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Taking People Seriously

Matthew 18:15-20

October 12, 2014

Sermon preached by Rev. Donald Ng at the First Baptist Church of Seattle, WA.

If your neighbor sins, go and deal with the matter immediately, just the two of you. If your visit isn’t productive, gather one or two others, explain the situation to them, and all of you go and reason with your neighbor. And if the matter is still not resolved, engage the community if necessary.

Can you imagine this happening today? I grew up when the Isley Brothers sang, “It’s Your Thing. Do what you wanna do. I can’t tell you who to sock it to.” While the Isley Brothers wrote the song to get out of the controlling influence of Berry Gordy of Motown, the lyrics define our passion for independence and autonomy.

I do my thing, and you do your thing. I am not in this world to live up to your expectations and you are not in this world to live up to mine. I do my thing and you do your thing. I’m okay and you’re okay. Okay?

We often say that we live in a diverse world with all kinds of different people. We say we live in a pluralistic world with many philosophies of life. We try to negotiate a complacent peace with everyone. We don’t want to interfere or force ourselves on anyone. Have you experienced this in your office? It goes something like this:

            “Hey, have you noticed anything funny about Bob lately?

            “You mean how he’s been coming back from lunch drunk?”

            “Yeah, do you think we ought to do something?”

            “I don’t know. I really like Bob. I wouldn’t want to do anything to hurt his feelings or anything.”

            “Yeah, I wouldn’t want to hurt our relationship.”

Bob’s friends do nothing.

It’s a free country, we say, people can live any way they want to live. And that’s true. But the simple fact of the matter is that you cannot live any way you want and preserve good working relationships, and stayed married, and raise healthy children, and keep your friends, and call it Christian, and sustain a relationship with God.

Most of us are quite skilled in saying that our actions have no real consequences on others. We minimize the impact of our actions. We seldom take serious examination of what follows in our wake. It’s your thing; you do what you want to do.

Several years ago, our daughter Lauren confronted me about my eating and invited me to examine what I was doing. At first, I said, “It was not my thing to be a vegetarian. You do what you want to do.” Besides, what can my daughter teach me! But when I took her teaching and her lifestyle seriously, I came to the realization that I just can’t do what I want to do and not have an impact on others as well as in the world that I am a part of. If I continued to eat meat, I would also be wasting precious drinking water as well as polluting ground water. If I continued eating meat, I would be violating my own understanding of the revelation made known to me about the Peaceable Kingdom. I just can’t do what I want to do without thinking that I would have an impact on others.

We hesitate to take each other seriously. We know just enough psychology and sociology to be dangerous, to assure ourselves that we aren’t responsible for the choices we make. We assume the posture of passive victims to internal drives and external pressures and plead that we could not do otherwise.

Reality, however, demands we are responsible for what we’re doing, and no amount of psychology or sociology can excuse the fact that we have to live with ourselves. And as Christians, we are responsible before God not only for the quality and content of our lives but for the ways in which our lives affect others. Christ calls us to take ourselves and other people seriously.

Matthew 18

In our passage for today, Matthew recalls Jesus saying, “If another member of the church sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone.” We don’t like to hear this. These words rub against the grain of “I do my thing and you do your thing” spirit of our day.

Our attitude is more likely to be: if your brother sins, look the other way; if your sister sins, talk to anybody about it but her; if your brother sins, play stupid; if your sister sins, it’s her life, what business is it of yours?

Matthew invites us to take each other seriously. If your neighbor sins, go, act like a neighbor. We see this in Proverbs 27:5-6, “Better is open rebuke than hidden love. Well meant are the wounds a friend inflicts, but profuse are the kisses of an enemy.”

The passage we read follows the parable of the Good Shepherd. The sheep has wandered away but the Good Shepherd leaves the ninety-nine on the hill and goes searching for the lost sheep. The image of the Good Shepherd is also like that in Psalm 23 when he cares and loves us so much that we want nothing else. The Good Shepherd makes us lie down in green pastured, leads us beside still waters, restores our souls, and leads us in right paths.

