Tag Archive | Romans

11th Sunday after Pentecost, 2017

11th Sunday after Pentecost, year A, preached 8/20/17

first reading:  Isaiah 56:1, 6-8

Psalm 67

second reading:  Romans 11:1-2a, 29-32

gospel reading:  Matthew 15:10-28


There have been very few times since I began preaching that I have felt compelled to speak directly to current events.  But the events of the past week, starting just over a week ago in Charlottesville, have been disturbing.  Shocking to some, but not to others.

I don’t want to talk about politics, but I DO want to talk about Jesus.

The most disgusting picture and comment I saw this past week came from a woman, who describes herself as a Christian.

She posted a picture of the protesters from last Friday night, the protesters who were carrying torches, and yelling things like, “Jews will not replace us,” “blood and soil,” and “one people, one nation, end immigration,” and the caption she added to this picture was, “Let your light so shine before others that they may see your good works and glorify your Father in heaven.”

If that sounds familiar to you, they are Jesus’ words from Matthew 5:16 – part of our baptismal liturgy.

I saw this and was left speechless, and quite frankly sick to my stomach.

So I want to talk about Jesus.  I want to talk about Jesus, and the prophet Isaiah, and St. Paul.

And I want to begin by thanking whatever move of the Holy Spirit was at work in creating the lectionary, and for these readings before us today, that seem giftwrapped for a “time such as this.” (Esther 4:14)

A time when people feel free to openly speak hate about other religions, ethnic groups and races.  A time when some say we should just stay out of it.

The word of the Lord from the prophet Isaiah, St. Paul, and Jesus himself will have none of this.

“Thus says the Lord:  Maintain justice, and do what is right.”

The Hebrew word translated “maintain” also means to “keep” or “guard.”  Keep it, tend it – guard justice – do what is right.  And by “right” the Lord doesn’t mean just what’s right for me – the Lord means do what IS RIGHT.  That means we are called to see beyond our individual interests, beyond our small circle, to do what is best, or right, for everyone.

And then what comes next.  The Lord certainly must have surprised not only Isaiah, but all of Israel.  God tells them they will not be the only ones gathered into God’s presence.

“The foreigners who join themselves to the LORD… I will bring to my holy mountain, and make them joyful in my house of prayer; for my house shall be called a house of prayer for ALL peoples…  I will gather others… besides those already gathered.”

Oh wow.  You mean it’s possible for God to love people outside our little circle?  People who don’t look like us or act like us, or come from where we’re from?

God’s answer – YES.  Which is a very good things for you and me.

In our gospel reading Jesus is confronted by a Canaanite woman.  Some people have twisted Jesus’ words to mean that calling her a “dog” meant condemning those who don’t believe in him.  He gives harsh treatment to this woman. Problem for the “twisters” is that he’s treating her harshly because she isn’t Jewish.

So if we were to place ourselves in this interchange – along with every other person who wasn’t born a Jew – WE are the dogs.

Jesus was a Jew – born of a Jewish mother, circumcised as a Jew, raised as  Jew, was condemned a Jew, died a Jew, and was buried according to Jewish law and ritual.

WE – all of us who were not born Jews and not part of the “irrevocable” promise GOD made to Abraham and his descendants – are the outsiders.

As St. Paul writes, “God has not rejected his people whom he foreknew.  The gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable.”  God does not break promises – not to the Jewish people, and not to you or me in our baptism.  People may break covenants, but God does NOT.

We are outsiders, only brought into God’s presence – God’s holy mountain – through the grace and mercy of Jesus Christ.

So how could a Christian speak hatred, not just at Jews, or blacks or Muslims, or immigrants, but to ANYONE?  It should be completely out of character.

As Jesus says in our gospel reading:  “What comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and THIS is what defiles.  For out of the heart come evil intentions, murder, adultery, fornication, theft, false witness and slander.  These are what defile a person…”

A person who has evil intentions towards another – who harbors or speaks hatred – which is a form of false witness and slander – is a defiled person.

So let’s talk about Jesus, let’s talk about Isaiah and St. Paul.  Let’s look at our readings for today and say clearly and without reservation that the belief of white supremacy or racial purity and all that it entails:  racism, anti-Semitism, hatred and discrimination of other religions and ethnicities, intolerance of other cultures – is SIN.  Plain and simple.

These things have no place in a religion whose Lord and Savior commands us to “love your neighbor,”(John 13:34) and even to “love your enemies”(Matt. 5:44).

We may not be overtly hateful like that woman who posted that picture.  But it IS part of our bondage to sin to divide ourselves at times into “us” and “them,” uncomfortable as it is to acknowledge.

So when we recognize these darker parts of ourselves, which we all have, it is our calling to confess and try again.

In the words we know so well from 1 John 1:9:  “If we confess our sins, God who is faithful and just will forgive our sins, and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.”

Or in the words of Maya Angelou:  “Do the best you can until you know better.  Then when you know better, do better.”

Or, “Thus says the Lord… do what is right.”

My manuscript says, “Amen” here, but I feel the need to add something.  I hope that my words today not only help us to examine ourselves, but also give us something to say when we’re confronted with hate around us.  So many times we get caught tongue-tied when surprised with a shocking comment or behavior.

I hope that we leave here a little more confident and prepared to meet hate and respond to it as people of faith, who follow Jesus, the Lord of love, as we sang in our opening hymn, “The King of LOVE, my shepherd is, whose goodness faileth never…”

Now I’ll say – AMEN.

 

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Third Sunday in Lent, 2017

3rd Sunday in Lent, year A, preached 3/19/17

first reading:  Exodus 17:1-7

Psalm 95

second reading:  Romans 5:1-11

gospel reading:  John 4:5-42


Have you ever boasted in suffering?  I mean, really.

I don’t know ONE person, even Jesus himself, who when suffering, has said, “Boy am I glad to be going through this! Look at me everybody – I’m suffering and ain’t it grand!”

The Israelites in our first reading certainly weren’t boasting in their suffering.  In fact, they were a whiny bunch.  The Lord had brought them out of bondage, but that wasn’t enough.  The Lord had given them manna from heaven to eat, and THAT wasn’t enough.  You’d think after all that they would trust that God would somehow take care of their thirst, but no.  They bitterly complained, so that Moses was afraid for his life!  No boasting there.

And there was no boasting from the Samaritan woman at the well either.  It’s clear from Jesus that she has seen her share of suffering.  Whether her reputation was sullied by questionable behavior, or whether she suffered as a childless widow being passed as a possession from brother to brother, her life wasn’t easy.  She’s got no time for boasting about anything.  She’s going about her daily business, trying to survive.

Boasting about suffering?  I don’t think so.  But at first glance that’s what it seems we’re expected to do in our second reading.  And not only that, there’s the part where St. Paul seems to tell us that suffering is GOOD for us – it produces endurance, then character, then hope.

So is the line of thought, boast in your suffering because suffering is good for you, because it will make you stronger and give you hope?

One could argue that surviving suffering makes us stronger, sure – but to have that give us hope?  It seems illogical and cruel.

I’ve never really liked our second reading for today because it’s been used to glorify suffering.  Masters have used it against slaves; abusers against those they abuse; the sick asked to be glad for their sickness.  It’s one of those verses that, when taken out of context, can cause all kinds of unnecessary pain and suffering for people.

But if St. Paul isn’t telling us to just lay down in our suffering – take it and be glad for it – what IS he telling us?

Well, because St. Paul is often quite wordy, a man whose thoughts often went in circles rather than straight lines we have to read SLOWLY.  And sometimes it even helps to draw pictures!*

Through Jesus Christ we are justified and have peace and grace.  This gives us hope – the hope we have of sharing the glory of God.  THIS is our starting point for EVERYTHING.

Now… it is because of this hope, that we can even begin to boast in our suffering.

You notice these verses begin with hope and end with hope – with suffering in between.  This hope, the hope which justification and peace and grace give us, carries us through suffering.

In fact, Paul is saying something quite extraordinary to all those who think faith is the cure-all for everything – those who would argue that as Christians we should be happy all the time or something is wrong or lacking in our faith. Paul acknowledges the reality of suffering in life, EVEN for those who have faith.  It is THIS hope which allows us to boast, even in suffering.

