Sermon for the 14th Sunday after Pentecost (Lectionary 23A)
Sunday, September 6, 2020
Trinity Lutheran Church, Worcester, Massachusetts

Watch Here (Minute 21:55)

In the name of Jesus. Amen.

It seems as if these days, there are forces working extra hard to pull us apart:  

  • Covid-19 has kept us apart – weddings, funerals, vacation plans, normal daily tasks and interactions have all been cancelled or modified as we’ve maintained physical distance.
  • Political life has divided us – we are divided as a country, divisions and animosities we see played out on the national stage seep down into interpersonal relationships, even longtime friends suddenly find themselves on opposite sides of arguments and disruptive behaviors.
  • Technology has driven us apart – Confirmation Bias, the phenomenon which leads us to seek out information that confirms our opinions, rather than challenges us, leads us to use technology to access news, information, and opinions that all confirm what we want to hear, and to tune out and discard information that challenges and confronts us.   

On this Labor Day weekend, as we pivot from the summer into an uncertain fall, these are just some of the forces working to pull us apart. However, this is NOT the work of God.  God’s work, revealed in Jesus Christ and in the power of the Holy Spirit, is forgiveness, reconciliation, and relationship.  God works to pull us together into the beloved community of the Church.

Our scripture readings this morning proclaim this work. For the sake of community, for the sake of renewed and invigorated relationships as church and country, God’s Word in the scriptures today invite us to do three things: to SPEAK, REPENT, and LOVE.

For the sake of our life together, we are called to SPEAK against sin.  In our first reading, Ezekiel was appointed by God a sentinel for the house of Israel, to speak to God’s children, to warn them about their sin. Ezekiel himself was warned that he himself would bear the consequences if he failed to speak: “if you do not speak to warn the wicked to turn from their ways the wicked shall die, BUT their blood I will require at your hand!” (Ezekiel 33:8)

What’s interesting, is that Ezekiel was only called to speak, he was not responsible for the people’s response. “If you warn the wicked to turn from their ways, and they do not,” Ezekiel was promised, … the wicked shall die, but you will have saved your life.” (Ezekiel 33:9) Ezekiel’s message was public: he was commissioned to speak against the house of Israel.

In our Gospel reading, we also hear a command to speak against sin, but this time the message is personal – beginning with a 1-on-1 conversation.  “If another member of the church sins against you,” our Gospel reading begins, “go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone …”

Thus begins a process that is still used today, and is, what I believe, the only scripture written into the constitution of this congregation and of congregations in the Lutheran Church.  If a member has sinned, we are charged to go to that person 1-on-1, if they don’t listen, take 2 or 3 others, if the person still doesn’t listen, take them before the community. 

Both of these readings commission us with the responsibility to speak against sin.  I wonder in the same way Ezekiel was warned about failing to speak against sin, that this warning is spoken to us, if we stay silent about the sin we see in our lives? 

But, how does speaking against sin pull us together as community? Speaking against sin, especially in those we know and love, can seem messy, painful, and the truth that we know from our own experience, is that when you confront people with hard and difficult truths, they often just walk away, resign, leave? Won’t we piss people off, and hurt community, if we tell them what they are doing is wrong?

Theologian Carol Dempsey writes: “Although this seems somewhat foreboding, God’s warnings to the people are all experiences of grace and part of the divine plan of salvation. The text makes clear that God’s will is for reconciliation and not devastation, but Ezekiel’s community members have to do their part at reforming their ways.”

Think of it this way, if a coach does not instruct her players on something they are doing wrong and is hurting the team, they will continue doing it. Can you imagine a football coach saying, “It’s ok to run the wrong route and be in the wrong place – no big deal?” Or choir conductor saying, “It’s ok to come in 5 measures too early for your solo – no big deal?”  

For the sake of the community, correction is spoken.  For the sake and the health of community, sin is named, identified, and corrected.  Especially when sin is harmful and damaging, speaking against sin is a loving, life-affirming, and healing thing to do – even for the sake of the sinner!

What helps us speak against sin in loving and healing ways, is that for the sake of our life together, we are called to REPENT. We are called to listen, hear, and repent when others speak a word about our sin. 

