Sunday, September 7, 2008

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

Teach me, O Jehovah, the way of thy statutes…

Three years ago, the last time we saw these scriptures and the last time New Orleans was flooded by a hurricane, I heard a report about some of the effects of the flooding. Some things are very noticeable, like the debris in the streets and the damage to the buildings. However, we don’t often hear about the effects of bad weather on the animals. In the south we have fire ants. Fire ants are dangerous, nasty ants that will bite anything that comes close enough. We get piles of ants in our yard, which is why we regularly have a pest control company at our home. Sometimes it is hard to see their mounds, but if you happen to walk in one, you’ll know it quickly because they bite immediately.

According to the report, it was estimated that every yard in New Orleans was home to two fire ant hills. Now, you might expect that the fire ants would have been drowned by the floodwaters. However, fire ants have a way to escape. They gather themselves up into a ball and float until they hit something. It doesn’t 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, they grab onto it and quickly spread out, covering the object they found. Fire ants must live in community to survive. This was especially obvious during the floods. Any ants that did not grasp on to the ball were drowned in the flood waters.

I don’t know if they have the same problem with fire ants in New Orleans that they had three years ago, but the story still seems appropriate. Our scriptures this week talk about living in community, and how to deal with one another when we are part of that community. We don’t necessarily need to cling on one another to survive a flood, but we do need one another to survive in this world. We help one another learn and grow, stay on the right path and share in the responsibilities of faithful living.

It is hard to live in a community, however, because we are all sinful, imperfect beings. We might expect the Christian community to be different; after all, we have God’s Word on which we build our lives and our faith. We might hope that we would not have to deal with brothers and sisters in Christ who are not living up to the standards expected of those of faith, but we all fail. We are no different than Peter, who has been an example of faith and failure for the past few weeks. He has walked on the water and sunk. He has confessed faith in Christ as the Messiah and tried to control His future. Peter believes but does not always understand. He is faithful and faithless at the same time. As Martin Luther said, “simul justus et peccatur.” We are “simultaneously saint and sinner.”

This means that sometimes we will have to deal with the failures of others, even while they will have to deal with our failures.

I think one of the biggest problems many parents have, including myself sometimes, is that we demand an apology from our child when he or she has done something wrong, but 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.

There have been times when I’ve asked my children to apologize and when they did so discovered that they did not even know what they did wrong. I was mad about something, but they didn’t even know. I learned to ask, “What are you apologizing for?” because I knew that they were often sorry for something completely different than the lesson I wanted them to learn.

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 just admit something and 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. We can not truly be reconciled to one another unless we recognize what we’ve done wrong, turn from it and do something new.

But how will our brothers know what they’ve done wrong if we do not tell them? That’s why Jesus has given us the lesson in today’s 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 he (or she) has hurt us. We do it privately at first to keep our brother from embarrassment. 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, which together can help our brother see his error and help him to be reconciled to us. If he still refuses to hear, then we sever the relationship.

But how did Jesus treat the pagans and the tax collectors? How did He treat us when we were nothing more than a sinner? How does He treat us when we continue to sin? Does He abandon us? No, He comes to us with His Word, reminding us of His mercy and grace. He fights for us. Earlier in Matthew 18, Jesus talked about the shepherd who left the ninety-nine to find the one lost sheep. He cared so much for the one that he risked the lives of the ninety-nine to save it. He does the same for us, and calls us to do the same.

We are called to work toward reconciliation. In next week’s Gospel, we’ll hear Jesus tell us how often we should forgive those who sin against us. Over and over again we meet those who have hurt us with grace, remembering that we were like the pagans and tax collectors, too. We needed God’s mercy, too. We needed Jesus’ compassion, too. And so, we fight for reconciliation, even when it seems impossible. Because 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.

Who knows? In the midst of it all, we might learn something about ourselves.

We learn from our mistakes. It is tempting for us to stop others, especially our children, from making mistakes so that they won’t get hurt. Yet, we know they have to fail once in a while or they will never grow and learn. So, we walk on that fine line between allowing them to make mistakes and keeping them from harm. A good parent will certainly not let a child go so far that their mistakes will cause lasting damage. We might allow a two-year-old to touch some things that could get broken, but we will not allow them to touch a hot stove. We give teenagers a chance to drive a car, but if we are aware of irresponsible behavior, we take that car away. We don’t want our children to get hurt, or worse, to die. It is our task to ensure they have the opportunity to learn from their mistakes and to keep them safe. There’s a fine line between the two.

Sin leads to death, not only in the spiritual realm, but also in the world in which we live. 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.

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. But in chapter 33, God begins to speak words of consolation. It is the beginning of hope because the words of judgment brought repentance.

“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 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.

God spoke to Ezekiel in this week’s Old Testament lesson, saying, “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.” 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. If we fail to tell our brothers and sisters the truth about their failure, we will also share responsibility and the consequences.

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. There are a few things to consider as we follow this process. When we go to our brother about our problem, what is his answer? Do we also need to repent to be reconciled? That’s why it is helpful to go to a friend if our private conversation does not bring reconciliation. An intermediary might provide some insight into both people involved. What does it mean to sever the relationship? Does it mean that we should hate our brother who has refused to repent? These are all questions we need to consider as we deal with one another in this strange and wonderful community of faith.

In the end we have to figure out what Jesus meant by “treat him as a pagan or a tax collector”? In doing so, we are cautioned to remember how Jesus treated us.

Paul writes, “Owe no man anything, save to love one another: for he that loveth his neighbor hath fulfilled the law.” We don’t know what will happen tomorrow. Now is the time to take care of the business of caring for one another. Love does not mean leaving people 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 react to adversity with faith and hope and love. We get angry when people, and circumstances, get in our way. We react negatively when 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 of tomorrow might be, by loving our neighbor today we will face tomorrow’s joys or disasters with God’s grace, leaving nothing undone or unsaid so that all might see the light of Christ.

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.

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 hear the words and we cry out like the Israelites, “Our transgressions and our sins are upon us, and we pine away in them; how then can we live?” 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 (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. 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…”

The psalmist asks God to teach him how to walk in God’s way, and we can do the same. 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.

Psalm 119 is used often throughout the church year. It is the longest of all the psalms, made up of 175 verses that are divided into 22 sections. It is an acrostic, each section using a different letter of the Hebrew alphabet as the first word of each stanza. Each section focuses on God’s Word, using every possible word to describe it. In today’s passage, we hear the psalmist talking about God’s statutes, law, commandments, testimonies, word, ordinances and precepts. This passage, as well as the other stanzas from Psalm 119, establishes God’s Word as the center of the psalmist’s life. We do this by reading the scriptures. For most people, the Bible sits unopen on the coffee table, barely cracked and dusty from lack of use. We need to do more than skim through a few chapters. We need to meditate on it, day and night, to study the scriptures, learn them and know them in the depths of our heart

We may not be able to live fully or perfectly according to God's Word, but there is always hope. Where two or more are gathered in His name, He is there amongst them, saints and sinners alike. Together we will learn and grow in our faith, transformed by His word spoken to each other in love.

A WORD FOR TODAY
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