September 6, 2020, Beacon Fires and Lost Sheep, Matthew 18 and Ezekiel 33 – Mtr. Kathryn Boswell
To listen to this sermon, click here: Z0000213
“But if your brother or sister sins, go and confront them, just between the two of you. If they listen to you, you have won your brother or sister. But if they do not listen, take with you one or two others as well, so that every charge may be sustained on the evidence of two or three witnesses. If they refuse to listen to them, speak to the church; and if they refuse to listen even to the church, let them be to you like a Gentile and a tax collector.”
In the fantasy series “The Lord of the Rings” there is a great and ancient city of men called Minas Tirith in the land of Gondor. To keep the city safe from its enemies, the men of Gondor have established outposts on the tops of the mountains surrounding the city. Each outpost maintains a guard of watchmen, with a huge bonfire that can be lit at a moment’s notice. If an enemy approaches, a rider goes from outpost to outpost to give the alarm, and the watchmen light the fires. The beacon fires can be seen springing up one after another, from mountaintop to mountaintop. The watchmen alert the people of Gondor to the danger that is approaching so they can prepare to defend themselves, and not be destroyed by the enemy.
In the Old Testament reading today God uses the image of a watchman to explain to Ezekiel what his responsibility is as a prophet. Ezekiel was a prophet in Judah around the same time as Jeremiah, and he was one of the Israelites carried off by the Babylonians into exile. God tells Ezekiel that he has called him to be a watchman to the house of Israel. The words that God gave Ezekiel to speak to the people were like the beacon fires the watchmen lighted on the mountain-tops around Gondor, calling the people to action.
But the task of a watchman carries a heavy responsibility. If the watchman gives the warning and the people heed the warning and take action, well and good, they have been saved. If the watchman gives the warning but the people don’t pay attention; if they don’t heed the warning and take action, and if they are destroyed, then the watchman is not to blame, because he was faithful in giving the warning. But if the watchman fails to give the warning, then when the enemy comes and the people are destroyed, their blood is on his hands – the faithless watchman is held responsible for the downfall of his people.
Just so, God tells Ezekiel, as my prophet you bear a responsibility when you carry my word to the people. If I give you a warning to the wicked, but you don’t speak that warning to them, so that they don’t turn from the evil of their ways, then they will be destroyed and their blood will be on your hands. But if you deliver the message, and yet the wicked don’t turn from their wickedness, they will be destroyed but you will have saved your soul. The purpose of the watchman is not to condemn the people, but to warn them to turn from their wickedness so that they might live. “I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked,” says God. “turn back from your evil ways – why will you die, O house of Israel?”
God makes it clear that in the end, each person is responsible for their own actions. The wicked person who repents, God says, who changes direction and turns away from his wickedness, that person will be saved, and none of his sins will be held against him. But the person who puts his faith in his own righteousness and refuses to listen to God’s warning, he will be overcome by his own unrighteousness and none of his righteous deeds will do him any good. That person will die in his unrighteousness.
And yet, there is something more than individual responsibility going on here, because as his prophet, God lays a burden of responsibility on Ezekiel for the welfare of his brothers and sisters. And we see that same kind of responsibility in what Jesus says to his disciples in the gospel reading today.
This passage in Matthew chapter 18 has very commonly been read by Christians as a set of instructions for dealing with an unrepentant sinner in the church. Carroll and I had the experience, years ago, of being members of a church who went through this passage, step by step, to confront a man who was causing trouble in the church, first one on one, and then in the company of a couple of elders, and then publicly before the entire church, until finally he was excommunicated by way of treating him “as a Gentile and a tax collector”.
It was seen by the leadership of that church as a regrettable but biblical way of dealing with the situation. And there are many people who understand this passage in just that way. But my experience was that as a church, we sinned against our brother and his family, who were harmed by our actions in many ways. And I believe that a faithful reading of the passage shows that this common understanding is a mis-reading of what Jesus was saying.
