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Sermon for Sunday 6 September 2020

First Reading                                   Ezekiel 33:7-9

7“So 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 32:1-6

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.

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.”

When Someone Disagrees

I’m sure you’ve never encountered people who are, shall we say, disagreeable.  Truth be told, disagreements happen wherever people are gathered.  Veteran American League baseball umpire Bill Guthrie was working behind home plate one afternoon and the catcher for the visiting team was repeatedly protesting his calls.  Guthrie endured this for a number of innings, and then called a halt to the game.  “Son,” he said softly to the catcher, “you’ve been a big help to me in calling balls and strikes today, and I appreciate it.  But I think I’ve got the hang of it now, so I’m going to ask you to go to the clubhouse and show whoever’s there, how to take a shower.”  All of us have encountered someone with whom we find it difficult to get along with.

The famous dramatist George Bernard Shaw and the legendary British leader Sir Winston Churchill had several disagreements.  Some of you may recall the famous episode where Shaw once sent two tickets to Churchill to the opening night of one of his plays with instructions for Churchill to “bring a friend—if you have one.”  Churchill sent the tickets back because he was busy opening night.  He said he would come on “the second night”—and I quote—“if there is one.”

Fact: anywhere there are human beings gathered, there will be disagreements, conflict, arguments, and sadly, all out wars.It’s been true in every generation since Cain and Abel.  In the year 1325, a group of roughens from Modena, Italy invaded the town of Bologna, 35 miles to the south.  This group of troublemakers from Modena caused considerable disruption and upheaval in in their neighboring city.  They even stole the oak bucket from the public well.  This incident incited a twelve-year war between the two communities; thousands of men died in the fighting.  When the war ended more than a decade later, Bologna re-claimed ownership of the oak bucket.  The bucket has since been housed in the bell tower of a local cathedral.  What a dumb reason for a war!

With all the civil unrest we see in Chicago, Portland, Wisconsin and Minnesota just to name a few, some might think that civil strife is something new, however, if you’re of this belief, then haven’t studied history.  Strife has been the rule, not the exception, for most of human history.  Years ago, a large statue of Jesus was erected high in the Andes on the border between Argentina and Chile.  

Many of you are familiar with that statue.  Called “Christ of the Andes,” the statue symbolizes a pledge between the two countries, that as long as the statue stands, there will be peace between Chile and Argentina.  Ironically, shortly after the statue was erected, the Chileans began to protest that they had been slighted by the placement of the statue.  The issue—the statue has its back turned to Chile.

Fortunately, just when tempers were at their highest in Chile, a Chilean newspaperman saved the day.  In an editorial that not only satisfied the people but made them laugh, he simply said, “The people of Argentina need more watching over than the Chileans.”  Somehow that humorous comment calmed the populace and ended tensions.  Such friction has always been with us.  And believe it or not, conflicts, disagreements and tension even happen in churches. 

Some would even forward that it’s especially prevalent in churches.  Someone put it this way: “To dwell above with saints we love, Oh, that will be glory.  But to dwell below with saints we know, Well, that’s another story.”  Today’s gospel lesson from St. Matthew deals with the appropriate procedure for dealing with disagreeable people in church.Jesus teaches, “If your brother sins against you, Go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone . . .”  I think it’s important we pause here for the moment.

Before we read any further, I need to bring up one subtle aspect that the majority of folks, pastors included, miss in this lesson.  If you follow Jesus’ teaching here, it leaves no room for gossip.  As we know, nothing will stir up trouble faster than gossip in a congregation.  Anytime you go quietly to a person who has wronged you and deal with the problem mono o mono, it removes the temptation to “discuss” the problem with others.  If that initial meeting doesn’t go well, then taking witnesses with you at the next meeting, will again eliminate the possibility of misinformation being spread.  Following Jesus’ instructions here, not only helps to keep harmony within the church, it also detours another sin, that of violating the 8th commandment. 

