By Jared Warner
Willow Creek Friends Church
September 20, 2020
Matthew 20:1–16 (ESV)
1 “For the kingdom of heaven is like a master of a house who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard. 2 After agreeing with the laborers for a denarius a day, he sent them into his vineyard. 3 And going out about the third hour he saw others standing idle in the marketplace, 4 and to them he said, ‘You go into the vineyard too, and whatever is right I will give you.’ 5 So they went. Going out again about the sixth hour and the ninth hour, he did the same. 6 And about the eleventh hour he went out and found others standing. And he said to them, ‘Why do you stand here idle all day?’ 7 They said to him, ‘Because no one has hired us.’ He said to them, ‘You go into the vineyard too.’ 8 And when evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his foreman, ‘Call the laborers and pay them their wages, beginning with the last, up to the first.’ 9 And when those hired about the eleventh hour came, each of them received a denarius. 10 Now when those hired first came, they thought they would receive more, but each of them also received a denarius. 11 And on receiving it they grumbled at the master of the house, 12 saying, ‘These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.’ 13 But he replied to one of them, ‘Friend, I am doing you no wrong. Did you not agree with me for a denarius? 14 Take what belongs to you and go. I choose to give to this last worker as I give to you. 15 Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or do you begrudge my generosity?’ 16 So the last will be first, and the first last.”
The Kingdom of heaven is like… I love the parables of the kingdom. I love the theology of the kingdom. I love the honest debates among friends about the kingdom. I love the kingdom because that is where Jesus wants us to be. Jesus calls us to become part of his kingdom. He calls us to be ambassadors of the kingdom. He says that we are sojourners or travelers through a foreign land where our citizenship is in the place he calls the Kingdom of Heaven.
I am probably fascinated by the language of the kingdom for many reasons but one of the reasons I love it is because I love reading. I enjoy historical fiction that takes place in Medieval Europe, and I am also intrigued by the Lord of the Rings series, the writings of C.S. Lewis, and similar authors in that semi-allegorical fantasy genera. I do not know why I am so attracted to these things, because I would hate to live in the Medieval world. I am very fond of our modern conveniences. I love the fact that I do not have to suffer through many diseases because we have vaccines. I love having a vehicle that can travel at speeds of seventy miles per hour or more. I love central heating and air. I would never want to live in a time where I would not have access to these things, but there is something about the life in those stories that intrigues me.
Although I enjoy the stories of knights, and I love the designs and evolution of armor those are not the reasons I am attracted to this time frame. Some might think that I am attracted to the Medieval era because of the central position of the church and the amazing architecture. I admit that the position of religion in the lives of the people does intrigue me in this era, but that is not the central reason I like this time frame. I really think the reason of love the concept of the Kingdom is because of the community. I strongly dislike many of the concepts of the Feudal system because I believe that people should be able to move up in society based on things other than birth. If someone works hard and has a gift I truly think they should be free to pursue that. So the feudal system is not what I am talking about when I speak of community. I like that everyone belongs, everyone has a place, and they take care of each other. I know that this is not always how it worked, and that there were great and gross abuses of position, but I read books that often romanticize the era.
I like the concept that everyone has a place, everyone belongs, and that we take care of each other. Life is filled with so many variables and unknowns, that leave many feeling as if they have nowhere to go or no one to turn too. With billions of people living in this world, we often feel alone. If there is something that is missing from our society today it is true community. And I believe that that is what Jesus is encouraging us to create when he speaks about the Kingdom.
Last week we spoke about a king that wanted to settle his accounts, and he brought before him a servant that had a debt of ten thousand talents, which is a debt equivalent to ten thousand years of labor. We are not told how this man accumulated this kind of debt or why, but he had a substantial debt. The king placed the call to settle the account, and the man begged for his life and for the life of his family. The king was stirred to core of his being with compassion for this man and debt was not only deferred but forgive.
Jesus told that story to illustrate forgiveness and how heinous withholding forgiveness truly is. That man that was forgiven of such a great debt left the king’s courts and he found a fellow servant that owed him money, and instead of reflecting the grace of his king, the man began to physically demand the repayment of the debt. A debt that was only the equivalent of one hundred days of work. The community told the king what happened and the man that was forgiven of his debt was brought again before the king, and faced even greater trials. It is a harsh story, but one filled with truth.
