Sunday, September 7, 2014

Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost
Ezekiel 33:7-9
Psalm 32:1-7
Romans 13:1-10
Matthew 18:1-20

Blessed is he whose transgression is forgiven, Whose sin is covered.

There is a playground in Wrexham, England, that goes against everything modern safety standards demands. Since the 1970ís, especially in the United States, playgrounds are expected to meet certain specifications to protect the health and welfare of our children. The ground must be made of something soft. The bars on the high parts of jungle gyms must be close enough so children canít fit through and fall to the ground. The equipment canít exceed a certain height. On top of all these limitations, we often focus on scheduled play and organized activities. We donít like our kids to get too dirty; we make them protect their toys. In doing so, we often limit their imagination and stifle their adventurousness.

Not to be nostalgic, but I didnít have those limitations when I was a kid. Thereís an internet meme (several actually) that talk about how when Ďweí were kids our parents expected to see us at dinner and bedtime, but we were sent outside to play the rest of the day. We left our toys in the sandbox to get rained upon and grimy. We climbed trees without supervisions, played hide and seek in the woods. We even (donít be shocked) used the hill by the highway for sledding in the winter. At the top of that hill, we were less than ten feet away from vehicles speeding on wet and sometimes slippery roads.

Ok, so perhaps there is good reason for some of these limitations. The playground rules came into effect after a boy died from falling headfirst from the top of a large slide onto a macadam playground. I canít imagine what would have happened if a car had slipped and crashed into the guard rail when we were waiting for our turn to sled down the hill. The world seems to be a more dangerous place; we donít let our kids out of our sights because we are afraid they will be kidnapped. Besides, experts have suggested that organized play is good for the kids.

My feet were black in the summer from running around barefoot on the streets; my hair was white from being sun-bleached. My hair was also green from the chlorine from the pool I lived in from dawn to dusk during the summer (thatís how my feet usually got clean.) I was a red, pruney, green haired child with dirty feet. But we had fun. We chased lightning bugs at night and played flashlight tag throughout our neighborhood with the only boundaries being common sense and fairness. We had Monopoly games that lasted weeks, left set up in the basement where it was started until there wasnít any money left to win. We used whatever we could find to make whatever our imagination could dream.

The people who designed this playground in Wrexham have realized that we have stolen our childrenís freedom, their adventurousness and weíve made them too afraid to imagine anything for themselves. We have strangled their imaginations by telling them they canít play the games they want to play or create the world that will help them become strong, bold, creative adults that are unafraid to try something new or to go out on their own.

The Land is a playground that looks more like a junkyard. It is filled with stuff: old tires, cement drainage pipes, broken toys, pallets, ropes and wheelbarrows. There is even an old couch. A hill leads to a creek. One mother told the story of her sonís first visit to The Land. He met another boy who convinced him to get into a large recycle bin which was lying on its side at the top of the hill. The plan was to push him over the edge so that heíd roll into the creek. The water was cold and the mother had no change of clothes. The strange boy was being kind to her son, comforting and encouraging, so she let it go. He had a blast, got out of the creek and went running with his friend to try something new.

Nothing is off limits. They even allow the kids to start fires, which often end with a large group gathered around laughing at stories and jokes. There is adult supervision, but not much. Most mothers do not even enter The Land; they just drop their kids off to play. The workers donít stop the kids from doing anything stupid, although they are there to ensure that no one gets seriously hurt. Despite the minimal adult interference, the kids never leave with more than a few scratches. The kids just have fun. They build forts with pallets that are piled way too high. They roll tires down the hill into the creek. They use the rope swing to get from one side of the creek to the other, or they just fall in. They play. They create. They imagine. They go on an adventure with the freedom to be themselves.

They donít come out unscathed. They end up with rope burn on their hands and splinters from those pallets. Iím sure many knees are skinned when the fort collapses under the weight of too many kids. They learn from their mistakes and work harder to build a stronger fort the next time. They eat dirt, rip their clothes and get dirty from head to foot. But they have fun, they learn to overcome their fears and they find ways to get along with strangers.

Have you ever thought about why God lets us sin? After all, Heís God. He created us. He could have made us differently so that we would not be disobedient to Him. He could have set limitations on where we could go or what we could do. He didnít. He gave us the freedom to be ourselves, to learn from our mistakes. We suffer the consequences, although those are usually more than just a skinned knee. We end up with broken relationships.