A faithful reading begins, as it always should, with putting the passage in context. Just before Jesus talks to his disciples about dealing with a brother or sister who sins, he tells a parable. “What do you think?” Jesus says, “If a man has a hundred sheep and one of them wanders away, you know he will leave the ninety-nine and search until he finds it. And then he will rejoice more over that one little stray than over the ninety-nine that stayed safe in the fold.” And then Jesus says, “It is not the will of my Father that any one of these little ones should perish.”
Now, that should have a familiar ring to it for us. Because it is very much what God said to Ezekiel when he said, “I take no pleasure in the death of the wicked. Why will you die, O house of Israel?” The Father is the one who rejoices over the finding of the one who strays. It is never his will or his pleasure to condemn his children. Instead, he is calling us to be watchmen for one another, taking responsibility for one another lest any of his children should perish.
This is what it means for us to bear one another’s burdens, as Paul writes to the Galatians: “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. Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ.” To be watchmen for one another is is not a power or a privilege that we have over our brothers and sisters; it is our obligation toward one another. It is our solemn responsibility to do what we can to restore one another to fulness of life.
It’s worthwhile for us to think about what Jesus has in mind when he lays this responsibility – and what he doesn’t have in mind. I’ve seen a church confront a man about his personal hygiene, because people were offended by how he smelled. But Jesus isn’t talking about how to deal with people who bother us. He’s not talking about the church exercising control over people who are weird or unconventional or abrasive. He’s talking about saving our brother or sister’s life, whether physically or spiritually, not correcting their bad habits or making them easier to live with.
A brother or sister who is becoming entrapped in an addiction might need to be confronted in order to save a life. A brother or sister who is abusing their spouse, or harming a child, might need to be confronted in order to save a life. But some sins are easier to miss. Racism is sin. Greed is sin. Sin destroys community; that’s why Jesus says if your brother or sister listens to you and heeds your warning, you have won them. And then there is more rejoicing over that one stray lamb who has been found, than over the ninety-nine who never strayed.
It’s important to keep in mind that most of our difficulties in our common life as a church don’t call for confrontation. The vast majority of problems we have with one another call for grace and tolerance and forgiveness and a good sense of humor. The church isn’t a gathering of people who have come together because they have similar backgrounds or educational levels or political views. The church isn’t a community of people with similar tastes in music or lifestyle or ways of dressing. Just look around you. The church is a motley assortment of people who are loved by Jesus, pure and simple. And because he loves us, we love one another. And because we love one another, we bear with each other, even with all of our differences.
I am convinced that what Jesus is addressing here, in this passage in Matthew 18, is not a procedural checklist for church discipline. What he’s talking about is an extraordinary kind of love that we owe to one another as watchmen who bear a responsibility to do everything in our power for our brother or sister in those times when danger threatens; bringing the word of God to bear, with all gentleness and humility, on the sin that is endangering their life and disrupting their connection with the community. Because love is our one and only great obligation to each other, as we read this morning from Paul’s letter to the Romans: “Have no obligation to anyone except this one thing: to love one another.”
We live in a culture that encourages us not to stick our noses up in other people’s business. And to the extent that we are showing one another respect and consideration, that is not a bad thing. But it is perilously easy for us to slide from not wanting to intrude to not really caring enough to bother. I can say this from my own experience. We quote our mothers, who told us, “If you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all.” We extol the virtue of kindness, when what we really mean is a vague sort of niceness that avoids getting involved or rocking the boat. But Jesus never tells us to be nice to each other. We are called to love each other. We are called to be watchmen for our brothers and sisters, which means I bear a responsibility for you, and you bear a responsibility for me.
Paul, who is certainly a watchman for us all, writes this: You know what time it is, how it is now the moment for you to wake from sleep. For salvation is nearer to us now than when we became believers; the night is far gone, the day is near. Let us then lay aside the works of darkness and put on the armor of light; let us live honorably as in the day, not in reveling and drunkenness, not in debauchery and licentiousness, not in quarreling and jealousy. Instead, put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires.