Saturday, September 6, 2008

Reconciling--One Sorry Sinner At a Time

Red River and Grace Lutheran Churches, Hallock, MN
Rally Day—September 7, 2008
Matthew 18:15-20

In the name of Jesus. Amen.

Fifteen years ago a book came entitled All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten. In it author Robert Fulghum wrote: “Most of what I really need to know about how to live and what to do and how to be I learned in kindergarten….These are the things I learned:
Share everything.
Play fair.
Don’t hit people….
Clean up your own mess….
Say you’re sorry when you hurt somebody.
Wash your hands before you eat.
Take a nap every afternoon.
When you go out into the world, watch out for traffic, hold hands, and stick together.”

I’ve been thinking about those words as schools all across our land opened up for business this past week…and today as churches all across our land observe Rally Day. We’re rallying the Sunday School “troops” for another year of Christian learning.

Education, especially Christian education, is always about the basics—the stuff you’ve got to know, the skills you need to master, the fundamental steps in the Christian walk.

And so, appropriately enough, we have a gospel lesson that schools us in one of the basic arts of Christian living: the art of reconciliation.

It doesn’t get more elementary than this: If another member of the church sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone.

Dear friends in Christ, if we could master that one command of Jesus, the church would be utterly transformed. Conflict would no longer suck up all the oxygen in our church. We’d climb out of the ditches and back on the road again, pursuing God’s mission in the world.

Listen once again: If another member of the church sins…go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone.

I. Please notice three things about this first step toward reconciliation.

First, the responsibility rests with the one who is sinned against, the one who observes a sister or brother caught up in some wrongdoing. If you have a problem with a fellow Christian, it is your responsibility to deal with it.

Second, notice the verb Jesus uses: “Go!” Go and point out the fault….

Jesus doesn’t say: “Stew!”--as in “stew in your own juices for a while.”

Jesus doesn’t say: “Nurse!”--as in “nurse that grudge until you have a whole gunny sack of grievances that you’re ready to clobber the other person with.”

Jesus also doesn’t say: “Gossip!” Jesus absolutely forbids gossiping here. If we’ve got a beef with someone, we are NOT to blab it all over the place.

And here’s the third thing we need to notice about this first step. Reconciliation starts with the smallest possible group: just you and the one who has sinned. Always start small. Settle things personally, one on one, if at all possible.

II. But what if you are rebuffed? What if the other person blows you off? Now do you get to stew or climb up on your high horse and tell the whole world?

Hardly! If your first attempt at reconciliation is unfruitful, then you need some outside help. But again, start small. Take one or two others along with you, says Jesus, so that every word may be confirmed by the evidence of two or three witnesses.

This step is about a couple of things. It’s about being open to correction yourself, from others. It’s about making sure that you’re seeing, hearing, analyzing things correctly. You could be wrong—and taking a couple of other persons with you could help you see that.

And if you’re not mistaken, those one or two witnesses can assist you in impressing upon the wrongdoer the gravity of his or her sin. The goal in this second step is still to regain, to win back, your erring brother or your recalcitrant sister.

And that “regaining” is so crucial. “Regain” is a soul-winning verb, an evangelizing verb. Evangelizing isn’t just something Christians do with non-Christians. No--we are always evangelizing and re-evangelizing one another within the church of Christ!

III. OK—so what if the person who’s done you wrong still doesn’t listen to you and the witnesses you’ve brought along? Only now—only after trying steps one and two—can you tell it to the church. In our current way of organizing ourselves, you bring it to the church council—although that’s not exactly what Jesus says here.

And that brings us to a challenge that we Lutherans face in 2008. We have forgotten how to be a church that exercises a godly, salvation-seeking discipline among ourselves. It’s not even in our lived experience. We shudder even to think about excommunicating someone from the church.

No, we like to say, we’re not like those other Lutherans or those other, hard-nosed Christians. We’re tolerant. We live and let live. Or, more often in our privacy-obsessed American culture, we “keep our noses out of other persons’ business.”

But right there we get it all wrong. It IS our business to care about one another within the Body of Christ so deeply, so completely, that we risk confronting one another, we dare to speak directly to a brother or sister who is captive to some deep, grievous sin that is separating him or her from God and God’s people.

And what if—what if the whole church is unsuccessful in restoring a fallen member of the Body of Christ? If that happens, says Jesus, if the offender refuses to listen even to the church, let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax-collector.

Here we see how incredibly serious this process is. It could end in excommunication. And that clues us in to what kinds of offenses are involved here. The reconciliation of which Jesus speaks isn’t for the little things—the “foxtails and puppy sins,” as Luther liked to call them.

No, this is a reconciliation process that involves big-time sinning, flagrantly breaking one of the Ten Commandments, bringing public shame and dishonor upon the Body of Christ.

The end of this process, if it is not the regaining of the lost one in some fashion….the end of this process is a point of discernment and separation. The church must occasionally say to one of its own—“by your actions you have separated yourself from your fellow believers and from your Lord Jesus Christ.”

And if we do that—what then? Are we through with this sinner? Well, recall what Jesus did with “Gentiles and tax collectors?” They were the special objects of his compassion, his seeking and saving work. Separating from someone is when we start all over again with them—winning them for Christ, proclaiming the Good News, praying and working for their salvation.

That whole process is scary to contemplate, though—so scary that we 21st century Lutherans don’t touch it with a ten-foot pole. And that may be killing us.

Because if a church doesn’t take God’s Word seriously enough to ever consider disciplining one of its members who have gone astray from that Word….I wonder how effective that church will be at winning persons to Christ in the first place. We Lutherans may be a vanishing species because outsiders wonder whether we take God’s Word seriously enough to expect it to transform our lives.

If you and I don’t take this reconciliation business seriously, God in Jesus Christ surely does. We see that in spades in the final three verses of our gospel lesson.

First, Jesus promises us that God stands behind us in all our efforts to regain lost brothers and erring sisters in Christ. Jesus says: whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven. Our working at reconciliation, all of that has eternal consequences….and that should give us pause.

But secondly—and finally in our text--Jesus promises to roll up his sleeves and work with us. Jesus assures us that when we’re up to our necks in this messy business of seeking reconciliation—Jesus is up to his neck right there with us. For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.

This is more than just a “general truth” about Jesus’ constant presence with us. When you’re hip-deep in the soup, seeking to regain some wanderer—there, right there, Jesus walks with you in the clearest, most profound way: when you are doing Jesus’ greatest work--the work of piecing back together this whole creation, one sorry sinner at a time.

In the name of Jesus.

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