Jesus tells us that kingdom of heaven is similar to that story. Do we have a problem with that? Often when we hear about the Kingdom in churches our minds are transported to the ideas of heaven and that reward just beyond the veil of life. There is more to the story. Jesus said the kingdom is like a king…but his story did not end when the man was forgiven of the debt, it followed the man back into the community where he met and interacted with another man. Jesus continued to tell the story because the kingdom is on earth as it is in heaven. We are in the kingdom today just as much as we will be in the future. And the king is still presiding over his domain.
Today Jesus tells another story. The story about forgiveness prompted the religious leaders to give Jesus another challenge, this challenge dealt with divorce. In this teaching the disciples rightly observed that according to the purity of Jesus’s teaching it would be best not to get married. Marriage is hard. It requires constant forgiveness and reconciliation, but there are benefits to the practice of reconciliation.
All of these stories brought people closer to Jesus. Children wanted to be close, and even people with worldly wealth and success were encouraged to consider the teachings of Jesus. One man came to Jesus who was young and wealthy. He asked what he must do to have eternal life. It is the answer to this question that today’s story emerges. This man comes to Jesus, and Jesus urges him to follow the law. The man says that he has kept all these from his youth. He, like so many people, look at their lives and they believe that they are good people. How could a good God find anything wrong with them? We like to think that we are all good on our own merit, but the truth is that we often might do the right things for the wrong reasons.
I have never killed a person, but when patients runs thin I have entertained ideas that are not exactly savory. I have not purposely bent a knee to an idol, but I have put some temporal concerns in front of faithful devotion. I am a good person yet I am not perfect.
Jesus says the kingdom of heaven is like a man that owns a vineyard. That man needs people to work the vines, so he goes to the place the day laborers congregate and he hires some with the assurance that he will pay them what is just. These men accept the contract and get to work. The man returns to the town and hires people even when there is only an hour left in the work day. And as the day draw to an end he gathers those men together and he begins to give them their pay. The problem is he pays the last first and the first last.
This parable can be confusing because of all the ideological concepts we hold in our minds. We rightfully agree that an individual should be paid a just wage but when all those that worked get paid the same even when some worked only an hour, we feel that there is injustice at hand. It raises the question as to what Jesus means when he says that the kingdom of heaven is like this.
It is important to remember that this parable is spoken directly after the conversation with the man we often call the rich young ruler. At the end of that conversation Jesus lamented of the difficulty of the rich to enter the kingdom of heaven. He went so far as to say that it would be easier for a camel to pass through the eye of the needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom. Of course, that cryptic example has had biblical scholars trying to understand exactly what was meant by the words. They have attempted to say that it was a very short and narrow gate for special uses, no such gate has ever been found nor has one been written about so we are left with just the words and a needle. The disciples looked at Jesus in astonishment and said, “Who then can be saved?”
The disciples ask this question because they realized the complete devotion required to follow Jesus. Jesus told that man that he should let go of his entire estate, give it away to others, and to walk away completely to follow him. We credit the disciples with having that kind of faith, yet even they did not walk away completely at this point. We have several instances where they get back on the boats to do a bit of fishing while they were with Jesus. Even after the resurrection we hear the voice of Peter in scripture saying that he is tired of waiting and is going out to fish. That statement is not a man wishing to commune with God in nature, but what we might call back sliding. Peter was contemplating turning away from Jesus to return to his old lifestyle. Just like the rich young ruler, Peter and all the disciples had areas to where they did not fully trust God.
It is in this area of hesitancy that Jesus challenges them with this story. What are we to do with this metaphor of the kingdom when it seems to go against human understanding? We try grasp it by saying that the owner of the vineyard is God, and that this is a story of the end of days, but that does not resemble the general regard of Jesus’s other parables. When Jesus spoke about the unforgiving servant, he spoke in that manner because he wanted the disciples to begin the practice of reconciliation here and now. He wanted them to do that because if we are living lives of unforgiveness we are binding ourselves from experiencing the fullness of the promised abundant life. If the parable on forgiveness has application to our lives here and now, this parable also applies today.