You see, the boasting isn’t in the suffering itself, as if suffering were some wonderful thing – the boasting is in knowing that our suffering doesn’t separate us from God.  Even when we suffer, God is still close to us.  Even when we suffer, we are still able to have hope through Jesus Christ.  Now that IS something to boast about.

The hope given to us through our justification in our Lord Jesus Christ – the peace and grace we have “obtained” through him – give us hope and keep us in hope through all the trials that come our way, because hope does not disappoint us.

So the boasting isn’t some prideful “tooting my own horn” at my trials.  It isn’t some martyr complex, LOOKING for suffering.  It isn’t some formula by which we are KEPT in suffering and told to like it.

It’s being held firm in Jesus’ love for us, knowing he is with us through our suffering.  It’s that Jesus gives us the endurance and character to make it through, even when we’re not sure how we can make it another day.

This endurance and character is even the permission we have to stand against that which brings us suffering!  Those who deal in injustice COUNT ON us not getting this part of it – what a shock when we do.  When we stand up to bullies and say, “Because Jesus loves me I can say ‘no more!'”

“For while we were still weak,” St. Paul writes…  “while we still were sinners Christ died for us.”  “While we were enemies, we were reconciled to God through the death of his Son…”

This is where it begins.  This is the foundation.  “While we were still weak… sinners… enemies… we were reconciled…”

THIS is our justification through Jesus.  THIS is the justification, the reconciliation that brings us peace and the “grace in which we stand.”

When St. Paul writes about boasting in suffering he means that even in our suffering we still have Jesus, and Jesus will be with us through it.

So we aren’t expected to say, “Guess what?  I have cancer!  Isn’t that great!”  What we can say is, “I have cancer.  But even though I have cancer I know that God loves me and Jesus died for me and is with me to help me through this. Thank God!”

There is a HUGE difference between the two.  We could never say the first, but we are blessed to say the latter.

AMEN.


*My attempt to draw out Paul’s thinking  

2nd Sunday of Advent, 2016

2nd Sunday of Advent, year A, preached 12/4/16

first reading:  Isaiah 11:1-10

Psalm 72:1-7, 18-19

second reading:  Romans 15:4-13

gospel reading:  Matthew 3:1-12


Way back when I was in seminary, my dear friend, Violet, preached a sermon whose main point has stayed with me for over 20 years now.

She began her sermon by talking about “four letter words,” and their power.  She got a few chuckles, including from me, because Lord knows there have been times in my life when nothing else seems to fit a situation except a four letter word or two.

But then Violet shocked all of us, when she said the four letter word she was think of – the four letter word that hold such great power is… HOPE.  HOPE wasn’t even in the top ten list of four letter words I was thinking of!

What Violet was illustrating is exactly what our readings today also show us – that in the midst of very trying, practically impossible circumstances, HOPE is the power that gets us through.

hope1In our first reading we have a vision of hope despite a bleak reality.  The prophet imagines the shoot coming out of the dead stump of Jesse – King David’s line will be restored, and what a wonderful time that will be.  The peaceable kingdom as it’s popularly called.  The wolf and the lamb, the leopard and the kid, the calf and the lion, the cow and the bear, all living together; little children playing with snakes – no more pain or destruction.

Our psalm is a prayer of hope for an earthly king who will bring justice, who shall “defend the needy” and “rescue the poor and crush the oppressor.”  A prayer that under this king “the righteous flourish” and “there shall be abundance of peace.”

Our second reading from Romans speaks it plainly.  St. Paul even uses hope as a blessing:  “May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that you may abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.”

He wrote these words to a community with struggles from within and without.  The Jewish Christians and Gentile Christians were having a hard time accepting one another.  It wouldn’t be the first time a church has suffered from factions within.

Yet, in the midst of their division, Paul reminds them that the scriptures were given to us so that “we might have hope,” and that our God is a “God of hope.”  His wish for those in the Roman church, is that these competing factions “welcome one another” and “abound in hope.”

The hope in the gospel is less clear.  When we look at the surface of it we see a lot of judgment.  John the Baptist calling the religious leaders poisonous snakes, and warnings about the wheat and the chaff.  I see hope here in John’s warning for the big shots not to be presumptuous.  We are ALL called to repentance.  No one is better than another.