Luther explained the 8th commandment this way, “You shall not give false testimony against your neighbor.  What does this mean?  We should fear and love God so that we do not tell lies about our neighbor, betray him, slander him, or hurt his reputation, but defend him, speak well of him, and explain everything in the kindest way.  Doing everything we can to prevent and eliminate gossip should be one of our highest priorities.  But what we can learn from this passage doesn’t stop at preventing here-say, Jesus’ teaching also addresses harmony with others.

Recall if you will in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus said, “If you are offering your gift at the altar and remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled with your brother, and then come and offer your gift . . .” (Matthew 5:23-24).  In other words, regardless of who’s at fault, when a relationship within the body of Christ is strained or broken, get it mended as quickly as possible!  You cannot come to the altar with resentment or hatred in your heart toward another person.  Have you ever stopped and considered why the passing of the peace is placed in the service where it is?  It’s put there for a very good reason.

The passing of the peace offers us the opportunity to be reconcile with anyone that we might be at odds with, before we come to the altar to receive of God’s gifts.  Once we’re reconciled with our fellow brothers and sisters in Christ, we can then partake of the Body and Blood of Christ without being guilty of eating and drinking in an unworthy manner (1 Corinthians 11:27).  St. Paul writes, “Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty concerning the body and blood of the Lord.”  St. Paul is simply stressing the importance of what Jesus taught concerning forgiveness, unity in the body and loving your neighbor.

Jesus puts the matter of unity in the body and loving our neighbor even more strongly in today’s lesson.  He says, “If your brother or sister sins, go and point out their fault, just between the two of you.  If they listen to you, you have won them over.  But if they will not listen, take one or two others along, so that ‘every matter may be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses.’  If they still refuse to listen, tell it to the church; and if they refuse to listen even to the church, treat them as you would a pagan or a tax collector.”  I’d like to pause once again to consider Jesus’ words here in light of what St. Paul teaches in 2 Corinthians 6:14.

In Paul’s second letter to the Corinthian church he wrote, “Do not be unequally yoked with unbelievers.  For what partnership has righteousness with lawlessness?  Or what fellowship has light with darkness?”  Again, consider the situation Jesus is addressing here.  If a person responds to someone coming to them to reconcile, then forgiveness, love and unity are also priorities for that individual.  However, if the offending person is more concerned with refusing to acknowledge the unacceptable behavior, or with holding a grudge, or continuing to harbor ill feelings and prolonging strife within the church, how can this person be considered a faithful follower of Jesus?  Didn’t Jesus tell us, those who love Him keep His commands? (John 14:15).  

When someone is more concerned with grudges and division, do they really love their neighbor as they love themselves?  Again Paul, in our Epistle reading for today puts it succinctly, “For 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.”  Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore love is the fulfilling of the law” (vs. 9-10).  

Again, how can a person fulfill God’s law and follow Jesus’ command to love others if they’re more concerned with personal vendettas, than in reconciliation and forgiveness?  Sadly, the only option we may have to get the offender’s attention and to reach that person and return them to a right relationship with God and others, is to remove the offending person from the situation.  In other words, the offender could be cast out of the church.

The truth is, we don’t excommunicate or cast folks out of church very often nowadays.  For one thing, where do we draw the line?  Murder?  Adultery?  Using crude language?  Criticizing the pastor?  Where do we draw the line between what is unacceptable but tolerated behavior, and actions that will not be tolerated under any circumstances?  It’s amazing what we’ll overlook today in the name of church membership, family or love of neighbor. 

In all the years I’ve been in leadership roles in congregations, I’ve only seen two people excommunicated and both was for repeated disruptive behavior; for vicious gossip, for verbally abusive language directed at others in the congregation and for generally stirring up trouble.  The question all congregational leaders struggle with is, where is the line?

