Forgiveness and Reconciliation- Sermon for September 6, 2020 from Pastor John
Sermon for September 6, 2020
Jesus began today’s gospel “If a member of the church sins against you….”; words that brought up painful memories. Years ago I remember a couple whose marriage was in trouble. Husband and wife were active in the congregation: church council, parish secretary, Sunday School teacher, and handyman who was called upon for repairs. He called me in a panic not long after New Year’s Day. He came home and found a note. His wife had left him. She was with another man and she wanted a divorce. He told me he did not believe in divorce. Counseling was attempted with professional therapists, but nothing was resolved. He would call me late at night and talk for hours about his anger, disappointment and his determination for revenge if she did not return to him. Now revenge did not mean violence, but his determination to lock her up. Serving as his own counsel he tried to have the court find her guilty of theft, regarding some money she took from the home. That did not go anywhere. The divorce would proceed with the painful decisions about custody sharing of children and the financial settlement.
Next he turned to the church for his plan to get even to some degree. He complained to me why he did not hear preaching against divorce. He wondered what happened to the commandment “You shall not commit adultery.” I was in the middle of this controversy and I ended up preaching about the sin of adultery-that if you have an affair with another while married that is adultery, plain and simple it is a sin. Afterward, the estranged wife came up to me very angry about the sermon. She told me it was as if I had slapped her in the face.
The husband was glad I preached that sermon. I was uneasy because it is difficult to preach what Luther called the “LAW”, that mirror which shows the truth about us, that we are sinners. But this guy wanted to go further, way further. He wanted the Church Council to convene as a Church Court and find her guilty of adultery, an offense that would call for her excommunication. The constitution of the church does have provision for discipline of members who live in ways contrary to the Scriptures. But the goal is always reconciliation and not expulsion. Even the Bishop was consulted who advised one could not use the constitution for one’s personal grievance. When the Church Council would not convene as some kind of Inquisition, he left the church. His estranged wife also left the church to join another. Months went by and I would occasionally visit him; he was polite but would laugh at my request that he return to church. But something happened which brought him back into the fold.
So Jesus began “If another member of the church sins against you”, and he did not wave away the matter of sin. Just before the gospel reading Jesus told the parable of the Lost Sheep. Jesus was concerned about losing those he called the “little ones”. These are the folks society may judge as not all that great, important, influential, or desirable. Jesus warned the church, ‘take care that you do not despise one of these little ones.” A shepherd with 100 sheep, upon noticing one is missing, will leave the 99 until he finds the one who went astray. Jesus concluded “It is the will of your Father in heaven that not one of these little ones should be lost.”
Jesus was well aware of the power of sin, a power that attacks the way of love for others. Jesus saw this power at work even in his closest followers, the disciples when they would argue about greatness and being first. We are very concerned about making sure our rights and privileges are met. Just think today of those who oppose wearing a mask even when proven to prevent infection. It is felt to be a violation of personal freedom. That understanding of freedom despises the little ones, those who are more vulnerable to the ravages of the Corona-virus.
We are all sinners but that is not meant to be the status quo. The power of sin in our lives can cause the church to stumble with its mission of care and compassion for society’s little ones. When people notice conflict in the church, and the way of forgiveness not taken, people can become disheartened and leave the church, or as Jesus said “go astray’. Jesus calls for reconciliation when sin works to separate us from one another. So Jesus spoke of strategies which have reconciliation as the goal. If a member of the church sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone. If the member listens to you, you have regained that one.” We understand the wisdom of talking frankly, honestly, and privately with another. Instead of gossip getting out of hand, there is the gospel as two listen to each other, and understand the truth that each is a precious human being Jesus died and rose again to redeem, forgive and save. The apostle Paul said today “do not pile up grievances but owe no one anything except to love one another.” Jesus put a stress on listening; to love another is to listen to one another.
Jesus knows human nature, and reconciliation is not always easy. Jesus counsels the help of others not to take sides but to confirm the truth. Sometimes reconciliation does not happen. If the one who hurt another does not listen in a one-on-one meeting, does not listen with others present to help facilitate the truth, then the matter is to be taken before the church. Sadly if one still refuses to listen, the person is to be regarded as a Gentile or tax collector. In the time, these were the very people the faithful should avoid. Gentiles had different religions and values and tax collectors were considered traitors. Sadly it is true some may be so stubborn they refuse to listen and change their behaviors that are causing upset and trouble in the church. Jesus became so upset with some of the religious leaders of his day, stating that they were more concerned about certain traditions than concerned about living according to the Word of God, which calls for compassion. Jesus even called such folks hypocrites, saying “Let them alone; they are blind guides of the blind.”
Sometimes reconciliation between folks does not happen and every church probably has its disappointments and scars. The apostle Paul wrote in his letter to the Romans, “If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.” But still Jesus made it clear in the Sermon on the Mount that perpetuating anger corrodes the fellowship so reconciliation is important for the health of the congregation. Remember Jesus’ words, “If you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift before the altar and go: first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift.” There is not greater gift for the church than when brothers and sisters in Christ seek to forgive one another from the heart.
We know very well what the Scriptures teach, but to live by them and do them can be met with the solid wall of resistance of the sinful human nature. So how come we haven’t ruined the church yet with our propensity to quarrel, keep track of wrongs, and insist on our own way? The church is built on the solid foundation of Jesus Christ and his promises. The Sermon on the Mount ended with “On Christ the solid rock I stand, all other ground is sinking sand.” Jesus promised his church that the gates or powers of sin and death will not prevail against it. And today we heard the promise from Jesus, “Truly I tell you, if two of you agree on earth about anything you ask, it will be done for you by my Father in heaven.” This is the promise of prayer and Jesus has taught us to pray, “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.” And isn’t it interesting that in the very next petition Jesus taught us to pray “lead us not into temptation” or ‘Save us from the time of trial.” All of us are in need of heaven’s help so we do not allow the temptation to hold grudges or despise the ‘little ones’—the poor and vulnerable, take hold of us. Jesus does not expect us to handle the challenging work of reconciliation alone promising “For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.” To help the church, his precious Body, with the challenges of reconciliation and forgiveness, Jesus promises to be in our midst, guiding us and providing the grace needed when it is difficult. I think of the beginning of the gospel and the announcement of the Savior’s birth. He will be called “Jesus because he will save his people from their sins, and he will be called Emmanuel which means “God with us.”
A man in a former congregation decided to leave because he did not get his own way. He stayed away for exactly 18 months. Then a good friend of his died unexpectedly, and he was asked by the family to deliver the eulogy at the funeral, a funeral held at the church. This man delivered a moving eulogy for his friend. After the funeral this man started to attend church regularly again. What brought him back? Perhaps the death of a friend re-orientated his priorities. Life was too short to hold a grudge and stay away from the church he truly, down deep, did not want to stay away. Life was too short to nurse a grievance when the church, through the gospel message of Jesus’ presence and compassion provides healing. The gospel speaks of the death of Jesus—what a friend we have in Jesus, all our sins and griefs to bear. The gospel speaks of the love of Jesus who draws us to receive forgiveness. The gospel speaks of Jesus resurrection, so that he is truly among us, to unify us and empower the mission of the Church, to be a people of reconciliation, peace, and love for neighbor.