You and I have as much right (or NO right) to God as the richest tycoon or the holiest saint.  I don’t know about you, but that gives me a LOT of hope.  Through faith, through repentance, through our baptism into Jesus, I, a poor penitent sinner receive grace and mercy.  Our pedigree or social station has no bearing on whether we are “good enough” or NOT “good enough” for the kingdom of heaven.

When confronted with the times, it would have been easy for our biblical writers and prophets to despair.  And certainly in the Bible there are those moments – and sometimes the moments last for DECADES.  But despair does NOT prevail.

HOPE is a four letter word in the face of despair.  Instead of capitulating or simple cursing our circumstances, hope speaks a TRUTH to those circumstances.  Hope looks at reality and says, “Yes, I acknowledge you, but I will not give IN to you.”  THIS is the power that hope has – the power to carry us.

hope3

When seen this way, hope is one of the ultimate acts of defiance.  Hope is resistance.  Hope gives us strength to carry on and to ACT.  This is what we mean when we say hope is a four letter word.

We look at the growing darkness around us.  Winter is fast approaching.  The solstice is in a few weeks, when we will experience the “shortest” or “darkest” day of the whole year.  Into this darkness comes the child of hope.  The one of whom John the Baptist spoke – more powerful than him, or any one of us.

This hope is THE light that shines in the darkness, THE light the darkness cannot overcome.

THIS hope, gives US hope.  This hope lifts us up when we are weak and breathes in us the power of the Holy Spirit. This hope gives us hope even when we know we will fail.  This hope gives us the strength to even work for a thing that we know we will never see.  This hope has given people through the centuries courage to stand up against all odds – martyrs, prophets, teachers – all regular believers who had hope.

It’s so easy to find that perfect four letter word to curse.  But for God, the perfect four letter word is word that actually brings energy and passion and a vision for justice and righteousness – the peaceable kingdom, the righteous king, the ability to “with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.”

How could the people in the prophet Isaiah’s time have imagined a new king from the dead line of David?  How could the psalmist dare imagine a king who would defend the poor and needy?  How could Paul possibly think the Jewish and Gentile Christians would find a way to live together?

How can we, you and I, find a way to make it through all the challenges that come OUR way from within and without?

We see the coming baby in the manger, the savior on the cross, the risen Lord for US – and we have HOPE.

AMEN.

The Holy Trinity, 2016

The Holy Trinity, year C (preached 5/22/16)

first reading:  Proverbs 8:1-4, 22-31

Psalm 8

second reading:  Romans 5:1-5

gospel reading:  John 16:12-15


I know I say this every year, but just a reminder that this day, Trinity Sunday, is the only feast day we Lutherans have the celebrates a DOCTRINE of the Church.  All the other feast days we have in our calendar celebrate events, like Easter, or people, like St. Luke.  Trinity Sunday is our only doctrinal Sunday.

The Holy Trinity.  It is the way we describe God – our belief that there is ONE God, yet one God in THREE PERSONS:  Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

And it’s easy for pastors to fall into the trap of using this day to try to “explain” the Trinity.  Only trouble can come from that.  We can describe the Trinity – we do every time we say “Father, Son and Holy Spirit,” but to explain it, to define it, is like trying to know the mind of God.  It can’t be done.

It’s like trying to explain exactly how Jesus is “in, with and under” the bread and wine of Holy Communion – how splashing someone with water that has been blessed gives them forgiveness and make them God’s child.  Can’t be done.

There are some things that just can’t be fully explained.  This doesn’t mean we don’t play around with it, to describe what we know as best we can.  Faith certainly doesn’t demand ignorance of blind obedience. Our life as disciples is one of life-long learning and growing and questioning and pondering and even doubting in our relationship with the Trinity.

Yet, we should always admit that much of faith can be described in one loaded word:  MYSTERY.

It’s part of human nature to rebel against mysteries.  We like ANSWERS.  We want to KNOW beyond a shadow of a doubt.  About the only time we like a mystery is when it’s a story – the kind that are neatly summed up at the end – Sherlock Holmes saves the day.  We close the book, or get to the end of the movie, feeling perhaps surprised, but satisfied.

But life is seldom resolved so neatly.  And if life isn’t so neat, then why should we expect that from faith?

To bring in another Bible passage, when I think of the Holy Trinity, I think of 1 Corinthians 13:12:  “For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face.  Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known.”

