13 Pentecost Proper A18
Rev. Dr. D. K. Schroeder
Matthew 18:15-20 Sermon
September 7, 2014

Click here for service internet broadcast/podcast.

Hymns (from The Lutheran Hymnal):
2 "To Thy Temple I Repair"
423 "Jesus I My Cross Have Taken"
628 "Shepherd Of Tender Youth"
411 "From Eternity, O God" 


TEXT (vs. 15-17): "If your brother sins against you, go and show him his fault, just between the two of you. If he listens to you, you have won your brother over.  But if he will not listen, take one or two others along, so that every matter may be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses.  If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if he refuses to listen even to the church, treat him as you would a pagan or a tax collector.”

            People love to gossip.  They just love it.  The juicer the piece of gossip is, the more people will devour it.  And the biggest problem is that people's reputations can be so easily destroyed.  It really doesn't matter if the gossip is true or not; once a name has been dragged through the mud, it's hard to get it cleaned up again.

            I'm going to give you some examples that have happened to our family.  This all happened many years ago and the people responsible are all gone, so I feel fairly safe in sharing these things with you. 

           Emerson,Nebraskais a town of slightly over 800 people.  And with a town that size, the rumor mill can be working overtime.  Everybody seems to have their noses in everybody else's business.  I'm not trying to throw mud at the people in my home town; but in a smaller town, rumors seem to spread a lot faster.  It's just human nature.

            Anyway, this happened in the early 1960's.  Somebody started the rumor that my mother was pregnant, which of course would have definitely been in the realm of possibility.  And that rumor spread very quickly.  So people started planning this huge baby shower for my mother as a surprise.

            My mother in those days was very slim, and people began to wonder why she hadn't begun to show.  So one woman asked her when she was due.  My mother was completely nonplussed by this question; so she asked, "Due for what?"  

            And then the shocking answer came, "Well, your baby of course!  When is your baby due?" 

            My mother immediately told the woman that she wasn't pregnant.  And the woman began to argue with her about it, like my mother didn't know what she was talking about!

            I don't know who started the rumor, but I do know that it was a huge ordeal calling off the baby shower.  And nobody ever admitted being the instigator.

            After we moved from Emerson, somebody started the rumor that my parents had divorced.  Then some years later, somebody started the rumor that my father had left the ministry and was no longer a pastor.  All of this had not one shred of truth to it. 

            You might be wondering what this has to do with our Gospel lesson for this morning, but there is some practical advice that definitely applies in much the same manner.  If somebody sins against another person, or commits a sin in general, the very first step is to discuss it with the other person, one-on-one, in confidence, and not to use it as grist for the rumor mill.

            In verse 15 of our Gospel lesson, Jesus says:  "If your brother sins against you, go and show him his fault, just between the two of you."  And this can be applied in a couple different ways.

            The obvious application is when somebody sins against us as a person; that is, when somebody has done us dirt or wronged us in some manner.  We are to go to the person and find out exactly what went wrong.  This is the way we get our facts straight, like we talked about last week. 

            In thinking about my mother's situation, of course it wasn't a sinful situation for her to be pregnant.  But if someone would have thought to check their facts first, a lot of trouble could have been avoided.  All someone needed to do was talk to my mother, one-on-one, and simply ask her about it.  But unfortunately that's not the way human nature operates.  People like juicy gossip, and not peaceful resolution. 

            The other application deals with sin in general, which is something the Christian takes personally.  When a fellow Christian is caught in a sinful situation, Paul expounds this a bit further in Galatians chapter 6 verse 1:  "Brothers, if anyone is caught in any transgression, you who are spiritual should restore him in a spirit of gentleness. Keep watch on yourself, lest you too be tempted."   This is in keeping with the instructions Jesus is giving in our Gospel Lesson for today.

            There have been many instances where people have been innocent victims of the rumor mill, and have suffered the consequences.  And I think that all of us have been damaged in this manner, to a greater or lesser degree.

            But what about those times when things aren't so innocent?  What about those times when actual sin is involved?  How do we determine the formula for going to a person and confronting them with their sin?

            Jesus says to go to the person, and resolve the issue between the two of you.  And Paul says that we are to do so in a spirit of gentleness.  So we don't go into a situation with both guns blazing.

            In my position as a Pastor, I've discussed individual and so-called secret sins that have plagued people.  These are situations that have been entrusted to me, and that I cannot share with anybody.  I can only imagine the damage that would be done if I took the private lives of people and leaked that information or somehow made that public.  That's why things that have been shared with a Pastor are protected by law.  And that is something that I am thankful for, as are those who have entrusted me with whatever portion of their private lives they have decided to share. 

            I want people to know this too.  But I also inform people that if they tell me they are planning to do damage to themselves or somebody else, then that's the deal breaker.  This is understood before going any further.  Naturally I would do this as a way to preserve and protect life, and not to provide grist for the rumor mill.

            Getting back to our Gospel lesson for today, the concept is really very simple.  If a Christian sins against you, then take care of the matter just between the two of you.  If it can’t be resolved, then take two or three witnesses with you and attempt to settle the matter.  And if that doesn’t work, then take it to the Church.  And if that doesn’t do the job, then you’ve done about all you can do.  It’s time to break fellowship.  Of course you keep on praying for them and the situation with the hope of resolution, but the breaking of fellowship is the most powerful blow.

