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What do you think? If a shepherd has a hundred sheep, and one of them has gone astray, does he not leave the ninety-nine on the mountains and go in search of the one that went astray? And if he finds it, truly I tell you, he rejoices over it more than over the ninety-nine that never went astray. So it is not the will of your Father in heaven that one of these little ones should be lost. 15 “If another member of the church sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone. If the member listens to you, you have regained that one. 16 But if you are not listened to, take one or two others along with you, so that every word may be confirmed by the evidence of two or three witnesses. 17 If the member refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if the offender refuses to listen even to the church, let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.18 Truly I tell you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven. 19 Again, 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. 20 For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.”
Grace, peace, and mercy are yours from God revealed to us in Jesus Christ. Amen.
When I was a kid in elementary school, my bus driver’s name was Norm. He was this big Cedar-Tree of a man who had to hunch over whenever he stood up in the bus – he was so tall. And whenever you got in trouble on the bus, he wouldn’t yell at you. He would just stop the bus and slowly lumber his way back to you, so that you had like 10 minutes to watch the thick frame of a man make his way back to your seat.
We loved Norm. He was scary, but in that protective grandfather, sort-of-way.
On Friday, my mom reminded me of a story from long ago that I had forgotten. When I was in kindergarten, I got on the wrong bus to go home. And not only that, but I feel asleep. And you know how those buses are – with seatback built like fortresses. That bus driver couldn’t see me back there. So my mom is at home waiting for me to get off the bus, when Norm pulls up to our driveway saying I never got on. So my mom starts to panic. And Norm, being Norm, said, “Don’t worry – I’ll go find him.”
And as soon as my mom said that, I was sort of transported back into that memory. And I could remember waking up on the bus, and seeing these unfamiliar gravel roads and fields, and realizing, I didn’t know where I was. And I’m sure the bus driver was just as startled to see my scared little face peak out from behind that mile-high seat back. And then in that almost sleepy-fearful stupor, I can remember hearing Norm’s voice over the radio that he was looking for me. And then far off in the distance down that gravel road and that familiar shape of Norm behind the wheel getting closer and closer. He found me. And there was nothing quite like that feeling. Of being found.
Did you hear the beginning of our gospel reading? When Jesus talks about the sheep who has gone astray – the one that took the wrong pasture home and got lost. And then the shepherd who said, “I’ll go find him.” And then Jesus says, “If the shepherds finds it, truly I tell you, he rejoices over it more than over the ninety-nine that never went astray. So it is not the will of your Father in heaven that one of these little ones should be lost.”
And that sounds like one of the best promises I’ve ever heard – you will be found by the persistent grace of God.
And that is the context, that is the background, the preamble to what Jesus says next: If another member of the church sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone. If the member listens to you, you have regained that one. But if you are not listened to, take one or two others along with you, so that every word may be confirmed by the evidence of two or three witnesses. 17 If the member refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if the offender refuses to listen even to the church, let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.
And I think, for most of us, when we hear those verses taken out of context – we recoil at them. Because they just sound like a church constitution – like this is the procedure of how you kick a big old dirty sinner out of your church. Like an instruction manual on how to judge and point out and shame.
And the trouble is that is how this text has been used. It has been used by nice people to alienate and exclude the people they think are bad and full of sin. It has been used against people from failed and strained marriages. It has been used against people who are gay or transgender to remove them from the church.
It is a text seen as and used as a source for disciplining and removing people from the community, ultimately gets it entirely backwards I think. It misses the point, the heart of what Jesus is trying to say.
Remember the example right before is a shepherd losing his sheep, and then Jesus talks about when someone has sinned against you, go to that person. You see sin is that which separates us. Sin is that which causes us to lose each other. And when someone sins against you, Jesus doesn’t say get away from that person, Jesus says go to that person. Speak to that person – because if they listen to you, you will have regained them. There will be no more separation.
That’s what this text is about. It’s not about how to kick someone out of the church, it’s about how not to kick them out. How not to lose someone who has hurt you or the community. It’s about how to find them again. You see because when we sin against each other, it’s because we already are lost. It’s because we’ve lost who we are. Who we are claimed to be – God’s beloved. Remember, we belong to God and we belong to each other. When we forget that, we fall into sin. And God can’t stand the thought of losing even just one of you. This is instruction about how to find people again when they’ve hurt us. Because they need to be found.
