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Sermon for Sunday 10 September 2017

FIRST READING Ezekiel 33:7-9

7So you, son of man, I have made a watchman for the house of Israel. Whenever you hear a word from my mouth, you shall give them warning from me. 8If I say to the wicked, O wicked one, you shall surely die, and you do not speak to warn the wicked to turn from his way, that wicked person shall die in his iniquity, but his blood I will require at your hand. 9But if you warn the wicked to turn from his way, and he does not turn from his way, that person shall die in his iniquity, but you will have delivered your soul.


PSALM Psalm 32:1-7

1Happy are they whose transgressions are forgiven, and whose sin is put away! 2Happy are they to whom the Lord imputes no guilt, and in whose spirit there is no guile! 3While I held my tongue, my bones withered away, because of my groaning all day long. 4For your hand was heavy upon me day and night; my moisture was dried up as in the heat of summer. 5Then I acknowledged my sin to you, and did not conceal my guilt. 6I said, “I will confess my transgressions to the Lord.” Then you forgave me the guilt of my sin. 7Therefore all the faithful will make their prayers to you in time of trouble; when the great waters overflow, they shall not reach them.


SECOND READING Romans 13:1-10

1Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. 2Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. 3For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Would you have no fear of the one who is in authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive his approval, 4for he is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain. For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer. 5Therefore one must be in subjection, not only to avoid God’s wrath but also for the sake of conscience. 6For because of this you also pay taxes, for the authorities are ministers of God, attending to this very thing. 7Pay to all what is owed to them: taxes to whom taxes are owed, revenue to whom revenue is owed, respect to whom respect is owed, honor to whom honor is owed. 8Owe no one anything, except to love each other, for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law. 9For the commandments, “You shall not commit adultery, You shall not murder, You shall not steal, You shall not covet,” and any other commandment, are summed up in this word: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” 10Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore love is the fulfilling of the law.


GOSPEL Matthew 18:1-20

1At that time the disciples came to Jesus, saying, “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” 2And calling to him a child, he put him in the midst of them 3and said, “Truly, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. 4Whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. 5Whoever receives one such child in my name receives me, 6but whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him to have a great millstone fastened around his neck and to be drowned in the depth of the sea. 7Woe to the world for temptations to sin! For it is necessary that temptations come, but woe to the one by whom the temptation comes! 8And if your hand or your foot causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to enter life crippled or lame than with two hands or two feet to be thrown into the eternal fire. 9And if your eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away. It is better for you to enter life with one eye than with two eyes to be thrown into the hell of fire. 10See that you do not despise one of these little ones. For I tell you that in heaven their angels always see the face of my Father who is in heaven. 12What do you think? If a man has a hundred sheep, and one of them has gone astray, does he not leave the ninety-nine on the mountains and go in search of the one that went astray? 13And if he finds it, truly, I say to you, he rejoices over it more than over the ninety-nine that never went astray. 14So it is not the will of my Father who is in heaven that one of these little ones should perish. 15If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother. 16But if he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, that every charge may be established by the evidence of two or three witnesses. 17If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church. And if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector. 18Truly, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven. 19Again I say to you, if two of you agree on earth about anything they ask, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven. 20For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them.”