            This morning, I’m going to share with you some words that many of you perhaps have read before:  The congregation zealously watches over the purity of doctrine and life of its members, and when anyone is overtaken in any trespass it strives in the spirit of meekness and love to restore such a one in accordance with Matthew 18:15-18 and Galatians 6:1.”  This is section IX paragraph 1 of the bylaws of this congregation.  Section IX has the heading “Church Discipline.” 

            This section of our by-laws is a public testimony that as a congregation, we strive to forgive others in the same way that God has forgiven us.  We not only proclaim the forgiveness we have between God and ourselves, but this is the forgiveness we put into practice with each other.

            I am always amazed at how often Jesus’ words are completely ignored.  When Jesus tells us how to be reconciled with our brother and how we are to forgive, he is not just giving us a polite suggestion.  In effect, he’s saying “since I have forgiven you, now here’s how you must put that into practice amongst yourselves.”

            But you know how we humans are.  We’ll go and spread gossip about somebody.  Or we might take the old “passive/aggressive” approach, where we get mad and just don’t speak to them at all.  Neither way is correct.

            One-on-one is where it has to start.  There is no excuse to do otherwise.  And from a practical point of view, this can save a lot of heartaches and problems.

            Personally, I have been involved with two church discipline cases.  The first instance was where a young woman was living with, and having a relationship with a married man.  We know this is wrong.  So the elder actually went to her first.  And when she refused to listen to him, then he took me along with him.  She basically had the attitude that she didn't care what God said about her living situation, she was going to do exactly as she pleased.  Nobody was going to tell her what to do.  So she was removed from church membership, with the hope that she would see the error of her ways, repent, and become part of God's Church family again.  There's more, but that's the gist of it.

            The second instance was where a young man had been excommunicated some years before I came to that congregation.  The young man, who had previously been very rebellious, had cleaned up his act and wanted to come back to the congregation.  I performed his wedding, and a while later I Baptized their infant daughter.  From what I understand, they continue to be very active members.  So this formula Jesus gives us really does work.

            As a Christian congregation, we don't exist for the sake of juicy gossip.  Instead, we strive for peaceful resolution of whatever conflict there is.  In other words, we are in the business of forgiveness. 

            Just think about it.  When our service begins, we hear the words “We poor sinners confess unto thee that we are sinful and unclean, and that we have sinned against thee by thought, word, and deed.”  Or we say, “I, a poor miserable sinner, confess unto thee all my sins and iniquities, with which I have ever offended thee, and justly deserve thy temporal and eternal punishment.”  That’s the confession of sins.  That's the truth of our existence, each and every one of us. 

            But right away, we hear the words of absolution.  Our sins are completely absolved and forgiven.  You’ll hear me say, “I announce the grace of God unto all of you; and in the stead and by the command of our Lord Jesus Christ, I forgive you all your sins.”  That’s what we need to hear!

            Everybody should know that when they walk through those doors carrying a whole ton of sin and guilt on their shoulders, that here is where they can get rid of all of that.  We boldly and proudly proclaim Jesus Christ as Lord and Saviour, and that through faith alone in him, all of our sins and iniquities are forgiven.  This is something that we continually proclaim.

            Furthermore, there should never be any doubt in anybody’s mind as to how this forgiveness operates.  Anybody who comes in here should never leave here and be in the dark about how forgiveness and salvation works.  This is our job.  And we’re literally surrounded with reminders of how God loves us and what he has done for us through grace alone.

            In churches today, you'll hear a lot of different things coming from the pulpit.  Some will say that God wants you to be rich and wealthy.  Others will say that God will bless you if you give a tidy sum of money.  Then you'll find those who will say that you have to follow a rigid set of rules and regulations if you ever expect to get through those pearly gates.  And along with this are those who don't really care what you believe, just as long as you are sincere.  And there is quite a group that believe the all-important things are the beauties of nature and the environment and recycling.

            But what God sees as important is the whole concept of sin and grace.  Even though talking about sin isn't popular, it's a reality.  We yearn to hear those words of forgiveness, that God for Jesus' sake has forgiven us for all of our sins and iniquities, and through faith in Christ he has restored his divine image in our lives.  We experience God's forgiveness every time we hear those words, "Be of good cheer, your sins are forgiven."

            As we look at our Gospel lesson for today, Jesus deals with the reality of sin, and the importance of restoring somebody without embarrassment or somehow feeding the rumor mill.  When things are dealt with privately and confidentially, then we are conducting ourselves as Jesus and the Apostle Paul would want us.

            When I began this morning, I used the illustration of what the rumor mill was like when people believed that my mother was pregnant.  Even though having a baby is a normal thing, it becomes a problem when it gets fed into the rumor mill when it isn't true.  I don't know how it got started, nor can I figure out why.  The Lord knows that there was plenty of good stuff going on in Emerson to talk about that didn't involve our family.  And yes, there was certainly plenty of dirt there too.

            Suffice it to say that the advice Jesus gives is very practical indeed.  Handle your problems one-on-one.  If somebody sins against you, then go take care of it with that person.  Get your facts straight.  Don't unnecessarily involve others unless you have no other choice.  If it becomes necessary, then take one or two others with you and try to resolve things.  But it is still kept on the confidential level.

            Only as a last resort do we take something like this to the church.  But it is still with the words of love and forgiveness that we do this, because this is what Jesus did for us.  There is no sin that is so large that it cannot be forgiven.  We have the message of hope right here, so take those words of forgiveness to heart.  And be of good cheer, because your sins have indeed been forgiven.