It’s a wonderful story that speaks of God’s love, but Matthew’s context makes clear that is not only a story of how God loves us, but also how we are to relate to one another.

When your neighbor drifts astray, go, talk to your neighbor. When your neighbor has lost her ways, go, talk to your neighbor. If that doesn’t help, maybe it’s you who is off base. Check with a couple of others. If they see the same problem, than all of you go and talk over the matter a second time. You want to lead your neighbor on the right paths.

Jesus promises that he will be present where two or three are gathered in his name. This is the context of that promise. We remember that promise, but Jesus did not say where two or three are gathered there would be a cozy spiritual glow—that’s how we have often interpreted this verse. But where two or three are gathered in his name there would be the courage and confidence required to reach out and care for people—to take people seriously.

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If your neighbor sins, go, talk. But of course, you don’t want to; of course, you don’t know what to say; of course, it is not convenient. As a matter of fact, that’s absolutely the best test for determining whether you should go and speak.

If you find it convenient, if you want to do it, if you know exactly what should be said, then perhaps you’re only angry with your neighbor, maybe you just want to put her in her place, or maybe you just want to exhibit your own self-righteousness or play a little one’s-up-manship. If this scripture seems exactly the license you’ve wanted to let someone really have it, you’re caught up in the wrong spirit entirely. Stay home!

It is when you don’t want to go, when you wish there were someone else, some other way—that is when your going and speaking may be most needed and most helpful. You don’t go for your sake but for his sake, for her sake. You go to help your neighbors as the Good Shepherd restores your soul and leads you in right paths for his name’s sake.

Calling someone who has wandered away is scary and risky business. You run the risk of being misunderstood. But where did we ever get the notion that loving, really loving was anything other than terrible risk? When we reach out to others, we are pull off balance and makes us vulnerable to seeing something really new.

Last August, I flew down to San Diego for the day. Our American Baptist missionaries who have been serving in Tijuana, Mexico wanted more people to understand the situation of the almost 60,000 unaccompanied minors who have been crossing the border from Central American countries into the US. I wanted to learn first hand what the situation was about. My eyes were opened. I was pulled off balance and saw something I should have seen all along.

What I learned was the need for the religious community to call on our government and fellow Americans to welcome the stranger, the widow and the orphan in times of trouble. We crossed over to Tijuana in Mexico and at the border wall with one group in the US and the other in the Mexico side, we prayed, sang songs, and rededicated ourselves to bring understanding and compassion to the situation. Our witness was to confront the sin or error of our government and other Americans who would like to see this situation as an immigration violation rather than granting these children refugee status. The sin is that we rather see this as a political issue during an election year rather than protecting children whom Jesus loves. I’m afraid to say that our president, our legislators, our government have not taken these people seriously.

I felt that I could not just be doing my thing and do what I want to do without also understanding what our government and other Americans are doing that are treating these children and minors without conscience or compassion. I know that when I fly 30,000 feet up in the air, I don’t see any walls or national boundaries. I believe that God doesn’t see any either.

I learned that about 170 years ago, the boundaries separating the US and Mexico were softer and not hard like it is today. People moved back and forth easily because the US needed migrant workers to harvest the crops and food that we eat. And Mexico as well as other Latin American countries needed jobs for its people so that they would be able to support their families back home. After a series of events—bad economies on both sides of the border, 9/11, homeland security threats, recession and unemployment and now political grandstanding, we have made the undocumented people in the US a problem. We have implicated these unaccompanied minors into the larger situation that our country has refused to address.

When I was in San Diego, I shared the fact that my father had a clear path to citizenship. During WWII, the US Army drafted by father and having served honorably in Germany, he was granted citizenship. With that in hand, he sponsored my mother and older brother from China with the help of First Baptist Church of Boston. She and my brother had a clear path to citizenship. The unaccompanied minors and the 11 million undocumented workers in the US today want a clear path to citizenship. How can we continue to deny this avenue to become legal members of this country when we have received such grace and opportunities?

