Sunday, September 4, 2005

Sixteenth Sunday of Pentecost
Ezekiel 33:7-11
Psalm 119:33-40
Romans 13:8-14
Matthew 18:15-20

For where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them.

The Gospel lessons for the past two weeks focused on one particular disciple – Peter – his revealed faith and his failure. We saw him speak the words of confession that Jesus is the Son of the Living God and then watched as he refused to accept God's will for Jesus' life. Though we can deal with Peter as an individual in this situation, for the past few weeks I have Peter into the context of the community in which he was living, as one of Jesus' disciples. I identified Peter as the one speaking, but as a voice for the rest of the disciples.

I think it is typical in the religious perspective of this day to look at faith in terms of the individual. As a matter of fact, Newsweek recently published an article about spirituality in America. For those surveyed, there is a growing need for a relationship with some sort of divine being, but there is no growth in church attendance. All too many want to be spiritual but reject any semblance of religion. They believe they can worship God in a field as well as they can worship Him in some building. These same folk will insist that the bible teaches that they are the Church, their flesh the Temple of God.

While there is some truth to these comments, we can certainly worship God in a field and the Holy Spirit does dwell in our bodies, it is only part of the story. The body of Christ is the fellowship of believers, bound together by the Holy Spirit. While Peter may have been the one speaking the words, he was part of a larger body that believed them with him. We are made one as we gather together, sinners sharing their need for a Savior and receiving the forgiveness of God through the Word and Sacraments.

The problem lies in the fact that the church is made up of a bunch of sinners. We gather together for worship and try to work together doing ministry with one another in the world, but we fail. Just like Peter, seeing the work of God through the eyes of men, we have an imperfect perspective. As with anything in the world, if you gather a dozen Christians together in a room and ask them a question, you are likely to find a dozen opinions. Many of our disagreements are insignificant, but even the most inconsequential decisions can create major battles between people. Most Christians would rather not be involved in the work of their neighborhood church because they know what happens behind the closed doors of committees and councils. Sinners fight, even in the church.

Why do we fight? We fight because we want things to go our way. We are selfish, self-centered and self-righteous. In the Newsweek article, the poll indicates that people want a spirituality that meets their needs. They want the warm fuzzy, they want to be satisfied. This is not unusual in our society. Just look at the popularity of restaurants that have endless buffets. For just $9.95 anyone can stuff their face until they can't even move with all their favorite foods. Our credit card bills are through the roof because we feel we are entitled to have everything we desire. It is no different in our spiritual life. We seek the church that will meet our needs, and if something goes wrong we can walk away.

It is much easier to walk away from a church when we don't live in community. If we have strong familiar ties with the people, we will try to work things out. We will seek reconciliation. We will promote forgiveness. However, if we go to church for an hour on Sunday and spend the other 167 hours not thinking about it, then we can walk away without a care. The trouble with this is that sometimes walking away leaves our brothers and sisters in Christ – they are our siblings in Christ even if we go to another church – in their sin.

Outside a community we need not take responsibility for our actions and we need not call others to be accountable. If we are just an island in the ocean then our neighbors' actions are of no consequence. Take, for instance, the fire ant. I was listening to a program the other day and they were talking about the many effects of possible flooding in New Orleans. It is estimated that every yard in the city is home to two fire ant hills. We have a similar problem here in Texas. Now, you might expect that the fire ants would be drowned if the floodwaters came their way. However, fire ants gather themselves up in a ball and float until they hit something. It does not matter what it is – a flag pole, a tree, a floating piece of debris or even a body – if it will keep them out of the water then will spread out quickly and cover whatever they have hit. They must live in community to survive. Any ants that do not join the ball will perish in the floodwaters.

Much as we hate to admit it, the same is true of faith. We can't go it alone. We are not islands floating in the ocean. We are more like that 'something' floating in the water that the fire ants will consume because we have nothing or no one to help guard our back. Sin comes easy. As a matter of fact, sin is in our blood. Ever since the beginning of time human beings have sinned. It doesn't matter who you are, even God's chosen people lived selfish, self-centered and self-righteous lives. That's why they faced the fall of their beloved Jerusalem.

And this is not just about the things we do wrong. We have a list of Ten Commandments that are the basic building blocks of all morality. We are commanded to never murder, steal, commit adultery or covet. We are to honor our mother and father. Paul tells us in today's epistle lesson that these laws are summed up in just one sentence "Love your neighbor as yourself." Most people most likely can keep those commandments pretty well. There are times and cultures in which things we see from a Christian perspective as sin are not. Adultery is more acceptable today than it has ever been in American society. In some circles it is even expected.

No, this isn't about obedience to some law or set of rules, for anyone can be righteous if it means following the Ten. The sin we are talking about is a separation from God, human flesh turned its back on the Father in the Garden and continues to do so to this day. If we had the choice to look either at God's face or our own in a mirror, we would rather seek our own face than His. It is frightening to look into the face of God for in doing so we see our own failings and our own unworthiness. If, instead, we could look at ourselves, we can justify our failings especially if we compare them to those of another. This is the sin that keeps us from God. This is the cause of separation because looking toward ourselves, our own needs and desires.

It is hard to hear we are sinners. It is even harder, sometimes to have to tell someone. Imagine what it must have been like to be Ezekiel. In today's Old Testament lesson, God called Ezekiel to be the watchman that announces destruction to the people of Israel. They were far from God, following after other gods that met their own personal needs and desires. Jerusalem was nearing destruction but God did not want His people to perish. So, He sent Ezekiel to warn them. Now, the life of a prophet has never been easy. As a matter of fact, most people rejected the prophets because they did not bring good news. Hellfire and damnation was the general topic of conversation around these men of God.

I'm not sure there's anyone who wants to be a prophet because persecution is hard. However, God did not give Ezekiel a choice. "When I say unto the wicked, O wicked man, thou shalt surely die, and thou dost not speak to warn the wicked from his way; that wicked man shall die in his iniquity, but his blood will I require at thy hand." If Ezekiel did not warn the people and they perished, it would be his fault. Now, it was still possible the wicked, upon hearing the word of God, would continue to rebel against Him, but then God would not blame Ezekiel. Only if he neglected speaking God's word to others would he be blamed.

However, upon hearing God's Word, most people realize there is no way they can live up to the expectations. In Paul's letter to the Romans we hear, "Love does no wrong to a neighbor." I don't think a day goes by without my causing some wrong to a neighbor. It might seem insignificant – like keeping that extra quarter the clerk gave me at the store or driving a few miles over the speed limit. However, in doing even these small things I have wronged my neighbor. I've done worse. 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.

God's Law condemns and Israel heard it well. God also heard their response. They cried out in their inability to stand before God. "Our transgressions and our sins are upon us, and we pine away in them; how then can we live?" In response God offered a word of hope. "As I live, saith the Lord Jehovah, I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked; but that the wicked turn from his way and live: turn ye, turn ye from your evil ways; for why will ye die, O house of Israel?" God asked only that Israel turn around and look to Him rather than staring at themselves in that mirror.

In our sin we see no hope because we are unable to live according to the law of love. We fail miserably on a daily basis. It is not surprising that many people give up on religion because it becomes impossible. Where is love in the bickering? Where is love in the committee and council rooms of the churches? However, without the company of believers to hold us up, we easily drown in our self doubts and sorrows. If we die it is not because God has brought us death and destruction out of wrath, but because we refused to receive His grace.

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 to turn around, to repent, to seek His mercy. As we hear the promise found in these words, we can seek His face. The psalmist sings about God's law and asks God to help him live according to it. "Teach me, O Jehovah, the way of thy statutes…" We may not be able to live fully or perfectly according to God's Word, but there is hope for us. God wants us to live and He will be there for those who turn to Him, who hear His word and seek His righteousness.

