preach, and ‘hang out with each other’ when there was a threat to our well-being by ‘hanging out with each other.’ Even then, I’ve loved being with you in person and digitally.

Bonhoeffer observes in his writing that “the physical presence of other followers of Jesus is a source of incomparable joy and strength to the believer.” Hanging out with you in this faith community has been for ME a source of incomparable joy.

You know that there will be bumps along the way of your transition. There always are. Someone will offend another. But Jesus gives us a way to move through offense to reconciliation with the goal of regaining our sibling. That’s the mission.

I have one more sermon to preach – my last Sunday, October 1. But I can’t help but say thank you many, many times! And by telling you that I’ve LOVED hanging out with you!