When I first came to this Meeting to serve as a pastor, we prayed together to formulate a statement of who we are and our mission. We prayed for several months over this and we came up with something very profound. That statement is Loving God, Embracing the Holy Spirit, and Living the love of Christ with others. I love that statement because it resembles the holy rhythm I see in the life and lifestyle Jesus. He made it his custom to worship in the synagogues with the community, that custom of worship is our expression of loving God. He would withdraw often to isolated places to pray and a life of prayer is embracing the Holy Spirit. After spending time in prayer Jesus would then move into some form of ministry. He would teach, heal, or move to a different community. When we live our lives of worship and prayer, it should lead us to ministry of some form. That is how we live the love of Jesus with others, we live the life we see in the pages of scripture. We use those things that we have available to us in ways that will bring glory to God and encourage others to embrace the life we enjoy with Christ.
When Jesus told this parable, he is telling us something profound. He is telling us that the kingdom of heaven is different than the kingdoms of men. Jesus wants us to look at the man. A man that has worldly means. He has a vineyard large enough that he is required to hire laborers to complete the work that needs done. I am not sure how large this vineyard is, nor does it even matter, all we know is that he needs help and is willing to pay others to do the work. This man finds people to do the work and they agree on the payment. But the man goes back out, again and again, why?
A business is important to a community. A well-run business provides jobs which provides income, which is used in the purchase of goods and services in the community. Each business, no matter how large, is good for the community. Even the kingdoms of men recognize this fact, but the man in Jesus’s story takes this a different way. He has a vineyard and from the information we are given we can assume that it is a successful vineyard. This man looks beyond personal profit and looks at the community. He sees people standing around out of work and he knows that they will not be able to feed their children that day unless they earn some money, so he offers them a job because he has work to be done. He walks through the town again, he might have stopped by and talked to a few friends along the way. Maybe in one of those conversations this man learned that some businesses were struggling because their customers did not have money to spend. And the man looks up and he sees that there were people standing around waiting to be hired. He becomes concerned. His vineyard is fine, but the baker is struggling. The baker will not accept charity because there are others that need it more than he, so how will this man who loves his community help? He walks over to the men standing and waiting to be hire.
He goes to them knowing that they are waiting to be hire because their labor for some reason is not needed, and each man that is standing there is one less loaf of bread that his friend the baker will sell. His friend cannot hire those men, but he can. He hires the extra workers because his community is important. He is using what he has available to him to encourage those that are discouraged. To him it is not about profit, it is about community.
Jesus says that the kingdom of heaven is like that man. A man that see someone in his community that is in need and figures out some way to encourage them. We all have a place in the community, each of us working together makes our community better. Every seemingly insignificant thing we do, adds something to our community. We need each other, yet often we can get distracted. The laborers in the story were distracted, they ones that were hired first were upset because they felt as if they deserved more. Sometimes we are like that. We do not see the larger picture of what is going on around us. We only see that aspect right in front of us. They saw a man that only worked an hour get a full day’s pay and they felt that it was injustice. But do they see the larger picture? This man was not concerned with himself; he was living a kingdom lifestyle. His objective was to make sure as many people could eat as possible. His objective was to encourage as many people as possible. Every time he went out to hire men, the baker saw, the fish mongers saw, every business in the town saw and they all knew that those laborers would be visiting their stalls to make purchases.
We often miss the point of this parable. We focus on the labor, or the generosity of the landowner, but we forget to read the context. Jesus told this parable to highlight the reality that it is difficult for people to enter the kingdom. It is difficult because so often we fail to see the responsibility we have to use all that we have for God’s glory. The kingdom of heaven is like the man who owns a vineyard and is willing to face ridicule for his generosity. Are we becoming the blessing that people need?
By Jared Warner
Willow Creek Friends Church
September 13, 2020
Matthew 18:21–35 (ESV)
21 Then Peter came up and said to him, “Lord, how often will my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? As many as seven times?” 22 Jesus said to him, “I do not say to you seven times, but seventy-seven times. 23 “Therefore the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his servants. 24 When he began to settle, one was brought to him who owed him ten thousand talents. 25 And since he could not pay, his master ordered him to be sold, with his wife and children and all that he had, and payment to be made. 26 So the servant fell on his knees, imploring him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.’ 27 And out of pity for him, the master of that servant released him and forgave him the debt. 28 But when that same servant went out, he found one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred denarii, and seizing him, he began to choke him, saying, ‘Pay what you owe.’ 29 So his fellow servant fell down and pleaded with him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you.’ 30 He refused and went and put him in prison until he should pay the debt. 31 When his fellow servants saw what had taken place, they were greatly distressed, and they went and reported to their master all that had taken place. 32 Then his master summoned him and said to him, ‘You wicked servant! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. 33 And should not you have had mercy on your fellow servant, as I had mercy on you?’ 34 And in anger his master delivered him to the jailers, until he should pay all his debt. 35 So also my heavenly Father will do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother from your heart.”
