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A CHURCH LIKE YOU and me – Matthew 18: 15-20

Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost [Proper 18], September 9-10, 2017
Washington Memorial Chapel, Valley Forge, PA + The Rev. Roy Almquist

An older man was sitting on a bench in front of a church. A young couple came by, pushing a stroller. They engaged the man in conversation: Are you a member of this congregation? I am, he replied. We just moved in and we were wondering, what is this church like?
Well, the man replied, tell me about your old church … what was it like? The young folks grew animated with enthusiasm. Oh, the congregation in our old town was wonderful. Everyone was loving and caring. We were involved in so many activities and our son had dozens of proxy grandparents.
Oh, you are in luck, the man on the bench replied. I think you are going to find just the same kind of people in this congregation. The folks with the little boy went off with smiles on their faces.
A little while later another couple came by, walking their dog. They, too, were new and wondered about the church. The man on the bench asked them the same question. Oh, we are happy to get away from our old church. The people were unfriendly and judgmental. The congregation was turned in on itself and, if you were not one of the first families, you just did not matter.
The old timer paused and said, Oh, I’m sorry to say this but I am afraid you are going to find the same kind of people here. I expect you will have difficulty fitting in and feeling at home. The folks with the dog sighed and moved on, the wife, commenting as they left, I’m not surprised almost every church we have attended has been like that!

Today I celebrate the Fiftieth Anniversary of my Ordination to a Ministry of Word and Sacrament within the Lutheran Church. It was a Sunday evening in my home church in Clifton, New Jersey, when I knelt with another young man to be ordained … people ordained were generally young and male in 1967. Little could I have imagined what would await me … the varied congregations I would serve, the opportunity I would receive to be a Bishop in a major denomination, the longevity of my active ministry, now a half-century, and that 20% of my ministry would be in Episcopal congregations! How can we possibly know where life’s journey will lead us!

During these Fifty Years I have had three loves in my life …
My wife Shannon and my family
My Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, and the God he has helped me understand, and
The Church … the assembly of believers, the body of Christ on earth, all the people who have paid my salary, joined me in the holy task of sharing the Gospel, and provoked me to think and redefine myself frequently.

In many ways I have seen it all in fifty years … the good, the bad, and the ugly. I have personally been privileged to serve five wonderful congregations … three Lutheran ~ Gloria Dei, New Milford, and Zion, Saddle River, both in northern New Jersey, and Calvary, West Chester, adjoining the university … and two Episcopal congregations ~ St. Peter’s in the Great Valley, Malvern, and, for the past eight years, Washington Memorial Chapel. Sandwiched between these calls was my twelve years as Bishop of the Southeastern Pennsylvania Synod, ELCA, an association of about 175 congregations in the five-country Philadelphia region.

During my love affair with the Church I have discovered the sacred truth shared by that wise man on the bench: How we experience the church is often shaped by what we bring to it! If we invest very little, guess what … we get very little in return. If we expect great things, we just may find them!

One thing I have learned in the past fifty years is that genuine Christian community is hard to achieve, but when it happens, it can be powerful, healing, and life-altering. Such authentic Christian community can be a life-saver thrown to people who would otherwise be drowning in loneliness, affluence, and despair.

I have also learned that when Christian congregations take their collective eye off the ball … when they become pious social clubs with member privileges or when they become narrow-minded and judgmental, looking down their noses at those who do not measure up … such churches can quickly become toxic.

In many ways our Gospel lesson is a harsh pill to swallow. I have never liked this text, but I accept its realism. It reminds us that even in the early Church people did not always agree. I do not like all this legal talk about pointing out people’s faults and taking steps to expel them from the church. I have had some experience with that as a Bishop and I can assure you it gets ugly!

Although these words are harsh, I hope we can sense Matthew’s great concern that we take a seriously the task of preserving the Church as an authentic Christian community. We have a holy task which is to build our congregation and to make certain that it is a place where the hurting can be comforted, the lonely can belong, and those who are pointless and adrift can find purpose for their lives.

We do not need another Lilly or Pew-funded study to remind us that the Church I love … that I have served for most of my life … is under challenge today. I love the Church, but not everyone shares my passion. Once the Church was the primary community … now we live at a time when community is taking on a variety of meanings:
Today we have cyber-communities where people connect … or believe they are connected … through social media. This is not a passing fad but has suddenly given a name to an emerging generation … the I-Gens … those young people from 15-22, who never lived in a world that did not have an I-phone or an I-pad.
Our lives are defined by work and school-related communities from kiddie-playgroups to bicycle clubs, to book groups, and fantasy sports leagues. We are bombarded with communities with distinct interests and defined participants.

The Church that I love … and I hope you love too … is different.
First of all, we are an international, multi-racial, cross-cultural, association which can have today in one congregation five distinct generations!
The Church is the only place that brings together people of all economic classes and political philosophies.
In this profoundly narcissistic age the Church, at its best, is a community of values that calls us out of ourselves and into concern for others. Here is a community that reminds us that we have been blessed to be a blessing, allows us to safely share our joys and sorrows, our fears and our dreams, while gently holding us accountable for what we say and what we do.

This Church that I love … and I trust you love as well … is the place where we meet Jesus Christ … in fulfillment of Our Lord’s promise in the final words of the Gospel: For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them [v. 20]. Make no mistake; building a community with Christ at its heart is never easy. But it can happen and when it does, life within such a community can be a little taste of heaven in this life!
Every day our world is challenging us in new and amazing ways. From the threat of nuclear war with North Korea … to this terrible series of deadly tropical storms … to the horrible displays of hatred, injustice, and intolerance that bombard us in every news cycle. For all of these reasons, the world needs the Church of Jesus Christ … people of love and good will … who can be a source of hope and healing for our troubled world.
This is the good news that I have found to be solid truth throughout fifty years of ministry in Christ’s Church. I hope I have made a difference. I challenge you to do the same. May God bless us to that end. AMEN.