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A WORD FOR TODAY, September 6, 2023
Lectionary Scriptures for September 10, 2023: Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost: Ezekiel 33:7-9; Psalm 32:1-7; Romans 13:1-10; Matthew 18:1-20
“Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for he who loves his neighbor has fulfilled the law.” Romans 13:8, WEB
A friend approached me the other day and asked if I crochet. She is on the committee planning a retreat for the women of our church and they want someone who can make a cute bookmark. Unfortunately, I don’t crochet. She said, “Could you learn?” I laughed at her persistence. She said, “We thought of you because you are so creative, we were sure you could be able to do it.” I really don’t have time to learn a new skill or take up a new project, so I said “No.” Fortunately, a couple of ladies sitting nearby actually do crochet. My friend talked to them, and I think everything will work out.
The thing is, I have tried to crochet, but it didn’t go very well. I have tried other things, too, but I don’t have the patience to take on another hobby. I once took a class on tatting, which is similar to crochet, and I liked it so I continued to work on it. The stitches are easy, but the patterns are complicated. I learned from my mistakes and was able to figure out how to make a small wreath shape, but I gave up soon after because I did not have the patience to learn more.
We learn from our mistakes, but I am thankful that the mistakes we make while crafting are not a matter of life and death. The same is not true of other types of mistakes. A good parent will not allow a child to make mistakes that will have lasting damage. We know they have to fail once in a while because that is how they grow and learn. We might allow them to touch something that will break, but we will not allow them to touch a hot stove. We learn to walk a fine line between allowing them to make mistakes while responsibly keeping them from harm.
I confess that I was not always good at telling my children 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. Take, for example, a hypothetical situation. Suppose a child broke something of value and hid the item to avoid being punished. One day a parent found the hidden item and sought the culprit. Most kids answer, “I don’t know.” Eventually the truth comes to light and the child finally admits to breaking the item. What is the right consequence? To me, the greater offense in this story is hiding the broken item and lying about it. When the child apologizes, he or she will be sorry about breaking the item, but are they sorry they lied? It is important that they learn that it is always better to tell the truth. My children received much sterner punishment when they lied. Saying “Sorry” is not enough. Repentance requires knowing what was wrong and turning from it. We cannot truly be reconciled to one another unless we recognize what we’ve done wrong, turn from it, and do what is right. Repentance brings change which leads to reconciliation.
We make mistakes, but as Christians we know we need to be more careful because sin is a matter of life and death. Sin leads to death, not only in this world, but also in the spiritual realm. Just as we ensure the wellbeing of our children, we are also responsible to call our neighbors to repent so that they will harm themselves or others. It is a very fine line we walk when we talk about the sins of our neighbors. Unfortunately, many people are offended when we interfere in their personal lives. Who are we to judge? 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. It could be a matter of life and death.
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, to speak His word of judgment for Israel, Judah, and the nations. In chapter 33, however, God begins to speak words of consolation. He offers hope for those who hear the words of judgment and repent. We may suffer the consequences of our sin, experience the cost of our mistakes, but God is ready with a word of consolation for us.
Like Ezekiel, we may be the one called to give that word to another. The call for repentance is the beginning of hope, a revelation of the mercy and grace of God. It isn’t easy to be the voice of God in the lives of those who don’t want to hear, and we are often afraid to call our neighbors to repentance, 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.
I often made mistakes when I was trying to discipline my children when they were younger. The biggest struggle was demanding apologies from a child who did something wrong. The problem is that children don’t always understand what they have done wrong. “Tell your sister that you are sorry,” we insist, so the child says, “Sorry.” It doesn’t take long before the child is doing the same thing, because they didn’t know why they were saying “I’m sorry.” They said the word without really being transformed by the lesson. They didn’t learn from their mistake.
There used to be shows to help parents learn good techniques for discipline. For instance, the “time out chair” gives a child time to think about what they have done. The process includes telling the child, eye to eye, the reason for their time out. “You hit your sister. That is not right. We should never hit our sister. Now, you have to sit in time out for three minutes.” After the time is complete, the parent returns to the child and asks the child to apologize not only with the word, but they should repeat what they did wrong. “I’m sorry for hitting my sister.” With this technique, the child is more likely to learn from their mistake.
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. “Sorry” is pretty easy to say, so many people would rather just admit something and get it over with rather than learn any lessons. Most people don’t want to change. True repentance is meant to bring the change that leads to reconciliation. Saying “Sorry” is never enough. Repentance requires knowing what was wrong and turning from it. We cannot 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 Gospel passage. If our brother harms 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 they have hurt us. We should do it privately at first to keep our brother from the gossips. If he (or she) refuses to hear us, then we should take another person who can testify with us about the behavior. Again, this is done privately to avoid embarrassment. If they still will not hear what we have to say, then we should take it to the church, together we can help our brother see his error and help him to be reconciled to us. If he still refuses to hear, then we should sever the relationship.
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 include a friend if our private conversation does not help. An intermediary might provide some insight into both people involved. The people of the church can provide further understanding, not only about the individuals involved, but also discerning the expectations of God. It is our task as Christians to constantly be working for reconciliation.
Jesus is the example of how we are to deal with those who hurt us. Does He abandon us when we continue to sin? Think about how He treated the pagans and the tax collectors. He calls us to repent, but also consoles us with His grace. He fights for us. Jesus came to save what was lost, like the shepherd who left the ninety-nine to find the one. Next week Jesus will shock us when He teaches often we should forgive. Over and over again we are to 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 all, working His grace.
The question of forgiveness was often part of the show “Everyone Loves Raymond.” Raymond’s family constantly intruded on their family, but it was usually Debra, his wife, who had to find the grace to forgive despite no sign of repentance. During one particular episode, Raymond’s father drove his car through their front door. Frank was never apologetic; instead, he wondered who would pay for the scratches on his car. Debra wanted him to tell his parents why he was angry, but Raymond held his tongue.
There were dozens of reasons Raymond should have gotten mad at his parents. Every show was built on their interference. They popped in to visit whenever they wanted and outstayed their welcome. They were often cruel and rude, brutally honest about how everyone else’s opinions were wrong and how they were always right. Raymond had every reason to be angry with his parents. Debra acted as a peacemaker but wanted Ray to be honest with his parents. “Tell them how you feel, Ray.” In the end, it was the wallpaper that made him explode. The problem really had nothing to do with the wallpaper. It was only the catalyst for the anger Raymond had been feeling for far too long. When he exploded, he yelled at them for all the wrong reasons.
If he had listened to Debra, he would have approached the situation with grace and self-control, but that’s not really human nature, is it? We allow our hurt and anger to well up inside, not speaking to those who have sinned against us until something insignificant makes us respond with harsh words and a violent temper. In the end, nothing is fixed. Though we might talk about forgiveness and continue in the relationship, we never get around to dealing with the root of the problem. As with children, if we don’t tell them what they’ve done wrong, they have no idea why they should be sorry.
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 His wrath and His promise. He warned Ezekiel that their blood would be on his hands if he failed to tell them the truth. Jesus gave the disciples a pattern for telling people about their sins. This pattern is considerate and merciful, keeping the speaker humble and calm while giving a course for dealing with the unrepentant. 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, but God reminds us to deal with the root causes with grace and control.
So, what did Jesus really mean when He said that we should treat those who refuse to listen as if they were not a brother or sister in Christ? Does it mean we should sever the relationship? Does it mean that we should hate our brother who has refused to repent? Does “treat him as a pagan or a tax collector” mean that we should remove them from our lives (and our church rolls) forever?
Keep in mind that the Gospel of Matthew was written by a tax collector who believed and followed Jesus. Jesus didn’t reject him even though tax collectors were considered traitors to their fellow Jews. They worked with the enemy, and they were rejected even if they did so honestly and according to the authority given to them. How did Jesus treat the pagans and tax collectors? He fought for them. He encouraged them. He healed them. He invited them into His presence. He taught them about the Kingdom of God and called them to repent. He offered His forgiveness. He does the same for us, even though we continue to sin against Him, even the disciples.
The reason began with a question for Jesus. They wanted to know who would be at His right hand when He came into His Kingdom. They wanted to understand the hierarchy, to know the pecking order. They wanted to know which one of them was most important. Jesus reminded them that the future of the Kingdom did not rest on their power or position.