I was reading a story the other day about a Ford Mustang that was found in an old building. Car enthusiasts call these “Barn Finds.” Barn Finds are cars that have been hidden away, in most cases for decades, and the family has, more or less, forgotten they were there. Usually the one who originally stored the car has passed away and the family is dealing with their estate. On a few occasions, the family isn’t even aware of the value of the vehicle. Such was the case with this 1969 Ford Mustang that was found. Unbeknownst to the family, the father had procured a rare proto-type 4-wheel drive Mustang. There were only two known to have been made and both were thought to have been destroyed.
Generally, a 69 Mustang in that condition would bring 11,000 or so dollars at a sale. However, at last check, they were still trying to assess the value of this rare Mustang. One estimate placed the value in the quarter million-dollar range and possibly even higher. Thank goodness, the individual who came to look at the car was honest and informed the family of what they had. Had he not been, he could have given the family the smaller amount and then made a huge profit. Oftentimes, people have no idea of the treasures they have. One of those treasures is prayer.
Jesus said, “If two of you agree on earth about anything they ask, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven.” This promise is followed by a second, in the next verse, where Jesus promises, “For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them” (Matt. 18:19-20.) Both these statements are not only a stunning endorsement of corporate prayer, but of what Jesus has promised for those who look to Him in prayer. Jesus’ statement not only stresses the importance of prayer, but of the importance of praying together. These statements also highlight a treasure we often don’t fully appreciate, that is the fact that we’re a community; a community of caring people. Even better still, we’re a family. But Jesus’ statement goes even further than that. These sayings are part of a larger passage that emphasizes the importance of mutual love and care among believers.
Bruce Larson tells about a conversation that a missionary in India, had one time with a Hindu social worker. At one point, the social worker asked the missionary, “Do you think that most Christians know what they’ve got?” Perplexed by the question, she asked what he had in mind. He said, “Every religion has a god. Every religion has an altar. Every religion has worshipers. Every religion believes in sacrifice. But only Christians have a Savior and only Christians have a congregation.” What a fantastic question to ask ourselves, “Do we know what we’ve got?”
Of course, we’ll all agree that we’re grateful we have a Savior. However, I think we understate, or put far too little importance, on the congregation and what we can do as a community. We’re not simply an assembly of individuals. We are the body of Christ (1 Cor. 12:27.) God has gathered us to be part of a sacred community. God has adopted us into His own family (Eph. 1:5.) In Jesus Christ, we have been redeemed. We have been reconciled to God the Father and as the writer of Hebrews tells us, “Let us therefore draw near with boldness unto the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy, and may find grace to help us in time of need” (Heb. 4:16.) However, what we so often forget, or flagrantly ignore, is that being part of a loving, caring family comes with responsibilities.
The first responsibility we find in this passage is that as part of the family of Christ, we are responsible for one another. “If a fellow member sins,” says Jesus, “go and point out their fault, just between the two of you” (18:15.) This is a tough teaching of our Lord. A teaching we really don’t like, because this isn’t always the easiest thing to do. After all, doesn’t the world teach that we’re not to make waves. As far as society is concerned, we can’t say anything that might offend. And heaven forbid we should say something that would point out our sinful behavior. The offending person might get mad. They might call us a name. They might not want to come to church anymore. So we make excesses for not talking with the other person. What’s the old adage? “If ifs and buts were candy and nuts, we’d all have a Merry Christmas.” I’d like to rephrase that a bit differently, “If ifs and buts were just a couple of bucks, we’d all be rich like Oprah Winfrey.” We like to make excuses for not speaking up, but what was it that God told Ezekiel?
“I have made a watchman for the house of Israel. Whenever you hear a word from my mouth, you shall give them warning from me. If I say to the wicked, O wicked one, you shall surely die, and you do not speak to warn the wicked to turn from his way, that wicked person shall die in his iniquity, but his blood I will require at your hand. But if you warn the wicked to turn from his way, and he does not turn from his way, that person shall die in his iniquity, but you will have delivered your soul.” (Ez. 33:7-9)
As a member of the “Priesthood of all believers,” as an adopted member of God’s family, as a member of the Body of Christ, we have been called by God to be His watchmen. We have been given the responsibility to be God’s messagers to our families, to our church and to our community. This isn’t a call that we can take lightly. God was very clear: if “you do not speak to warn the wicked to turn from his way, that wicked person shall die in his iniquity, but his blood I will require at your hand.” We’ve been commanded to “speak” and this means calling others into account for their actions when those actions are counter to what God teaches in the Bible.