The message Ezekiel spoke to the people contained this: Say to them, As I live, says the Lord God, I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that the wicked turn from their ways and live; turn back, turn back from your evil ways; for why will you die, O house of Israel?” Ezekiel 33:11

Professor Troy Troftgruben writes: “Here and throughout Israel’s prophetic tradition, words of judgment aim not to condemn, but to provoke repentance and restoration. God takes no pleasure in the death of anyone – period.”

The process for confronting sin spelled out in the Gospel reading today gives sinners three opportunities to repent and to be restored to community. It was not a “one and done” situation.  Confrontation was not about dismissing someone from community. Rather, multiple opportunities were given for restoration.

It should be noted, whether unintentional or intentional, this gospel story today follows the one in Matthew’s gospel of the parable of the 99 sheep left behind by the shepherd, as the shepherd goes off in search of the 1 sheep that has been lost. 

We begin our Sunday liturgies, most Sundays, with Confession and Forgiveness. There, at the start of our communal life together – we confess.  Called to speak against sin, we are called to understand sin’s grip on our own lives. When we are called to speak against sin, we do not do so as those who have figured out sin, but as repentant sinners trusting in the mercy of Jesus Christ. 

Confession and repentance builds community because we do not have to pretend we are someone we are not. Holy community is not afraid of mistakes, is not paralyzed in fear, is not consumed by trying to walk a fine and narrow line. Instead, we confess our sin and turn from it – receiving the mercy of Jesus Christ for ourselves, we are free to offer it to others. 

In faith, we trust that when we confess and repent, whether on our first opportunity, or third opportunity, or perhaps even after a lifetime, we trust that in mercy, God delights in the repentant sinner turning from wicked ways, and turning to righteousness. We repent, and turn to Christ, trusting that Christ has already turned to us with wide open arms of forgiveness and grace. 

For the sake of our life together, we are called to SPEAK, to REPENT, and we are invited to LOVE.

In our Second Reading [Romans 13:8-14] Paul summarizes the law and all the commandments as love.  “The one who loves another has fulfilled the law,” Paul wrote in Romans. “The commandments … are summed up in this word, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore love is the fulfilling of the law.”

The love Paul commends is not a mushy or sentimental love, it is love powerfully turned towards the neighbor …love that is mature, disciplined, and honest. Paul wrote of this love in Romans 12:9-21 which we heard as our Second Reading last Sunday. 

Think of the community we would build with this kind of love: patience in suffering, perseverance in prayer, hospitality to strangers, blessing those who persecute us, weeping with those who weep, and never repaying anyone evil for evil. Love that associates with the lowly, lives in harmony with one another, and does not curse others.

In writing on Paul’s commendation to love, theologian Deirdre Good references an insight by an early Christian who wrote: “A house is not built by beginning at the top and working down. You must begin with the foundation in order to reach the top. The foundation is our neighbor, whom we must win and this is the place to begin. For all the commandments of Christ depend on this one.”

Foundation for community, for our live together as church, is love for one another on the basic human level.

So let’s put this all together.  In a world where it seems as if forces are conspiring to pull us all apart, God’s Word pulls us into the community of Christ. For the sake of our life together:

  • God calls us to SPEAK … What sin are you called to speak against today?  What sin in your life is being spoken against you today?
  • God calls us to REPENT … What are you called to confess and repent of today? Are you receiving this is a judgment, or as invitation to new life?
  • God calls us to LOVE … Who are you being called to love today? In what ways are you being called to love?

The Good News today, is that indeed, proclaimed in the ancient prophets, and proclaimed in the death of Jesus Christ on the cross, God does not desire the death of the wicked. God desires that we, wicked sinners though we are, turn from our sin and live. God desires that we would walk in the ways of love, mercy, and kindness. 

May the Holy Spirit grant you the courage and the strength to SPEAK, REPENT, and LOVE.

As we commend our speaking, repentance, and loving to God in faith, may God use our witness as a glue to bind together our church and our country.

May God use us to witness to God’s Word that speaks relationship and community in the world. 

Thanks be to God.