I want to be as honest with you all as I possibly can be. The past few months have been extremely hard on me as a pastor. I try to be encouraging through the stay at home ordeal, and I often feel like the messages I have given were just adding more of a burden. And there is just so much negativity within the various forms of media that I feel as if I have gotten in a negative rut. I say this because the first few times I read through this week’s passage my mind went directly to news reports. I do not even consume much news. My average news consumption is under an hour, yet when I read about the parable of the servants my mind goes to the news reports. I think that this tells me a great deal. The first thing that it tells me is that our culture has been infected with the disease of discontent. We are allowing things of this world to distract our attention away from true life with Christ.
Peter asks Jesus an important question today. Last week we spoke about the process of reconciliation. First, we should go to those that have wronged us and speak to them personally. If that conversation did not lead a mutually beneficial conclusion, we should then bring some trusted friends to join us in the conversation. This is incredibly wise counsel, because when tensions are high sometimes the words of a mediator can allow us to see where both parties are being unreasonable. The third step if the situation is still not resolved is to bring the matter before the assembly or in our case the church. I find this to be interesting because I have had to work through things in the past. These steps are like the steps that our court systems take people through.
The teachings of Christ are often practical regarding interpersonal relations. They give us a good picture as to how to approach many things, but like many things if we do not continue to practice, we become rusty. If we do not continuously practice the methods of reconciliation daily; with our children, our spouses and family members, with our coworkers, and our friends we will continue a cycle of unrepentance and disunity. But if we practice these things, they become second nature to us.
Peter says, “OK, I get this process Jesus, but how long do we really do it. How many times do we have to go through this process?” I have been there. I understand where Peter is coming from. Those in my family are probably right there with him too when they consider all the times, I have not been at my prime around them. Peter is basically asking Jesus, when can we stop?
The last step in Jesus’s process is to treat the offending person like a tax collector and sinner. Have you really thought about that? How is a follower of Jesus supposed to treat those that are not part of the church around them? We are supposed to be bearers of the light of Christ, we are supposed to live our lives before them as examples of a different type of lifestyle than the one the world lives, so that they will at some point slow down and answer the great question of Who is Jesus and why should I care.
This is where Peter is. He knows the people he is being encouraged to forgive. He has lived in the same community with them since he was a child and some of them live in the same house. How long do we have to keep this process up? And Peter gives a number, seven. It sounds like a good number. It has great spiritual significance with the seven days of creation and all. And if we think of those people that have wronged us in a significant way, it might even be a number that is filled with a great deal of grace. Imagine forgiving an adulterous spouse not once but seven times, in my mind that would be significant. I could not even imagine extending grace to that extent to someone that took the life of a loved one. Those are the things that we are thinking about when we are presented with the issue of forgiveness, and why we often struggle.
Jesus responds to Peter’s question and personal response with something that floored the disciples. “I do not say to you seven, times, but seventy-seven.” Some other translations will also say seventy times seven times. The thing about this is that the ancient understanding of numbers is a bit different than we have today. Often in scripture the term 1000 does not necessarily mean a number but could mean infinity, so when John speaks of a thousand year reign of Jesus after the second coming he might be meaning a literal thousand years or he might be expressing the concept of eternity. I am not saying that we should disregard the numbers mentioned in scripture, but we need to recognize that at times numbers can be used as an expression especially when they are large numbers. In this case, the concept of seventy-seven or seventy times seven is not literal but is an expression of continuation. I say this because seventy times seven is four hundred and ninety, so if we are focusing on the literal number of seventy-seven or four hundred and ninety what are we doing? If we are counting the amount of times, we have forgiven someone are we focused on reconciliation or are we focused on when we can start kicking them out? If we are looking forward to that last time we have not reconciled with our brother, our sister, or our friend we are not putting in the work. We are allowing behavior to continue without consequences, we are letting people walk over us without expressing our concerns, and we are letting the situation get out of hand to the point that you and not them will blow up and cause a rupture in the relationship that is more difficult to mend.