I often wonder if Jesus was ever frustrated with them. They just didn’t get it. Jesus told them that He would die, so it is understandable that they wondered about the future. 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 weren’t much different than we are today; there is always a leader and followers. They wanted to know who the leader would be. They wanted to know who would have the authority. I’m not sure the disciples even saw their sin in their question.
Our biggest problem is that we are stubborn. Just as the child that apologizes without knowing what they did wrong, we seek God’s grace for all the wrong reasons while ignoring the sin in our lives. We’ll say “I’m sorry” for the things we do wrong, but we do not accept that we have sinned against God.
Children didn’t have any clout in Jesus’ day. They were 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. They were barely even people until they reached the age of maturity. They had no rights. They had no power. They certainly had no authority. It was beyond the disciples’ expectation that Jesus would choose a little child as the example in this lesson.
Jesus said, “Unless you turn, and become as little children...” What is it about children that we should emulate? They are innocent, not in legal terms, but as it relates to life. They are not cynical. They are pure, naive, 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. They are willing to risk it all to try something new and they trust that all will be well. They are willing to forgive and forget; reconciliation and restoration is natural to them. They don’t want positions of power and authority; they just want to be loved by those who can take care of them.
Jesus pulled a little child into His circle and said, “Whoever receives one such little child in my name receives me, but whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to stumble, it would be better for him that a huge millstone should be hung around his neck, and that he should be sunk in the depths of the sea.” The child knew something that the disciples still had to learn: the child loved Jesus without expectation. Jesus was the greatest and He always would be.
God does not want any to perish. We may suffer the consequences of our sin, experience the cost of our mistakes, but God is ready with a word of consolation for us. It is a hard reality, but God may call us to be like Ezekiel, to call them to repentance and to share the promise of grace. 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.
It takes the faith of a child to live this way. The Gospel lesson begins with a question from the disciples. They thought Jesus would be 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. They wanted to know which one of them was most important. Jesus turned their world upside down. Again. He told them that being the greatest had nothing to do with power or position. They needed to be like little children. Jesus refused to establish a hierarchy, and He told them that if they didn’t 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?
The disciples would have to take over the ministry one day, perhaps sooner than they wanted, but the reality is that none of them would take Jesus’ place. He did 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 children. Then Jesus warned the disciples to take care of those who are innocent, the “little ones” who trust in Him. He warned them, and us, not to lead the pure, naive, vulnerable, fearless sponges on the wrong path. “Do not cause them to sin.” By this He means, “Do not cause them to stop believing in me.” Sadly, I think we do this much too often.
This talk of repentance and faith is important because those who sin against us become a burden on our hearts and minds. Each sin against another believer can cause them to doubt Jesus. How many people refuse to become involved in a church because it is filled with a bunch of hypocrites? We know that we are sinners in need of a Savior, but our sinful attitudes and actions can push a “little one” away.
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. Blessed are those who are willing to deal with sin and reconcile with one another.
Paul wrote, “Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for he who loves his neighbor has fulfilled the law.” We are called to care for one another by helping each other live according to the Word of God. Love does not allow our brothers and sisters to continue to sin. God loves us as we are, this is very true, but 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 their lives, too.
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 make mistakes on a daily basis, but 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. Even as we are to share God’s Word with others, our brothers and sisters in Christ are called to a similar ministry to encourage us 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. We don’t have to be cynical, but can be pure, naive, 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 the unbelievable.
That’s what God wants from us. He wants us to be like little children, open to His love and grace. He wants us to be humble, and He promises that He’ll always come looking for us when we wander away. He doesn’t want anyone to be lost; He wants to bring us home. He wants us to deal with our neighbors with love, speaking His word of both Law and Gospel with grace and self-control so that we will be reconciled and so that we will all know true life. There might be a line we have to draw, a place where we have to break fellowship for the sake of others. But we must never forget that God is not limited to our side of that line, He longs for all to experience His salvation. Let’s not wait until it is too late to speak His grace into the lives of those who have turned from God, or we might just find ourselves responsible for those who have been lost. Now is the time. Are you ready to pay that debt of love?
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