by Elaine Maust
September 7, 2008
If you had only three years to explain the deep mysteries of God, how would you communicate them? How about a multimedia campaign? Maybe overwhelming TV coverage like we saw during the Olympics or the democratic and republican conventions?
Well, you know what Jesus did? He wandered around the countryside telling stories. Really.
He brought the astounding Good News that the Kingdom of Heaven had come, here on earth and that any mortal could be a part of it. And get this! What’s more, human people could talk to God; even ask God for that they needed. And if that isn’t enough, there was personal transformation in the package.
And how did Jesus let people know about this mind boggling good news? He told a story about a guy who planted a garden and then was mystified at how it grew. He told a story about a woman who lost a coin and swept the house to find it. He told a story about a man who beat on his neighbor’s door in the middle of the night to ask for bread for an unexpected visitor.
Jesus doesn’t break things down in the style of some North American preachers. Usually there are no three points and seldom any “how tos.” Jesus seemed totally unencumbered with the need to explain himself. He would tell a fabulous story about a man who went out and planted a pasture and seeds flew everywhere. Afterward his disciples came to him and said, “Ah Teacher, ah, don’t think we got that one, could you break it down for us?” And then he said, “Okay guys, it’s like this, the seed is the word of God…” Wonder if they got it even then
Jesus was notorious for teaching with authority. But much of the time Jesus never bothered to explain himself. He must have been the creator of discovery learning. He trusted the listeners and the Holy Spirit to figure it out. He’s given us 2000 years to puzzle over the poetry of exactly what he had in mind when he said, “Blessed are the poor in spirit” or “Ye are the light of the world.”
Sometimes when Duane reads my sermons, he says, “I think you need to tell them what in the world is the point of this story.” And I launch into my Jesus didn’t bother to tack, “And the moral of the story is…” on the end of his stories like a favorite cartoon from my childhood did. And when I reach the satisfying conclusion to that sermonette, Duane tells me, “And just as soon as your stories are as good as Jesus’ then you won’t have to explain yourself either.”
And then we have passages like this one today. In uncharacteristic clarity, Jesus is as direct as the Mississippi sun in August. It feels just a little too bright and clear and hot to be completely comfortable. So much so, in fact that we are tempted to turn our heads and say, “Ah Jesus, we think we liked it better when we could pretend we didn’t understand. Would you please tell us another story?”
Turn with me to Matthew 18, our Lectionary passage for today, and you’ll see what I’m talking about. Are you ready for this?
Matthew 18 begins with a section on humility. “Who is the greatest,” the disciples frequently wondered. Perhaps the unspoken question is, “Am I the greatest?” Jesus invites a little child into the circle (v 2) and clears things up, (v3) “…you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” much less be greatest in it.
The next section (10-14) is the story of a man who had a flock of 100 sheep. And one goes missing. Jesus asks, “Will he not leave the 99 on the hills and go to look for the one that wandered off”? Every self respecting farmer in the crowd that day and in this congregation knows the answer. Of course he will! No farmer would say, “Ah well, I’ve got 99 other sheep. Who cares about one that’s difficult any way. No off he goes looking for the one that is missing. Do you think the other 99 sheep felt neglected?
So what is this story about? Jesus helps us with the meaning of this one, (14)
And that’s the backdrop for our key lectionary passage for today. We begin with humility and then move into God’s bottom line, not willing for any to be lost.
Then come the clear eyed point by point instructions on how to deal with brokenness in the church family.
I say, “family” because the language is family language. (v15) “If your brother sins…” It is reassuring somehow that Jesus knows we will sin and that offenses will come. That God is prepared for this and offers a plan. And here we have it. How to deal with an offense.
1) Personal Private Conversation (15)
How simple is that? But we know it is tough. “Point out the fault,” that seems very direct, doesn’t it?
If someone does something that offends us or if we see them making bad choices, we may be more likely to; tell someone else, fight with the offender, let it go, or brood over it and get madder and madder… What a revolutionary concept, going to the person directly and talking to them.
But it’s tough, isn’t it? I don’t want my brother or sister to be mad at me. I may be afraid of confrontation. I may not trust myself.
It is easier to fight or run, what I call the two sides of the cowardice coin. But Jesus teaches us to be peacemaker. When there is a problem, when someone sins, when we have been offended, we go personally and privately and speak to the issue.
Interpreters says, “A friend is to go to the offender, thus making the first advance. His purpose is not to humiliate or condemn, but to gain a brother…”
If the member listens, hallelujah. Case closed. Restoration! But what if the person won’t listen? Then what?
