Sunday, September 10, 2017

Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost
Ezekiel 33:7-9
Psalm 32:1-7
Romans 13:1-20
Matthew 18:1-20

Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for he who loves his neighbor has fulfilled the law.

Dr. Jason Bull is a psychologist and "trial science" expert. He’s a character on the popular television series “Bull,” a show based on the work of Dr. Phil McGraw. On last night’s episode, Bull’s coworker was under investigation from a case he worked as a detective a number of years ago. He was arrested and tried for tampering with evidence. A lawyer offered to help in exchange for future work with Dr. Bull. She is known as a “fixer” and she fixed the problem by getting a deal. All the man had to do was apologize and he wouldn’t face ten years in prison.

The man, Benny, refused to take the deal because in doing so he would have to admit to doing something he did not do. The implications were extensive. His admission could change the outcome of the real case and set a guilty man free to continue his murdering. Though the appeals would take years, Benny’s name would continually be drawn through the mud with every court date. He refused, they went to trial and the truth ultimately won. It might have seemed easier to just say “Sorry” and let it go, but Benny knew it was the wrong way to deal with his problem.

One of the biggest problems many parents have, myself included, is that we demand an apology from our child when he or she has done something wrong, but we do not ensure that the child never really knows what it is that he or she has done wrong. “Tell your sister that you are sorry,” we insist, so the child says, “Sorry.” Yet, just minutes later the child is doing the same thing all over again. The child did not even recognize what they did wrong. They simply said the word without really being transformed by the lesson.

Nanny and parenting expert Jo Frost teaches her families a better way of dealing with apologies. She recommends a “time out chair” which is a place the child must stay for one minute for every year of their life (a three year old stays for three minutes.) The purpose is for that child to think about what they have done. When the child is put into time out, the parent gets eye level and says specifically the charge. “Johnny, you hit your sister. That is not right. We should never hit our sister. Now, you have to sit in time out for three minutes.” After the time is complete, the parent goes to the child, gets to eye level and asks the child to apologize. The apology should be more than just “Sorry.” The child should repeat what they have done wrong. “I’m sorry for hitting my sister.” This way he (or she) will learn that hitting his sister is wrong.

It is easy to ask someone to say that they are sorry. Many people are more than willing to apologize without even knowing what they did wrong. They would rather get it over with rather than deal with changing in any way. Repentance calls for change, and most people would rather not change. Repentance brings change which leads to reconciliation. Saying “Sorry” is not enough. Repentance requires knowing what was wrong and turning from it.

It is easier to deal with wrongdoing when it is our children who need to learn the lesson of repentance, but much harder when it is a friend or neighbor.

Sin leads to death. Smoking causes lung cancer. Irresponsible driving causes accidents. It is our responsibility to call for the repentance of those who cross our path, bringing attention to the sins that might cause harm to others or to themselves. It is a very fine line we walk when we talk about the sins of our neighbors. As a matter of fact, in our world today most people would be offended by our interference in their personal lives. This is especially true if we are talking about spiritual things. Who are we to judge a person’s heart? Yet, sometimes God does call us to intercede in the lives of our neighbors for their sake, to shine a light so that they might see their error and repent.

How will our neighbors know what they’ve done wrong if we do not tell them? How will they know they are risking their lives, both physical and spiritual with their sin? It might be impossible when dealing with neighbors who do not live by our faith, but it is our responsibility to call our brothers and sisters to repentance when they have done something wrong.

That’s why Jesus has given us the lesson in today’s Gospel passage. If our brother offends us in some way, or to be blunt, sins against us, it is not enough to demand an apology. We should sit down with our brother and explain how they have hurt us. We do it privately at first to keep our brother from the gossips. If he (or she) refuses to hear us, then we take another person who can testify with us about his behavior. Again, this is done privately to avoid embarrassing our brother. If our brother still will not hear what we have to say, then we take it to the church; together we can help our brother see his error and be reconciled to us. If he still refuses to hear, then we sever the relationship.

There is a reason for the process. We might just discover that when we sit down and talk with the one who has hurt us that there is reason for our own repentance. That is why it is helpful to bring in an intermediary to provide some insight into both people involved. Sometimes the intermediary needs to be a group. In the end, there might be no way to reconcile and Jesus tells us that there might be a time to “let him be to you as a Gentile or a tax collector.”

We interpret this to mean that we should sever the relationship. Does it mean that we should hate our brother who has refused to repent and remove them from our lives forever?