It’s not that we don’t know anything.  We can know a little, we can see bits here and there, and we have faith for the rest.  Those who, in their wisdom, crafted the lectionary, gave us some wonderful examples of the Holy Trinity today.

In Proverbs we learn about the work of God in creation – “before the beginning of the earth… before the mountains were shaped…”  That God, “established the heavens… the fountains of the deep… assigned to the sea its limit…”

In Psalm 8, the writer expresses joy, praising God for creation:  “all flocks and cattle, even the wild beasts of the field, the birds of the air, the fish of the sea…”  Then the writer asks the question that I have found myself asking at times, usually when I’m looking out over the ocean:  “What are mere mortals that you should be mindful of them, human beings that you should care for them?”

This is how we often think of God the Father – as we say in the Nicene and Apostles’ Creeds – the “creator of heaven and earth.”

In our second reading from St. Paul’s letter to the Romans we learn about the work of God in justifying us and giving us peace and hope through the work of God the Christ.  We are “justified” through Jesus, we have “peace” and “grace” with God “through our Lord Jesus Christ.”  “We boast in our hope” – the hope we find in Jesus.  This hope is SO strong that we even are able to “boast in our sufferings.”  It is a hope born through God’s love – a suffering sacrificial love that was shown us in Jesus.

This is how we often think of God the Son – the one who for us and for our salvation, suffered, was crucified, died, and rose again.¹

And in the gospel reading Jesus the Christ speaks to us about God the Spirit – the HOLY Spirit.  Jesus calls the Spirit, “the Spirit of truth,” who will guide us “into all the truth.”  The Spirit “will speak whatever [the Spirit] hears” and “glorify” Jesus.  In last week’s gospel, Jesus told us the Spirit would also “teach” us everything, and “remind” us of all that he said.²

This is how we often think of God the Holy Spirit – the one who guides us and sustains our life in faith; who we confess in the Nicene Creed as “the giver of life, who proceeds from the Father and the Son… who has spoken through the prophets.”

All these wonderful ways we think of God, and believe in God, are accurate – but still run a certain danger…  because the Son and Spirit are ALSO WITH the Father in creation; the Father and Spirit are ALSO WITH the Son in justification; and the Father and Son are ALSO WITH the Spirit in guiding and teaching.

Three distinct persons, yet ONE God.  How Jesus is present in creation I don’t know.  How the Father is present in the teaching I don’t know.  How the Spirit is present in Jesus’ suffering I don’t know.

But somehow, in this wonderful frustrating mystery of the Holy Trinity, all three are separate, yet together, at all times and in all places.

symbol for the Holy Trinity

Forming heaven and earth, for you and me.  Walking, eating, sleeping, suffering, dying, rising, for you and me. Guiding, teaching, and speaking truth – for you and me.

AMEN.


¹Nicene Creed

²John 14:26

Day of Pentecost, 2016

Day of Pentecost, year C (preached 5/15/16)

first reading:  Acts 2:1-21

Psalm 104:24-34, 35b

second reading:  Romans 8:14-17

gospel reading:  John 14:8-17, 25-27


Pentecost, He Qi

Pentecost, He Qi

Pentecost is one of the oldest feast days we have in the Christian calendar.  It was a Jewish holiday, commemorating the wheat harvest, and then became a festival celebrating the giving of the Torah by God to Moses.  So when we read, “When the day of Pentecost had come…” we are getting a glimpse of the life not only of the baby church, but of the life of the Jewish community as well.

But after the giving of the Holy Spirit, “Pentecost” took on a new meaning.   For us it is a day to remember the beginning of the apostles’ public ministry.  It is a day to remember the outpouring of the promised Holy Spirit.  It is a joyous day.  We get out the red paraments, we get out our red clothes (and in my case even my red shoes!), but other than saying, “Yeah!  It’s Pentecost!”  What does this day mean?

It’s Pentecost.  So what?

Do we celebrate this day just to remember some even of long ago, with no connection to our life of faith now?  If so, then that’s a shame.  If so, it’s like celebrating something that’s dead.

Each generation, indeed each one of us as Christians, is called to find meaning RIGHT NOW in these events.  For what good does it do us to celebrate Pentecost, or Christmas, or Easter, if they have no meaning for us in the here and now.