Based on this Scripture and lesson, not only must we take each person who have sinned seriously in order to encourage him or her to become once again members of the Christian community, we must also take each unaccompanied minor, each undocumented worker, each person who may be here illegally to confront the issues including the lawful rules in our country and to move toward reconciliation and community. Matthew 16 provides a clear path for people who may have wandered away to become reunited to the church. Matthew 16 also provides for us a clear path to reach out and care for people—to take people seriously.

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Taking Ourselves Seriously

While we are called to take people seriously, at the same time, we must take ourselves seriously too. The church is consisted of a group of ordinary people who are enabled by God’s grace, to do some extraordinary things—like speaking and hearing the truth from one another. We expect disputes among our members. We expect divisions and conflict. We step on each other’s toes, say things that hurt other people and do things that cause others to be in pain. Many times, the wrong that we do toward others is unintentional. And yet, even though the wrong is unintentional, it is still painful. How do we maintain our unity and love for one another after we have hurt one another?

Fortunately, the lesson teaches us that the church is the people of the truth. Jesus Christ said, “I am the way, the truth, and the life.” We think of Jesus as The Way, God’s appointed way for us to get back to God. And we believe that Jesus is the source of Life, abundant life. But perhaps we easily overlook the point that Jesus is also the Truth. Jesus embodies the truth about God. He also embodies the truth about us.

And the truth about us is that we really don’t particularly care for the truth! We do our own thing and do what we want to do. I do my thing and you do your thing. I’m okay and you’re okay. And when it comes to staying married and raising healthy children and to be called a Christian and to sustain a relationship with God, we must take ourselves and we as the church seriously. That’s the reason why we have church retreats and monthly fellowship group meetings and pastoral counseling sessions is because we are seeking the truth about life and God together. We don’t have a complacent peace with everyone but we meddle caringly and lovingly. We get into each other’s faces. We seek out the truth about ourselves and ask for help of two friends to help us to see what is really going on here.

Some of you know that earlier this year, I along with Vice-President Judy Fackenthal and General Secretary Roy Medley met with the Association of Welcoming and Affirming Baptist’s board member Rick Mixon and Executive Director Robin Lunn. It has been just too long that we have not taken each other seriously. As the result of great controversy and political fallout in the Baptist family, we have avoided each other. We have cut off communication. We have become estranged and at a loss. When we take each other seriously, we affirm that it is God who created us in God’s own image. We would continue to cause injury to God’s people unless we see each other, respect each other, honor and guarantee the dignity of each other, take each other seriously.

Not unlike other human groups, the church has its share of squabbles, occasional divisions and arguments, and gossiping and hurtful words that can occur between one another. But unlike any other human groupings, Christ convenes the church. We are in the church because he called us to come out of our isolation and dared us to be part of this redemptive community called the church.

Jesus shows us that he expects us to be a distinctive community, a community of the truth. He wants us to refuse to let there be people who are wandering and drifting away from the beloved community. He wants us to not just care for those whom we know but to take strangers, widows and orphans in our country seriously so that the sins that are committed by our government and fellow Americans cease to hurt and destroy lives and families.

Jesus wants us to stop looking the other way when our brother sins; stop playing stupid or ignorant when your sister sins; stop thinking that it’s not my business when what we do or not do have serious impact on others.

Jesus wants us to become that Beloved Community when we can truly begin to see the Kingdom of God on earth as we already know exists in heaven.

Jesus said, “Truly I tell you, if two of you agree on earth about anything you ask, it will be done for you by my Father in heaven” (18:19). Let us begin to agree that we will ask God to help us to always take each other seriously as sisters and brothers.

Let us begin to take one another seriously because when two or three are gathered in Jesus name, Jesus Christ, the way, the truth and the life is here among us.

Let us pray.

Lord Jesus, as we come together in your church to worship and to prepare to serve you, help us worship you not only in spirit but also in truth. Rekindle in us a desire to be a community of truth, a people who love one another enough to be honest with one another and to be forgiving of one another. Save us from superficiality, from niceness that masks truth in our Christian community, and save us from doubt that we, even we, can be your body in this world. Teach us to take each other seriously as you, Lord has seriously loved us and saved us. Amen.

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