But this isn’t what the devil wants us to believe is it? Satan has duped the world into overlooking many sins and instead covered them up with the creed, “live and let live.” But think of it from a loving Christian perspective: Confronting a fellow believer who is involved in a sin of any kind can be the most loving thing, the most Christ-like thing, we can do. As members of the body of Christ, we’re called to hold one another accountable. Now I want to be absolutely clear here. This isn’t being judgmental. Being judgmental means we assume the authority to condemn and sentence someone else. Being accountable or holding someone else accountable, is to recognize responsibility or to point out incorrect or sinful behavior. Holding ourselves or others accountable means condemning the behavior, not the person.
Christ isn’t calling us to pass judgment on one another; that’s Jesus’ job. What Jesus is saying here, is that we’re to care enough about one another to intervene when we see a friend making a mistake. Remember we’re talking about someone’s eternal welfare. Do you really want someone to go to hell all because we don’t want to offend? However, we must be careful that we do this correctly, gently and in Christian love. Not out of spite or malice. We hold each other accountable out of Godly love and concern and because if we sit idly by, we may be answering to God for not saying anything to the other about the offense.
A well-known Christian author tells of praying for a friend whom she knew had become involved in an extra-marital affair. One Sunday she happened to be sitting behind her friend in church. During the prelude, she leaned forward and put her hands lovingly on her friend’s shoulders and whispered, “Be careful that you don’t throw away something very beautiful. I’m praying for you.” The friend involved in the affair began weeping softly and almost immediately broke off this illicit relationship.
Years later the Christian author attended a high school graduation. One of the young people graduating was the son of the woman who had been having the affair. This woman came up to the author and gave her a big hug. “You were so right,” she said with gratitude. “If you had not spoken those words to me that day, I would have thrown away nearly everything that was important to me. Thank you so much.” It was a Christian act done out of Godly love and concern. An act that required courage and one that I’m sure prevented not only one but possibly many tragedies.
“If your brother or sister sins, go and point out their fault,” said Jesus, “just between the two of you.” Don’t make a big deal of it: Do it in a loving manner. Keep the conversation between the two of you forever confidential. But friends don’t let friends ruin their lives. This is such an important passage of scripture, we even have it as part of our church’s Constitution. And yet, quite honestly, this would be very difficult for most of us to do. It requires a great deal of love. And it also requires an even greater deal of courage.
“Too often,” says author Chuck Colson, “we confuse love with permissiveness. It isn’t love to fail to dissuade another believer from sin any more than it is love to fail to take a drink away from an alcoholic or matches away from a baby.” This kind of love and concern have caused some Christian groups to give a high priority to the need for accountability in the church’s fellowship. Colson points out that John Wesley, the founder of the Methodist movement, was so concerned with building accountability that he devised a series of questions for his followers to ask each other every week.
These were questions like: Am I consciously or unconsciously creating the impression that I am better than I really am? In other words, am I a hypocrite? Am I honest in all my acts and words or do I exaggerate? Do I confidentially pass on to another what was told to me in confidence? Can I be trusted? Am I a slave to dress, friends, work or habits? Do I disobey God in anything? Do I insist upon doing something about which my conscience is uneasy? Is there anyone whom I fear, dislike, disown, criticize, hold a resentment toward, or disregard? If so, what am I doing about it? Do I grumble or complain constantly? Is Christ real to me?
Each week the believers would ask these questions of each other. Obviously, some found this rigorous system of inquiry too demanding and left. Today, the very idea of such a procedure would horrify many churchgoers. But that’s the first thing we need to see in this passage–we have a responsibility for one another. And the second thing we need to see is the power of a praying church.
Jesus says, “Again, truly I tell you that if two of you on earth agree about anything they ask for, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven. For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them.” What amazing statements of promise. Now I’ll be the first to admit that I don’t fully understand what Christ is saying to us with these words, but I do know there is tremendous power when Christian people work together, pray together, laugh together and shed tears together. That’s always been the strength of the Christian movement.
A Roman historian named Lucian, writing in the first century, describes a man called Per-e-grin-us who was in prison and seems to have claimed to be a Christian, though he was probably a bit of a fraud. Nevertheless, Christians in his community visited him in jail regularly. “They show,” Lucian writes, “incredible speed whenever such public action is taken, for their [leader] (Jesus) persuaded them that they are all brothers of one another.” Does it matter if modern day Christians look out for one another? If we listen to Jesus, the answer is yes.