How did Jesus treat the pagans and the tax collectors? Does He abandon us when we continue to sin against Him? He comes to us with His Word, reminding us of His mercy and grace. He fights for us. Earlier in this chapter, Jesus talked about the shepherd who left the ninety-nine to find the one lost sheep. It is our task as Christians to constantly be working for reconciliation.

Next week we’ll hear how often we have to forgive those who sin against us. Over and over again we are called to meet those who have hurt us with grace, remembering that we are like the Gentiles and tax collectors, too. We need God’s mercy, too. We needed Jesus’ compassion, too. And so, we fight for reconciliation, even when it seems impossible. Whatever we bind will be bound and whatever we loose will be loosed and whenever we agree with others, God will be in the midst of it, working His grace.

God does not want any to perish. Ezekiel was called to a hard task: to tell the people of Israel about their sin against God. The truly prophetic voice is not something that anyone would choose by their own will because God’s Word is not something the world wants to hear. By the time we reach this chapter in the book, Ezekiel has spoken about God’s judgment not just on Israel, but also on Judah and the nations. In chapter 33, God begins to speak words of consolation. It is the beginning of hope because the words of judgment brought repentance.

God spoke to Ezekiel saying, “When I tell the wicked, O wicked man, you shall surely die, and you don’t speak to warn the wicked from his way; that wicked man shall die in his iniquity, but his blood will I require at your hand.” God sent Ezekiel to speak His word into the lives of the people. He gave Ezekiel the responsibility to tell them the truth, to tell them about God’s wrath and His promise. If Ezekiel failed to do so, their blood would be on Ezekiel’s hand. Jesus gave the disciples a pattern for telling people about their sins against us. This pattern is considerate and merciful, keeping the speaker humble and calm while giving a course for dealing with the unrepentant. In our own situations, when there is brokenness in our relationships, God gives us a way to speak the truth while leaving room for forgiveness and reconciliation. Our tendency is to blow up over the little things. God reminds us to deal with the root causes with grace and control.

God does not want any to perish. We may suffer the consequences of our failures, experience the cost of our mistakes, but God is ready with a word of consolation for us. We may be the one called to give that word to a brother or sister. The call for repentance is the beginning of hope, a revelation of the mercy and grace of God. We might be afraid to speak those words, but God calls us to this ministry so that none will die. He calls us to share in the life-giving promise of His word.

It takes the faith of a child to live this way. The Gospel lesson begins with a question from the disciples. As always, they were focused on Jesus being a worldly king who would save Israel from the Romans. They wanted to know who would be at His right hand when He came into that kingdom. They wanted to understand the hierarchy, to know the pecking order. They wanted to know which one of them was most important.

I often wonder if Jesus was frustrated with them by now. They just don’t get it. They must have had some concerns, after all Jesus just told them that He will die. The natural human response would be to ask who would inherit His ministry. Who would be in charge? Who would lead the people when Jesus was gone? These are obvious questions for a group of men who believed there would be a future for their mission but who needed to understand what would come next. They weren’t much different than we are today; there is always a leader and followers. They wanted to know who would be the leader.

Jesus turned their world upside down. Again. He told them that the greatest had nothing to do with power or authority. “Most certainly I tell you, unless you turn, and become as little children, you will in no way enter into the Kingdom of Heaven. Whoever therefore humbles himself as this little child, the same is the greatest in the Kingdom of Heaven.” Not only was Jesus refusing to establish the hierarchy, He told them that if they didn’t humble themselves, they would not even enter the Kingdom. They probably felt pretty confident that they were already in; after all, they were the chosen disciples. How could a little child possibly be greater than them?

Children didn’t have any clout in Jesus’ day. They were certainly not doted upon as our children are today. They were meant to be seen and not heard. Actually, they were not meant to be seen, either. Until they reached the age of maturity, they were barely even people. They had no rights. They had no power. They certainly had no authority. It was beyond their expectation for Jesus to choose a little child as the example in this lesson. What did He mean?

“Unless you turn, and become as little children...” What does this mean? What is it about children that we should emulate? They are innocent, not in legal terms, but as it relates to life. They are not yet cynical. They are pure, naive and open. They have no preconceived ideas. They are creative, inquisitive, bold and unafraid to ask questions. They are like sponges, taking in everything around them. They are trusting, accepting and vulnerable. They still believe in the unbelievable. They are willing to risk it all to try something new and they trust that all will be well.

Jesus pulled that little child into His circle because he or she believed in Jesus. He said, “Whoever receives one such little child in my name receives me, but whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to stumble, it would be better for him that a huge millstone should be hung around his neck, and that he should be sunk in the depths of the sea.” The child knew something that the disciples still had to learn: Jesus was the greatest.