The painful truth about this text is that we will hurt each other. We will do things that put separation between us. Anyone here ever done something that hurt someone? Something that damaged the relationship? Yeah, me too. In one of my first classes at seminary, a professor lovingly, yet honestly told us, “You will hurt people in your ministry. Be ready for it.” And he was right. I have. We all have. It’s not a truth just for seminarians – it’s a truth for all humanity. We will do things that hurt each other. The question is what will we do when that happens.
And Jesus’ answer is that we fight like hell to repair the breach. To heal the relationship, to restore the person back into the community. This can be shocking to our passive-aggressive, conflict-avoidant, Minnesota-nice tendencies – to go directly to the person. But then Jesus asks us to do it three times! And with new people each time to give witness and new angles on the situation.
But really, the most startling part of the passage is what Jesus says next. If the three times don’t work, treat them like they are tax collectors or gentiles. Which can sound a little like discarding someone from the community. “Whew, at least we don’t have to try a fourth time with that guy.” But how did Jesus treat tax collectors and gentiles? He ate with them.
So to me, that means to respect and honor that person’s choice to separate themselves from the community. But also to make sure there is always a place at the table for them – just in case. It is to treat them with respect and honor in their decision, but also to leave the light on for them.
When someone has sinned against you or against the community, it’s like a sheep that has gotten lost. And what does the Good Shepherd do? It goes and finds that one.
The heart of this passage isn’t rejection for sin – it is reconciliation. It is restoration back into the community.
Because we need community. We know this deep in our bones. And nothing reminds us quite like our need for community than the act of sending our young ones off onto a big yellow bus and praying, “Dear God, let them be kind and welcoming to each other. May someone look out for them.”
We need community so badly.
Every year around this time of year, my dear friend, Pastor Laura Aase, posts something like this on Facebook, “For all of you heading off to school tomorrow, I will say fierce lunchtime prayers. Find the new kid and ask them to sit with you at lunch. Make a new friend. Don’t be afraid of kids who aren’t like you.” I love that. And then I learned about a group of teenagers at a school in Florida who have made it their mission to make sure no one eats alone at lunch. That no one would get lost in the isolation of the lunchroom. They said, “If we don’t go and try to make that change, who else will?” The kingdom of God is like that group of high schoolers.
I marvel at how the social guidance give to children and youth is the same guidance that adult need. Be kind. Don’t call each other names. Work out your problems together. Don’t exclude each other. Go and find the new kid.
Deep in our bones, we know our need for each other. For community.
And the beauty and the struggle with times like these when our world is rattled by hurricanes and earthquakes, is that we get to see first-hand what it looks like when people ferociously care for and love the neighbor, the stranger. Venturing into flooded streets and houses, arm in arm to rescue each other. But why does it take tragedy to ignite that in us?
And we, the church, are called to be that place – that place that loves. Even the sinner. The separated one. So much so that we go out to find them. That place that works tirelessly to keep people in the flock, because our God is a reconciling God.
I once heard about a church where at every new member luncheon, the pastor would tell the new members, “This church will let you down. I will say or do something stupid or someone else will hurt you and we will fail to meet your expectations. The church will disappoint you. if you leave because we let you down you might miss the way that the destabilizing, gorgeous, shimmering grace of God comes in and fills in the cracks left behind from our brokenness. And it’s just too beautiful to miss.”
Beloved people of God, it is sacred ground to be among you. Because this is where grace happens. Because this is the place where Christ promises to meet us, wherever we gather together. In community. We all come here seeking something. Forgiveness. Grace. Welcome. And I don’t know about you, but those things are hard to come by on my own. I know they comes from God, but I hear them and feel them from you. Which makes what we do here critical to how we each experience the love and grace of God. What is bound and loosed on earth, is bound and loosed in heaven. The way we care for each other, the way we deal with our hurts and our misunderstandings together – they really matter.
God asks us not to give up on each other because God will not give up on us. May we be a place that embodies that for each other. And when we inevitably fail to do so, may we have the courage to talk to each other about it and try again. So that we just might catch a glimpse of the persistent grace of God that is out to find us. Amen.