Recent studies indicate that only one in five in Americas today has a real friend. Only one in five, just 20%! If I considered myself to be a spiritual peddler, I would say, “What a market!” What an opportunity! We have what the world desperately needs and cannot supply. We have a Savior and we have Christian love and fellowship. We may not be articulate theologians but we can be a friend to one another and to the world outside. That is our task. That is what is expected of us.
That is the ministry to which Christ has called us–to be a caring community. To reach out arms of sympathy and support to those who are in distress. To rejoice with those who rejoice and to weep with those who weep (Rom. 12:15.) Kahlil Gibran once remarked that we can forget those with whom we have laughed, but we can never forget those with whom we have cried. Millions of persons who have been through trying times and have felt the support of one or two other brothers or sisters in Christ will testify to the power of that support.
Several of us are familiar with Chuck Colson’s role as hatchet man for Richard Nixon in the days before Watergate. A few of us have perhaps read Colson’s moving book, Born Again. In it he tells of those days of pain and humiliation. On the evening before Colson pleaded guilty to charges of obstructing justice, three men joined him at home until well into the night: ex-Senator Harold Hughes; former Texas congressman Graham Purcell, and lay worker, Douglas Coe.
They weren’t there to give Colson legal or professional support. They were there to pray with him and to give him the moral and spiritual strength to do what he knew was right. Their prayers didn’t prevent Colson’s incarceration, but those prayers did enable him to come through his prison ordeal a wiser and better man and to touch many lives in a positive manner along the way. Incidentally, because of Chuck Colson, today there is a prison ministry that has touched a great number of prisoner’s lives. It’s a great opportunity that Jesus has given us. We are responsible for one another. There is great power in a church that is united in prayer and service to one another. And there is, of course, a reason for that.
The body of Christ is much more than the sum of its individual parts, for where two or three gather in Christ’s name, there He is with them. That is the crowning conclusion to this passage. “For where two or three gather in my name, there am I with them.” The whole meaning of Christian faith is contained in the word, relationship–a relationship with God and a relationship with one another.
As Frederick Buechner has written: “Faith is not so much believing this thing or that about God, as it is hearing a voice which says, ‘Come unto Me.’ We hear the voice and then we start to go without really knowing what to believe, either about the voice or about ourselves. And yet we go. Faith at this point is standing in the darkness, and a hand is there, and we take it.” Maybe this is one of the reasons Jesus said we need to become like a child (Matt. 18:3.) Children don’t question; they trust. To expand on Buechner’s analogy, we take the hand of God and then we reach out in the darkness and we take hold of the hand of a neighbor. This is who we are and what we’re about.
Another pastor tells about a Christian man who knew his time was near. So, he sent word to his family to come home so he could see them all one last time. Even though his children had already had families of their own, they all set out on the trips back home. After they had been home awhile visiting, the father called all of them into his room where he had been bedfast for many weeks.
When they entered and formed a line around his bed so he could see them all, he then told them to go outside and bring back a nice-size stick. Now this sounded strange, but seeing the shape their father was in, they each went out in the yard and brought back a big stick. After everyone got their stick, they all gathered around the old man. He then told them to start breaking the sticks one by one. After everyone broke their stick he then told them to go back outside and get another stick. Now this again seemed very odd to his children but they did what they were told because, after all, their father was about to be with the Lord.
After they got a stick and gathered around his bed again, he told them this time to pass the sticks around, putting them into one stack and bring them to him. When they had done this, he pulled out some fishing line and told them to tie the bundle tightly at each end. Then he told his children to try and break the sticks. One by one they all tried to break the bundle of sticks but couldn’t do it. The father responded by saying, “I just want you to know if you stick together it will be harder to break you.”
What is true of a family is true of the church as well. The closer we are to Christ and the closer we are to each other, the greater impact we will have on our world. Do we really know what we have as Christians, or are we like the family who finds an old car in the barn and doesn’t appreciate what they have? We have what the world desperately needs–a Savior and a congregation. And yes, as a family we have responsibilities. We are responsible for each other. But we also have a tremendous blessing. We are a part of God’s family and Christ has promised to be among us when we gather and pray. So let’s share the blessings of love and caring with a world in need of a friend. The hymn writer John Fawcett was correct when he penned the words, “Blest be the tie that binds our hearts in Christian love . . .” (ELW 656)

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