The disciples would have to take over the ministry one day, perhaps sooner than they wanted, but the reality is that none of them would take Jesus’ place. He would not need a human right hand man, but a group of willing disciples who would continue to do His work. There is no hierarchy here; Jesus is the greatest One and the rest of us, we who believe in Him, are His little children. The moment ends with Jesus warning the disciples to take care of those who are innocent, the “little ones” who trust in Him. He warned them, and us, not to lead the pure, naive, vulnerable, fearless sponges on the wrong path. “Do not cause them to sin.” By this He means, “Do not cause them to stop believing in me.” Sadly, I think we do this much too often.

This talk of repentance and faith is important because those who sin against us become a burden on our hearts and minds. Each sin against another believer can cause them to doubt Jesus. How many people refuse to become involved in a church because it is filled with a bunch of hypocrites? We know that we are sinners in need of a Savior, but our sinful attitudes and actions can push a “little one” away.

As hard as it is for us to deal with sin, our own and those of our brothers and sisters, we must bring it into the light for the sake of the sinner and the one who has been hurt. Too many lose faith because we don’t deal with sin. We speak the words of forgiveness, but it is much easier to forgive than to forget. We have to deal with it, or it will become a burden. We can’t allow sin to cause us or another to turn from Jesus.

The life of the repentant sinner is blessed because those who trust in God will know His forgiveness. He does not want to lose anyone; He is willing to go out of His way to bring us home. The psalmist recognized the joy that comes from the forgiveness of God. That forgiveness comes to those who humble themselves before God, who trust God and His promises. The blessed ones are those who are like little children, living in faith. Blessed are those who live together in the kingdom of heaven without trying to be greater than one another. Blessed are those who are willing to deal with sin and reconcile with one another.

Paul writes, “Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for he who loves his neighbor has fulfilled the law.” We are called to care for one another by helping each other live according to the Word of God. Love does not allow our brothers and sisters to continue to sin. God loves us as we are, this is very true. However, God has called us to something better. Though we fail, He speaks His word into our lives over and over again until we hear and are transformed by it. And thus we are called to live in community with others, speaking God’s word into each others’ lives.

The problem is that we don’t always live in faith, hope and love. We get angry when people, and circumstances, get in our way. We react negatively; we lose control. It is then that we slip from being the people God has called us to be. Paul reminds us to live in faith, hope and especially love. No matter what the circumstances, by loving our neighbor we will face tomorrow’s brokenness with God’s grace, leaving nothing undone or unsaid so that all might see the light of Christ.

However, upon hearing God’s Word, we realize there is no way we can live up to His expectations. Paul writes, “Love doesn’t harm a neighbor.” I don’t think I can live even a day without doing something wrong to someone. It might seem insignificant. I’ve gossiped. I’ve lied. I’ve cheated. I have done a million things that I should not have done. The more I hear God’s Law, the more I realize that I deserve nothing but death for my iniquity.

That’s why God does not give us a word of instruction and judgment without a word of hope. He does not want any to die. God’s Law condemns, but Christ saves. We fail miserably on a daily basis. Yet, when we hear God say “I do not want to see any perish” we realize there is hope. God is holy and it is hard for us to look at Him, knowing we are unworthy of His love. Yet He calls us to do so. He calls us (through our brothers and sisters in Christ) to turn around, to repent, to seek His mercy. As we hear the promise found in these words, we can seek His face. We can be like little children, innocent, not in legal terms, but as it relates to life. We don’t have to be cynical, but can be pure, naive and open. We need not follow preconceived ideas. We can be creative, inquisitive, bold and unafraid to ask questions. We can be like sponges, taking in everything around us. We can trust and accept what we hear from God. We can even be vulnerable. Most of all, we can believe the unbelievable.

That’s what God wants from us. He wants us to be like little children, open to His love and grace. He wants us to humble and He promises that He’ll always come looking for us when we wander away. He doesn’t want anyone to get lost; He wants to always bring us home. He wants us to deal with our neighbors with love, speaking His word of both Law and Gospel so that they might live. There might be a line we have to draw, a place where we have to break fellowship for the sake of others. But we must never forget that God is not limited to our side of that line, He longs for all to experience His salvation. Let’s not wait until it is too late to speak His grace into the lives of those who have turned from God or we might just find ourselves responsible for those who have been lost. Now is the time. Are you ready to pay that debt of love?

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