It is tempting for us to stop our children from making mistakes so that they wonít get hurt. Yet, we know they have to fail once in a while or they will never grow and learn. We walk on that fine line between allowing them to do something stupid and protecting them from themselves. God walks the same line. That internet meme talks about all the stupid things we did as kids, like riding a bike without a helmet and skating on thin ice, but in the end we survived. We do pretty stupid things in Godís kingdom, too, but thanks to His forgiveness and grace, we survive, too.

Of course, 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 and even death. 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 personís 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.

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 Godís Word is not something the world wants to hear. By the time we reach this chapter in the book, Ezekiel has spoken about Godís 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.

ďAs 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?Ē God does not want any to perish. We may suffer the consequences of our mistakes, experience the cost of our sinfulness, 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; it is 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.

Todayís Gospel lesson can be roughly divided into three separate parts; each part addresses how to deal with sin and temptation in our lives. It 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. Matthew doesnít clearly show this, but the same story found in Mark (9:33-37) and Luke (9:46-48) clearly shows us that they wanted to know which one of them was most important.

I often wonder if Jesus was frustrated with them by now. They just donít get it. They must have had some concerns, after all Jesus has 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 werenít 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. ďVerily I say unto you, Except ye turn, and become as little children, ye shall in no wise enter into the kingdom of heaven. Whosoever therefore shall humble himself as this little child, the same is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.Ē Not only was Jesus refusing to establish the hierarchy, He told them that if they didnít 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 didnít have any clout in Jesusí 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 not 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?

Jesus says, ďUnless you become like little childrenÖĒ What does this mean? What is it about children that we should emulate? We made a list of characteristics the virtues we see in children. They are innocent, not in legal terms, but as it relates to life. They are not yet cynical. They are pure, naÔve 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. Those children at The Land 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, ďAnd whoso shall receive one such little child in my name receiveth me; but whoso shall cause one of these little ones that believe on me to stumble, it is profitable for him that a great millstone should be hanged about his neck, and that he should be sunk in the depth of the sea.Ē The child knew something that the disciples still had to learn: Jesus was the greatest.

They would have to take over the ministry one day, perhaps sooner than they wanted, but the reality is that none of them would take Jesusí 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.

See how Jesus ends this section of the text? He warns the disciples to take care of those who are innocent, the Ďlittle childrení who trust in Him. He warned them, and us, not to lead the pure, naÔve, vulnerable, fearless sponges on the wrong path. ďDo not cause them to sin.Ē By this He means, ďDo not cause them to stop believing in me.Ē Sadly, I think we do this much too often.

This idea continues into the next section of the text (verses 7-14.) Now Jesus turns the conversation to temptation. The disciples, seeking a high place in the Kingdom, are yielding to the temptations of the world. The world tells us that we should want to be number one; the world says that we should strive to be the best, to be the most powerful. This is a temptation Jesus faced when the devil tried to get Him to follow another path in the wilderness. After reminding the disciples that faith in Jesus is the way to living in the Kingdom, He gives them some advice about dealing with the sin in their lives. ďWhen the temptations come, and they will, cut them off.Ē

Jesus was not necessarily being literal here. A hand canít cause someone to sin. Nor can a foot or an eye. A hand or foot or eye might be the part of the body that is used in the commission of the sin, but the hand cannot control the brain or the heart. If we steal something, it isnít because we get itchy fingers; we steal because we covet in our hearts and justify in our heads that we deserve to have that item. If we squeeze the trigger of a gun, it is because we have allowed hate or anger to rule our emotions and direct our actions. If we see a beautiful body and lust after it, our eyes are not to be blamed, but our hearts that seek physical satisfaction in a manner that goes against Godís will. Jesus is telling us to cut anything out of our lives that might cause us to sin.

It is interesting that this passage is often used as justification for certain punishments in foreign countries, such as cutting off the hand of the thief, the passage itself is focused on the individual. We are not to cut off someone elseís hand or foot or rip out their eye because they have sinned, but to deal with the temptations in our own lives. These particular verses offer us the encouragement to be responsible for our own actions and to be humble in the face of temptation. The way to deal with othersí sin is described a few verses later.

What is the most important thing? Jesus says, ďSee that ye despise not one of these little ones; for I say unto you, that in heaven their angels do always behold the face of my Father who is in heaven.Ē Do not make yourself to be higher, or better, or greater than the little ones who have complete and total faith in me. We who believe in Jesus are all the same; we are loved by God the Father and He will always take care of us.