On Tuesday at pastor’s Bible study, we spent a lot of time talking about this.  It’s a HUGE part of our life of faith – indeed what makes it a “living” faith as the pastor prays in the communion liturgy – to find meaning for ourselves in these old events.

So how do we find meaning in Pentecost?  How do we connect the dots between this 1st century happening and our 21st century lives?

Don’t feel bad if you can’t immediately answer these questions.  In fact, maybe at one point in your life you had them answered perfectly, but now you wonder.  That’s okay, because even our biblical forefathers and mothers wondered, pondered and questioned.

Peter had to work hard to explain how the Holy Spirit was working that day of Pentecost – as we read that some were amazed and perplexed, while others were sneering.  Our psalmist is praising God for creation, but also contemplating the meaning of creatures like the sea monster, Leviathan.  (I often wonder about the mosquito!)  Paul, in our second reading, is exploring what it means to be “children of God” and how the Spirit joins us to God.

In our gospel reading, Jesus had just shared his now famous words about there being many rooms in the Father’s house, and that “From now on you do know [the Father] and have seen him.”  But Philip is unsure.  He needs more. “Lord, show us the Father, and we will be satisfied.”

If our biblical forefathers and mothers wondered, pondered and questioned, then it’s more than alright for us to do as well.  So – back to my questions.  How do we find meaning in Pentecost?  How do we connect the dots between this 1st century happening and our 21st century lives?

Peter used the prophet Joel’s “old” words to help HIM and the crowd understand what was happening in THEIR present.  We too can use these “old” words in front of us to help US find meaning in, or understand, OUR present.

Jesus tells us quite a bit about the Holy Spirit in our gospel for today.  He calls the Holy Spirit “another Advocate.”  This Advocate he also calls the “Spirit of truth” who abides with us and IN us.  Jesus also tells us the Holy Spirit will “teach” us and “remind” us.

These things were true then, and they are true now.  Pentecost didn’t just happen 2,000 years ago.  Pentecost is happening today, among us, WITH us and IN us through Holy Baptism.

YOU and I “HAVE” the Holy Spirit within us, the spirit of God, the spirit of truth, through whom we are adopted children of God.

This Holy Spirit, OUR Holy Spirit, is WITH and IN us as individuals and as a community to teach us and help us remember.

The Holy Spirit may not manifest itself over our heads with flames, and many times we don’t realize the Spirit’s work in the present.  For me, it’s usually in retrospect that I can see how the Spirit was indeed working in my life.  So just because we may not “feel” it sometimes doesn’t mean it’s not there.  Jesus promised us the Spirit, and he doesn’t break promises.

So the Holy Spirit teaches us and reminds us – the Holy Spirit LEADS us.  St. Paul says this much in our second reading, “For all who are led by the Spirit…”  He goes on to say that since we are led by this spirit we “are children of God,” that we “have received a spirit of adoption.”

When someone is adopted, it is almost always initiated by a parent motivated through love.  Adoption is also a legally binding contract,just as meaningful as being a birth parent.  In fact, just two weeks ago in the tv show “Grey’s Anatomy” there was a custody battle, and the ADOPTIVE parent won over the birth parent.

God has made a covenant with us that we can never fully describe or understand – this covenant of adoption through Jesus’ death and resurrection, and in Holy Baptism that makes us God’s children – and through the gift of the Holy Spirit, poured out on those first disciples, and poured out on you and me.

It’s Pentecost.  So what?  I’ll tell you what.

Today is a day to celebrate God’s promise to you and me NOW, that God is with us JUST as powerfully as God was with those first disciples.

Praise God!  The Holy Spirit is WITH, IN and AMONG us still – teaching, reminding and leading us, all our days.

AMEN.

13th Sunday after Pentecost, 2014

13th Sunday after Pentecost, year A, 2014 (preached September 7, 2014)

first reading:  Ezekiel 33:7-11

Psalm 119:33-40

second reading:  Romans 13:8-14

gospel reading:  Matthew 18:15-20


In our gospel reading this morning Jesus lays out the first plan for church discipline.  It’s a good one, one that we use in the ElCA’s constitution, but it can be approached in completely different ways, depending on one’s attitude.

