Hello again. Well I leave on Wednesday that's less than 6 days away if you don't count the hours left in today and the hours before I leave Wednesday morning. How do I feel, you ask? Excited, anxious, sad, excited. The summer months have gone by quickly. WHat am I looking forward to? Other than the adventure of being in another country and all of the things layed out in the last blog, I'm looking forward to having my own apartment for the first time in my life. What am I nervous about? Being a horrible English teacher...okay I probably won't be horrible, but if I don't connect with my students I will most certainly feel like I'm doing a bad job. I do have a temporary address (remember the first six months will be language learning after that I get my "permanent" address and assignment). Please email me if you'd like to know that address.
This summer I had the privilege of worshiping at a wonderful church in Riverside, California called Eden Lutheran Church. On Sunday, September 7 I was invited to preach during all three of their services. Eden has chosen to be in covenant with me while I am in Japan by giving to ELCA Global Mission. They are just one among others who have chosen to do the same if you would like to know more about being in covenant with me in Japan please email me. The following is the sermon I preached that day.
God's Mission, Our Responsibility: Sermon on Ezekiel 33: 7-11; Romans 13: 8-14; Matthew 18: 15-20
I want to start by saying thank you Eden for your hospitality toward me this summer.
I am a member of Advent Lutheran Church in New York City where I attended seminary. While my home church is in New York I am not from there, I am native to California and hoped that when I moved back after attending seminary that I would find a Lutheran church here at home. So it is with sincere gratitude to this congregation that I say thank you for welcoming me and I thank God for leading me here.
I also want to extend my gratitude and excitement that you all have decided to join me as I participate in God’s mission in the country of Japan. This is such an exciting move for me and even more of a delight to know that Eden Lutheran Church in Riverside, California will be praying for me across the ocean.
I am excited to journey with you, to share stories, and for us to encourage one another over the next couple of years and beyond. I have just a couple more weeks before heading out and though I’m not sure whether visiting family and friends will allow me much more time here I hope to meet as many of you as I can. Again I thank you for choosing to join me in God’s mission.
Now I ask you to take a second to think about your own spiritual journey. How did you come to know Christ? What were your “ah ha!” moments? What made you curious about the faith? How did you get introduced to Christianity?
As I’ve been attending this church this summer it seems that many of you, like me, were raised in the church. In fact it seems many of you were actually raised in THIS church. Is that true?
As I said I was raised in a Christian home. My mother had become a believer through a friend and subsequently raised my brother and I in the church. If the doors of the church were open we were in it: midweek prayer meetings, Friday night bible studies, Sunday school, special services, church conferences…you understand me.
Although Christ was a second parent in my home it wasn’t until college that I was really introduced to Jesus through scripture study. Up to that point I knew what I had been taught. But in college I began to interpret scripture without the influence of my pastor or parents. In a community of friends and fellow believers I devoted myself to studying the scripture and heard the call of God on my life for ministry.
What strikes me about my personal story and the scripture texts read today is that God uses people to draw people into the fold and continues to use people to sustain that initial work.
Everyone of us in this room are here because of the prayers and witness of someone else who had also been brought to Christ through someone else.
How awesome to think that God trusts us enough to entrust us with one another.
Being responsible for one another is an honor: To know that God for whom nothing is impossible bestows the greatest responsibility upon we who are limited by time, space, and even our physical bodies.
This makes me think of when parents first give their children a new responsibility. My mother likes to tell the story of when she first sent me to the store on my own. I was 7 years old and, well you have to understand that I have always been small, I’m my mother’s only daughter and her baby. So at age 7 my mother finally released me to have the responsibility I’d coveted from my older brother for years (or at least one year…my brother and I aren’t that far apart in years).
Well I went to the store around the corner only to find that they did not sell the item my mother sent me to get. However, I knew that further down the road there was a store that did sell it and I was determined to get what I’d been sent out for. So I headed maybe a mile down the road and returned successfully probably half an hour later than expected. As you can imagine my mother was a wreck. I don’t know how long it took for her to send me on another errand after that.
Yet despite our methods, or failures God has sent us on a major errand: to go after those whom God loves.
Our scripture texts seem to go from very overwhelming responsibility, to an urgent call, and finally a step by step method of drawing someone out of sin.
The Ezekiel passage starts off with God’s call upon the prophet Ezekiel to be a sentinel. The challenge is to warn the wicked of their ways so that they do not die in their sin. If Ezekiel doesn’t tell them their death will be his fault. Their souls’ agony his own. Talk about scare tactics. When read in the context of evangelism this passage can inspire an urgency provoked by fear. Yet the reasoning behind the strong call of God is found in verse 11 “says the Lord God, I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that the wicked turn from their ways and live…” The motivation for evangelism is not blood or death, but the love and concern of God, the call away from death into life.
I’ve grown so tired of discussions about hell and eternal damnation. In the same conversation I’ve heard Christians speak of God as both a loving father and a wrathful destroyer of the earth. Yet our texts for today show that the wrath of God is not the final story. No, it is the love of God that is to be our inspiration. It is the love of God that draws us and the love of God that sends us to one another. Our Ezekiel text shows that the issue is not about God sending people to eternal damnation, but about God sending people to call the wicked out of death into life.
In Ezekiel we get an image of God recognizing the cry of a people whose transgressions weigh so heavily upon them that death seems to be the only option. But God is says no there is life. I [God] have sent my messenger to tell you to throw off those things that weigh you down and turn toward me so that you can live.”