As we heard in Ezekiel, and in the final verse of this section (14), God does not want to lose anyone. We are comforted by verse 12, because in it is the promise that if (when) we go astray, God will not leave us wandering helpless and alone. He will come to help us, guide us, and bring us home. Like those workers at The Land, God will do everything He can to keep us from being permanently lost to Him.

The final section of this passage (verses 15-20) helps us to deal with sin in the lives of our brothers and sisters in Christ. We have seen how we are to protect the little ones and ourselves, but now Jesus directs our thoughts to those among us who are led astray. This is a hard topic for us in these modern times, since the world has decided that it is none of our business how others live. Weíve all heard it said, ďJudge not, lest ye be judged,Ē and yet too many people think that means that we should not reprove, rebuke, and exhort one another, thus leading each other down the right path.

We live in community with one another and we have to deal with the things that do not glorify God. However, in this particular passage it is important to note that Jesus says, ďIf thy brother sin against thee, go, show him his fault between thee and him alone.Ē We are not to be busybodies, getting in the middle of other peopleís problems. If our brother sins against us, then we are to deal with it. Of course, if the sin is continued, then we have to find a way to help them see how they are harming the community by continuing, this is why we then take other witnesses to help us. Even a small sin between brothers can explode into a large battle in the Church. Finally, if the sin continues beyond those two or three witnesses, then it must be dealt with publically with the entire Church.

We must be careful, however, that we deal with that brother or sister in Christ properly. We assume that Jesus means that we should kick the sinner out of our fellowship. Yet, we have to ask, who is Matthew? Matthew is the tax collector. How did Jesus deal with the tax collectors and sinners? He ate with them. He called them to repentance and to follow Him. This isnít a passage about punishing the sinners in our midst with excommunication, but rather it is a lesson in how to call someone to repentance. Jesus Christ came to offer mercy and forgiveness, not to set us above anyone so that we can be judge, jury and executioner. After all, donít we still need Jesus, too?

This passage is important because those who sin against us can become a burden on our own hearts and minds. Even if it is a little sin, can we really ignore it? We might be able to speak the words of forgiveness, but what happens when it happens again? Even if it isnít repeated, we tend to hold onto our memories of our pain and suffering. It is, quite frankly, much easier to forgive than to forget, and our bad memories tend to lead to grudges. We have to deal with it, get it out in the open, for our own sake. We canít allow the actions of another person cause us continued pain. Those grudges we hold? They donít hurt the people who hurt us, they do greater damage to us. The person harmed by a grudge is the one who holds is. We deal with our brothers and sisters quietly so as not to embarrass them or make them the focus of gossip, but we must deal with it for our own sakes as well as for theirs.

See, small sins can lead to much greater sins. The thief might start out taking a cookie in the grocery store and eventually turn to armed robbery. A small white lie might seem harmless, but they grow into bigger lies that really do hurt. A little anger might be easily withheld, but it simmers until it explodes into violence and irreparable destruction of a relationship. This section of the Gospel passage is a lesson in how it is our responsibility to continue to call one another to repentance.

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.

Paul writes, ďOwe no man anything, save to love one another: for he that loveth his neighbor hath fulfilled the law.Ē We donít know what will happen tomorrow. Now is the time to care for one another, by helping each other live according to the Word of God. 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 Godís word into each othersí lives.

The problem is that we donít 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 of tomorrow might be, by loving our neighbor today we will face tomorrowís joys or disasters with Godís grace, leaving nothing undone or unsaid so that all might see the light of Christ.

However, upon hearing Godís Word, most people realize there is no way they can live up to the expectations. Paul writes, ďLove does no wrong to a neighbor.Ē I donít think I can live even a day without doing something wrong to someone. It might seem insignificant; Iíve gossiped. Iíve lied. Iíve cheated. I have done a million things that I should not have done. The more I hear Godís Law, the more I realize that I deserve nothing but death for my iniquity.

Thatís why God does not give us a word of instruction and judgment without a word of hope. He does not want any to die. Godís Law condemns, but Christ saves. We fail miserably on a daily basis. Yet, when we hear God say ďI do not want to see any perishĒ 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 donít have to be cynical, but can be pure, naÔve 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 in the unbelievable.

Thatís 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 Heíll always come looking for us when we wander away. He doesnít want anyone to get lost; He wants to always bring us home.

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