First of all, we could approach it with a legal attitude.

The steps Jesus gives us are complete.  They build upon one another.  They build a mountain of evidence, and create lots of witnesses.  The offender has little basis for appeal, because the community would have used proper measures for dismissal, and would be able to demonstrate that.  Lawyers would love it.

But is this passage really about the proper steps taken for dismissal, or is it about something deeper, more profound – something unexpected by our standards of thinking?  I believe so.

The other way to approach this passage is that it’s about the back-breaking, sweat-producing work of reconciliation and love.  It’s not about the methods used to throw someone OUT – it’s about trying till it hurts to keep someone IN.

Certainly, for the good of the Church some may need to go, or as Jesus says, be regarded as a Gentile or a tax collector, but even THEN, his choice of words tells us a great deal.

How did Jesus regard Gentiles and tax collectors?  He prayed for them, ate with them, healed them, taught them the gospel – he loved them.  And one of those tax collectors – Matthew – was even called by Jesus to be a disciple!

This is the way I believe we need to view our gospel passage, not from a legalistic attitude, but from an attitude of love.

And how do we know this?  From looking at Jesus’ actions and from the overall message of the gospel, and from how God’s Word is brought to us today in the other readings.

Look at our first reading from the prophet Ezekiel.  God has given Ezekiel a special calling to warn Israel of their sins, and the outcome if they don’t repent.  God says, “I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that they turn from their ways and live.”  The word “warn” appears three times in the reading.  the phrases “turn around” and “turn back” appear 5 times!  God uses Ezekiel to reach out to the people and save them – to go the extra mile.

Many times the Israelites didn’t heed the warnings of God through the prophets.  But did God shut them out?  Did God give up on them?  No.  When they returned to the Lord, the Lord accepted them back.  God did not break the promises that God made to the people.  God was, and IS, always waiting and willing and WANTING to forgive and bring us back into fellowship.

This is also illustrated in our second reading.  Here St. Paul tells us to love one another, and that love does no wrong to a neighbor.  We hear words of warning, “Lay aside the works of darkness.”  But we are also given the alternative, “Put on the armor of light….  Put on the Lord Jesus Christ.”  In other words, imitate the Lord in love.  Paul echoes the teaching of Jesus when he tells us, “Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore love is the fulfillment of the Law.”

THIS is how we approach our gospel reading.  This is how we approach discipline in our homes and in our community of faith.  With Jesus’ attitude of love.  With the goal of reconciliation ever before us.

In commenting on this passage, New Testament scholar Robert Smith states, “Falling [in sin] is a terrible thing, and leaders had better be working to catch and hold rather than to throw or push” (Augsburg Commentary on the New Testament: Matthew.  Augsburg Publishing House, 1989.  p. 221).  Through Holy Baptism, we become brothers and sisters in Christ, and Christ wants to make sure that we don’t give up on each other too easily.

Just like in any biological family, we have problems, personality conflicts, and will at times have someone who will cause conflict and be destructive to our mission and existence.  I know of families who have had to “cut off” a family member, or people who have “cut themselves off” from their families, in order to be healthy.

There may be people who seem to thrive and take pleasure in causing chaos or even pain.  Some people are downright abusive and dangerous.  There ARE times when we have to divorce ourselves from someone.

But we need to remember there’s a difference between removing a dangerous or abusive person, and wanting to get rid of someone simply because we don’t get along with them.  There’s a difference between “sinning against,” and winning or losing an argument over an idea or project.

As Christians we follow the example of Jesus, that loving the neighbor is our way of life – and that exclusion from the community be a drastic option of last resort, not done lightly or on the whim or political agenda of a few.  Again, it’s not about the methods used to throw someone OUT – it’s about trying till it hurts to keep someone IN.

If we have this attitude, it will also make it easier when it’s OUR turn at being the one who has sinned – and we ALL have our turn.  We like to think of ourselves as the OBJECT of sinning rather than the one who commits it.  But none of us is perfect, and whenever we want to point a finger, remember that there are plenty of people who could point a finger at us.

So we have this passage, and others like it, to guide us, but always from a place of love.

For everything we do, every decision we make, is guided by the One who gave us the “new commandment” to “love one another, as I have loved you” (John 13:34-35).

AMEN.