To focus on the literal number is to distract our attention from what is most important. Jesus is using the numbers to illustrate the foolishness of the concept. If we have gained a brother through the process of reconciliation, we have spoken to that individual, we have let them know what transgression they have caused, we brainstormed ways to prevent further harm, and we have moved forward from that point because the problem should be solved. We do not need to keep track of that transgression any longer because in theory if both parties are honestly seeking mutual good of each other there should never be an additional transgression in that area. To keep track of a number means that we did not approach that first conversation with any desire to forgive or work things out, instead we approached that conversation with an agenda.
I say this knowing full well that when trust if broken it is difficult to move forward. It may take years to come to a point where trust is restored. That does not mean we should give up. Scripture tells us that all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. If we really wanted to be honest, we could say all sin every day and fall short of the glory of God. Every day I do something that will irritate someone in my family. Every day I will annoy a customer or a coworker. Every day I could live better. Every day the opposite is true as well, I get annoyed by customers, I am irritated by family members to some degree, and I have been on the brink of quitting many times. This week reality hit me. I realized that I have not been the best example of living the love of Christ with others. And that realization came in the form of my son’s schoolwork. The assignment was that the student would draw a picture and write a sentence about the picture. And the sentence was, “My dad is always grumpy.”
That sentence got to me. It is not who I am. I love to laugh; I love to play games and goof off. At times it would be embarrassing for people to know just how unserious I can be. Yet something happened somewhere last week where the goof became a grump. I realized that I was not practicing the life I claim to be living. I was not promoting good conflict resolution with someone that means the world to me. I was neglecting true discipline and allowed grumpiness to displace love.
What do we do when that happens?
Jesus tells us, “The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wishes to settle his accounts with his servants.” Jesus often presents his most profound teaching in the form of a story. This is because we often remember the story long after we have forgotten the facts. And wrapped within the words of stories can be the most profound truth we can find. I love a good book. I am a quiet person and I find a day where I can sit and read about as close to heaven as one can get on earth. And I think part of the reason I have been grumpy is because I have not had enough time to relax in that way. But story comes in many forms, the movies we watch, the video games we might play, or even a sculpture or painting is a story. It is some creative aspect within our mind that is being used to express some truth or observation of the world. Stories are powerful, they make their way into our minds and we process them layer after layer. They reveal something to us we did not see before, and prompt us to confront it. Well at least a good story does that, some stories might just be entertaining.
Jesus uses story to drive home his teaching on forgiveness. A king wants to settle his accounts. He calls in his subjects that have debts with him and demands payment. We are told that one of those servants has a debt of ten thousand talents. Again, we have a number here, and it is a really big number. A talent is basically the amount of money an average person would be able to live on in a year. One talent would be the basic income to survive, and this man had a debt of ten thousand talents. Jesus told this story about two thousand years ago, so this guy’s family would still have a debt of eight thousand talents if they gave their entire salary to the king. The number here again is not so much literal, but outrageous. There is no way a common person would be able to pay this debt off. I think it is a bit crazy to have a debt that large. Imagine having that size of a debt hanging over your head and getting that call. You know you have nothing that will even come close to satisfying the debt yet the call came. We know it is just a story because if this were reality that man would have probably died on the spot, but instead he stands before the king. He begs the king for his life and for the life of his family on bent knees. He claims that he will pay everything back if only he would grant him time.
The king is unlike any king or ruler on earth. The king looks at this man with a debt that would be held over his head and the heads of his family spanning a hundred and fifty generations, and the king had pity for him. The king was moved deeply, and the ancients would say it moved him deep in his bowels. I am glad we no longer use that expression. Today we would say heart or soul, it shook us to the very core of who we are. The king looked at this man and he saw such potential in him that instead of ruining his life and that of his family, the king decided to forgive the debt. Imagine waking up one morning getting the mail and looking at a stack of bills, opening them up and reading the amount due as being zero, and in a panic you see that their was a credit added to the account that payed it off completely. And you see it on every bill, even the thirty-year mortgage paid completely. What would you do that day?