According to Scripture, we’ve all sinned and fallen short of God’s glory (Romans 3:23).  If we were to cast people out because of their sins, we’re going to have a very small church.  Didn’t Jesus masterfully tell the religious leaders of His day, “let him who is without sin cast the first stone” (John 8:7).  I agree, exclusion, while necessary at times, should be a last resort; the final step when all other reasonable measures have been tried.  Instead of simply driving an offender away, we need to build a church that is so loving and so committed, that people grow in their commitment to Christ and to one another.  We want a church where people are loved, built up, supported, yes, chastised if needed, but cast out only as a last resort.  But sadly, not everyone will accept loving rebuke and reconcile.  Jesus addressed how we’re to deal with such a person. 

So, with how to deal with disagreements addressed, next we need to look at the why.  Why was Jesus so committed to unity in the church; it was one of His most important themes.  First, we’re been called to be the light and salt of the earth.  If we can’t learn to get along and forgive each other, how then are we to be an example of God’s love and mercy to the world?  Next, as the salt and light of this world, we, as a church, meet a need in society that no other organization meets.

When the church really is the church, it touches people’s lives in a way no other institution can.  Max Lucado in a new book of devotions titled God Is with You Every Day tells about a gentleman in Africa named Bzuneh Tulema.  Two years ago, Tulema was the town drunk in his hometown of Adama, South Africa.  

Tulema and his wife both were so consumed with alcohol that they farmed out their kids to neighbors.  Thankfully, they came to the attention of some local church people.  Members of an area church became concerned and began bringing the family food and clothing.  They invited them to worship with them.  Tulema initially wasn’t interested but his wife, Bililie, was.  Slowly Bililie became aware of her less than desirable situation and she recognized her need for God.  It took much longer for Tulema to recognize his need.  

One night after a heavy bout of drinking, Tulema stumbled and fell so hard that he received a terrible gash to his head and knocked himself unconscious.  He was found lying helpless in a gulley.  Fortunately, friends from the church surrounded him with the love of Jesus and God changed his life.  Lucado records that Tulema hasn’t touched a drop of liquor since.  

When the church really is the salt and light of this world, it meets needs that no other group in society meets.  The reason the church can do this is because the church deals not just with people’s symptoms, but with the causes of their problems.  Other organizations, other institutions, deal primarily with the symptoms.

For example, the justice system—it deals with symptoms, even prisons, unfortunately, is only quipped to deal with symptoms.  Welfare organizations deal with symptoms.  To a certain extent, even hospitals deal with symptoms.  But the church is called to get at the heart of the matter.  We don’t simply donate food, clothing, money and baby goods to meet the day in and day out needs of the poor and homeless, we support agencies that work to house, educate and provide treatment to improve a person’s situation.  No, we’re not medical professional or trained counselors, but when we find people in need, we work to get those people to the places where Christian help and counseling can be found.

The body of Christ, the church, isn’t called to simply deal only with symptoms, but also with root the causes of those symptoms.  At the very core of humanity’s problem is sin, sin and a broken relationship with God.  We recognize that humanity itself isn’t the problem, but the sin that corrupts and plagues humanity.

We, in the church, are certainly not perfect, but we serve a God who is perfect Love.  God calls us keep to unity within the church so we can go out into the community and help people who are hurting and to show them His love.  Not everyone we meet will be easy to love, but this is our call, love God and love our neighbor.  We’ve been called out of this world so we can go into the world to show the love of Jesus to everyone we meet—at work, at play, within our family, within our community, even within our church.

As the body of Christ, we are a family.  We are responsible for one another.  Even more importantly, we are the body of Christ in service to the world.  We’re called to love one another, to help those in need and to forgive one another even as Christ has loved and forgiven us.  As the poet once wrote: “Blest be the tie that binds, Our hearts in Christian love; The fellowship our spirit finds Is like to that above. We share our mutual woes; Our mutual burdens bear; And often for each other flows, The sympathizing tear . . .”  Does unity in the church matter?  Does unity in a family matter?  You tell me, can you think of anything that matters more?


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