2) Take Someone with You (16)
In step two we have another go at it. We don’t refuse to ever speak again to the person we are in conflict with. No. We try again. We don’t just go tell someone else, we ask someone to help us talk to the person concerned. Always, the goal is reconciliation. This isn’t about who is right. The Believer’s Commentary says, “In confronting sin, we are not called to act as crusaders or prosecutors, but as sisters and brothers seeking whole relationships with every member of the family.”
3) Take it to the Church (17)
So your sister or brother is going the wrong way and you are worried. You went to them, “hey man, we need to talk about this” and he wouldn’t listen. You took someone with you and gave it another try. Nothing. Now what? (17) Tell it to the church.
And if the person still resists, then they are to be treated as tax collectors or pagans. Folks clearly outside of the family, but those for whom Jesus had compassion and offered invitation. You remember the story of Zacchaeus.
Jesus acknowledges that there will always be situations that will not work out well. People won’t always respond. There are people who we need to separate ourselves from. This is not most people!
Menno Simons, an early Mennonite leader who the Mennonite church was named for, wrote, “We do not want to expel any, but rather to receive; not to amputate, but rather to heal; not to discard, but rather to win back; not to grieve, but rather to comfort; not to condemn, but rather to save.”
So there you have the clear teaching of Jesus in the case of sin and conflict in the family. Go to the person yourself, take someone with you, take it to church leadership. This could have been part of our Red Letter Edition series. The words of Jesus.
Our baptism vows include the pledge to “give and receive counsel in the congregation.” When I came into the church I promised to work this plan. Two weeks ago, these words were part of the questions asked of those being baptized. Will you give and receive counsel, will you go to your sister or brother, will you listen when others come to you? How will you live this out in the groups you are part of at Jubilee? The trustees, Mom’s Group, the Youth Group, your Sunday School class…
Many of you could tell stories of damage done in churches by unresolved conflict or by gossip. Maybe you have been the victim of the same. Brothers and sisters of Jubilee, I beg you to go directly to the person you have the problem with and begin by talking with them with the goal of restoring their relationship to God, to the church and to you.
But wait, Jesus is still talking (v18). Sometimes you have heard me pray, “Lord forgive the sins we have committed. Forgive the sins that have been committed against us.” The church, all of us, Jubilee, we have the authority to forgive sins, to release people from judgment and restore them to fellowship.
Look at verses 19-20. You may have heard these words about two or three gathering in Jesus name and Jesus being with them. Did you know this was the context? This restoration program, this sin forgiving?
Even Peter got this one. Don’t you just love this guy? Peter hears this teaching and gets the point about forgiveness and restoration. And Peter, wanting to make sure he was covered says, (21).
Jesus says, (22) 77 times or 70 x 7. Who keeps count of offenses and forgiving that long? By the time one gets to 490 it doesn’t really matter which way the toothpaste tube is squeezed. Right? Peter thought he was being generous to forgive someone seven times. We know the feeling, don’t we?
Then Jesus tells another one of his great stories… (tell 23-34) “The Kingdom of heaven is like…”
And this time, Jesus tells us exactly what he means, “So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive each other from the heart.” This is reminiscent of the phrase from the Lord’s Prayer, “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.”
As the back of today’s bulletin says, “we are average members of an average congregation with our average sins.” I tell people, “the folks at Jubilee are just normal people. But they are good hearted to a person. However, if you hang around long enough and you will probably get your feelings hurt.” We are just regular folks. But when brokenness happens, we will work it out.
We may be just average people, but if we forgive with God’s generosity, if we focus on how to restore, if we keep going out to find the one who strays away, we will be above average.
Jesus said, “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called the children of God.
Brothers and sisters,
if you will love God before all things,
in the power of God’s Word,
will you be subject to God’s will;
then let each say:
If you will love and serve your neighbors,
and lay down your life
in the power of our Lord Jesus Christ,
who laid down his life for us,
then let each say:
If you will practice mutual admonition toward
your brothers and sisters,
speak and hear the truth,
make peace with those whom you have offended,
cease what causes harm to your neighbors,
and do good to your enemies,
then let each say:
If you desire to confirm before the church
this pledge of love,
By eating the bread and drinking the cup,
The living memorial of the death of Jesus, our Lord,
Then let each say;
I desire it in the power of God.
Adapted from Minster’s Manual