Just as God sends us in love to our friends, family members, co-workers, the people of Japan so also our witness must be motivated by love. This is emphasized in the Romans text.
Paul’s teaching, “owe no one anything but the debt of love” is a strong follow up to God’s command to warn the wicked.
Being a person with massive student loans I understand a little about debt. I spend my days, budgeting and re-budgeting hoping to pay off non-student loans quickly and still survive. With every pay check I reassess my plan to reduce my debt and am never satisfied because I cannot reduce it quickly enough. Can any of you relate?
Now what if I spent my days thinking about the debt of love that I owe those with whom I come in contact? What if I spent my morning planning out how to better love and serve my coworkers? Or how to make things easier on my parents? Now I’m not all bad. I clean the kitchen from time to time and cook dinner for them every now and then. But if I thought about loving others in the same way that I think about my finances perhaps I’d be spending more time doing things with people and doing things for people than I do now. Who knows maybe I could start to look forward to seeing that person at work who gets on my nerves. Perhaps.
Still Christian witness does not end with the ever elusive call to love, but Paul also lays out what the Christian lifestyle looks like. His description of Christian living as “living honorably” leads into the Matthew passage which gives a step by step plan for going after Christians who struggle to live up to the standard Paul outlines.
Our Matthew passage takes place in the middle of Jesus’ teaching on the Kingdom of God. Chapter 18 begins with Jesus proclaiming that humility is the greatest virtue saying, “Whoever becomes humble like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.” He then warns his disciples against straying from the path by sinning. He tells them to cut off all stumbling blocks within themselves including removing their own body parts.
Right before our passage is the parable of the lost sheep. We all know this one right the shepherd who leaves 99 sheep to find the one who is lost. We are told that God is like this shepherd. Well if this is how God responds when one of us goes astray so too we must go after the church member who is heading down the wrong path.
And so Jesus lays out a way of going after the Christian who stumbles. What’s interesting is the translator’s decision to make the subject a personal matter saying “if a member of the church sins against you,” but considering the context with Jesus talking about God and the angels seeking those who turn away from God I don’t think that Jesus is talking about a personal offense.
Instead I think the church member has not betrayed another member, but is turning away from prior commitments to God. She or he has decided to go her own way or has been tempted by another to abandon the life she once lived in Christ. In this instance the steps outlined for bringing them back into the fold make sense.
It’s important to remember that this passage is not about kicking people out of the church, but about bringing back the one whose strayed. Unfortunately the history of the church proves that Christians have been more prone to splitting rather than coming together. The Church has been splitting up for nearly 500 years now over disagreements in doctrine, practice, and mission.
It seems that we have been quick to cut people off, leave and start up something new. This is how Protestant Christianity was born, by splits from the Universal Church which was centered in Rome at one time. We Lutherans were one of the first to split. Yet for all of Luther’s disagreement with the teachings of the Roman church he never saw himself outside of it, never intended to start a separate church. Luther always believed in one Church.
So then what happened why the split, and why has the history of the One Church, the one body of Christ, tended toward faction rather than unity? Somehow our different ideas have led us to weigh one another’s Christianity—this one is more Christian this one is less. So we’d rather turn our backs on one another than work through our differences.
Yet isn’t this the story of humankind? Do we not tend toward those like ourselves rather than work through conflict and the natural rub involved whenever one interacts with another?
But God calls us to be one not many. Being one does not mean that we are all the same, but it does mean that we work together in spite of differences to fulfill the mission of God. Our unity is our witness.
Now we might ask but what about the whole “they shall be like a gentile or tax collector to you.” Doesn’t that imperative give us the right to cut people off? NO. It means that we are to struggle all the more to bring back the one who has gone astray.
Gentiles and tax collectors were not ignored by the church community, but sought after for the sake of bringing all into the unity of the kingdom of God.
The last few verses of our text in Matthew tell us that how we treat our neighbor, Christian or not, has spiritual ramifications. If we bind ourselves to one another here on earth we bind ourselves spiritually, but if we cut one another off then we remain spiritually divided.
But Jesus promises that the power of his presence is known only in our coming together.
So let us pray the presence of Christ on earth through our actions, in the way we love one another. Let us participate in God’s life giving mission by stepping up to our responsibility for one another. For when we separate our selves from one another we say, “God I don’t want the responsibility you’ve given me.” Even more we are denying the presence of Jesus.
Sister’s and brothers I go to Japan because the Church in Japan has decided to partner with the Church here in the US to usher the presence of Christ into these two countries. As an English teacher I will be chipping away at my debt of love by providing access to jobs, education, and in many ways access to the world for those wanting to learn the language.
In this global world the English language is becoming the key to success as medical equipment instructions are written in English, some of the best schools teach using the English language and interaction with people of other cultures is becoming more and more of a daily reality. Because of these things teaching English is in effect offering the world to people in Japan.
By teaching English I am also witnessing the gospel of Jesus Christ which says, “if you have two cloaks and your brother or sister has none share with that one.” I am witnessing through my presence as a teacher and through my presence as a friend. For some I will be the only Jesus they’ve ever known. God has seen fit to entrust me with the people of Japan not because I am worthy, but because God is gracious.
While my term in Japan is only 2 ½ years the call to fulfill my debt of love remains for the rest of my life. There will be people I encounter on this side of the ocean or another who need Christ and I pray that I am able to present Christ to them.
As we prepare our hearts to come to the Lord’s table let us pray for the unity of the Church, for unity and reconciliation within our own lives, and to all who are ready to accept the responsibility God has given let us pray simply “here I am, Lord, send me.”