It is in that attitude that we can live as God calls us to live. Last week we learned that picking up our cross means living according a strange and counter cultural perspective. It means loving our neighbor and doing good for them. It means being joyful in the midst of trouble and patient in times of suffering. It means trusting God to deal with our enemies even while we take care of them. Paul adds to the difficulty in today's lesson. He calls us to live without debt – except the debt of love.

I've failed here, too. Though my debt is not outrageous, I have to admit that I have a few credit card bills. We have the car payments and the mortgage. There are probably a few social debts I should pay by inviting a neighbor to dinner or returning a favor. Of course, I know that I have not loved my neighbor as myself. I have certainly not done all that is possible to live in harmony with my neighbor or encourage peace. I'm sure there is someone who needs my forgiveness or with whom I should be reconciled. We think that it is no big deal, tomorrow is another day. Perhaps we can wait until we are a little less busy or we have better resources to share. Perhaps we can wait until we aren't quite so angry or hurt. However, Paul reminds us that there is no time to wait. "And this, knowing the season, that already it is time for you to awake out of sleep: for now is salvation nearer to us than when we first believed." He calls us to live honorably today, at this very moment. This is not by our own power, but by that which comes from our Lord Jesus Christ. "But put ye on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make not provision for the flesh, to fulfil the lusts thereof."

This is the very reason why we need to live in community. We all fail miserably, but we have one another to help us through each day. We are called to be there, to lift one another and encourage each other. We are also sent to be watchmen, like Ezekiel, to announce when we are failing to live up to the expectations of God.

Jesus tells us how it is to be in today's Gospel lesson. We are not to climb on a mountaintop and proclaim someone's sin to the world. Rather, we are to go to them privately and show them the error of their ways. If he or she does not listen, then we are to go with two or three others who can be witnesses to the truth. If this still does not bring repentance, then we are to go to the church. Finally, if they refuse to listen, then we are to treat them as foreigners or tax collectors.

Interestingly, Matthew was a tax collector. In his community, though he was a Jewish man, he was outcast by virtue of his vocation. The tax collectors were seen as crooked, evil traitors. They were rejected and deemed unclean. They were as bad as the foreigners – both sinners in the eyes of the righteous. However, Jesus called Matthew into His community, welcomed him as a brother and gave him an important role in the early church. He was an evangelist, a witness to the story of Christ, His death and resurrection. Through his testimony, we see life in the Jewish community and hear the stories of Jesus from the perspective of one who was reconciled and forgiven.

Treating someone like a foreigner or a tax collector does not mean we should cast them away from our presence, but rather that we should speak to them the Gospel. We are called to offer forgiveness and reconciliation to God through Jesus Christ our Lord. Matthew received that reconciliation and he lived in God's grace. This passage ends with a statement of forgiveness. Jesus says, "Verily I say unto you, what things soever ye shall bind on earth shall be bound in heaven; and what things soever ye shall loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven."

Jesus then goes on to tell the disciples that everything they ask, when two or more agree, will be given to them by His Father. If we were looking at this passage through our human eyes, we might think Jesus is giving us free reign of the blessings from God, or that Jesus is assuring us that He will give us whatever we think we want. However, we need to see these words in context. Sometimes what we want and desire and even ask from God is not the best thing for the community of believers or for the body of Christ. While it is true we might get other Christians to agree with our wishes, we should not expect God to meet our demands simply because we have prayed.

Rather, we are to look at this passage through God's eyes. He wishes none to perish and has called us to be sentinels to proclaim His Word to the world. God's Word might condemn as we look at ourselves through the lens of the Law, but He offers with this Word a promise. If we turn away from our wicked ways we will live, because we will be reconciled to God and one another by His amazing grace. As we live in that community of believers He has called together, we will know His presence and receive the blessings of Christ. Thanks be to God.

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