Well this man had just witnessed the king forgiving a debt that his family would still be paying off today, and he like anyone that has good sense went directly out of the royal courts and he finds a servant that owes money to him. This man has no debts, he literally owes nothing to anyone. He sees this man and he demands that he pays off the debt that is owed. This servant has a debt of one hundred denarii. If a talent was equivalent to a yearly salary, a denarius was a day’s wage. This man owed the other less than a third of a years’ wages. If we were to put this into perspective the 100th day of the year is April 10th, which is almost tax-day. This man if he wanted to could survive on a half of a loaf of bread a day and suffer for a bit and have his entire debt paid off after two hundred says, so on July 19th he could be debt free and back to full rations. He has a debt, a large debt looming over his head, but it is a debt that is manageable. With careful planning his family could be free and clear within one year. But it will take time. I am not able to pay a third of my salary to a debt today. Very few people could pay that amount of money off at a moment’s notice.
We have a man whose family would be continuing to pay off the debt even a hundred and fifty generations after his death, and another man who could pay it off within a year. And the man that was given grace of one hundred and fifty lifetimes, looked at the other and was enraged. The amount of the other man’s debt was insignificant in the greater scheme of things. Where the first man’s debt is beyond our comprehension. It is like comparing the average credit card debt American’s hold to the national debt.
What does Jesus’s story have to do with reality? All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God, St. Paul tells us. And he also says that the wage of sin is death. Each of us has a debt that we cannot pay no matter how hard we work. In the eyes of our God, our king we are like that first man. We have no hope of paying it off, even if we gave everything more would be required. So much more is required that God sent his Son to take on that debt for us. Jesus was born as a baby and lived in a family of construction workers for thirty years before entering ministry. He then spent three years walking around Israel with his disciples while he taught, healed, and showed us a lifestyle of true holiness. He experienced a complete life with us. And he experienced the gross injustice humanity can perpetrate on another. He who was without sin, became sin for us. He took our sin, our debt, on himself when he died on that cross. And he released us from that debt when he rose again. A debt that would be impossible to pay like asking me to personally pay off the national debt tomorrow, Christ took on himself.
We got ourselves into that mess, and Christ frees us from it. Now we are asking, how many times should I forgive my brother? Jesus is telling us what to do, work it out. Ok your friend wronged you, let them know what is going on and come up with a solution so you do not have to have the same conversation again, and move on. And guess what you might have that same conversation again, because maybe we got distracted or stressed out. Start the process over again, stop being a grumpy dad and start living life again. We have been forgiven much, by the one that had nothing to be forgiven of, who do we really think we are?
By Jared Warner
Willow Creek Friends Church
September 6, 2020
Matthew 18:15–20 (ESV)
15 “If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother. 16 But if he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, that every charge may be established by the evidence of two or three witnesses. 17 If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church. And if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector. 18 Truly, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven. 19 Again I say to you, if two of you agree on earth about anything they ask, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven. 20 For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them.”
The past few weeks we have been with the disciples and Jesus in the region north of Israel, where they visited the countries we now call Lebanon and Syria. These nations that we often hear about in the news are significant to our Christian heritage. We often disregard them because a thousand years ago a conquering force came into those nation and converted them to Islam, but they are still significant. Even today there are Christians that live in those areas, even in Israel some of the people known as Palestinians are Christian, and many of them can trace their spiritual heritage back to the very pages of scripture. We cannot imagine that in our culture because we do not live in the lands Jesus walked. And very few of us have even visited those lands.
We hear about these lands in the news and we hear only the items that make the news. News is filled with the sensational, the violent, the riots and protests, and the attacks. News is rarely filled with the common things of life, families raising children and teaching them to follow God, individuals that go out of their way to assist another for no other reason than to encourage them. We do not hear these things in the news because that does not sell. What sells is the feud between Israel and Palestine, what sells is the violent conflicts between religious zealots, what sells is the pain of others. We look at these lands and we see them as uncultured and uncivilized, but those same conflicts happen all around us even in the United States. And people in those areas we often look down on are watching their news and they are wondering what is wrong with us.
I thought about this as I contemplated this week’s passage. I thought about this because we like to call ourselves a Christian nation. We call ourselves this, but what do those outside of our boarders really see? I thought about this and I lower my head because what is seen in the media is not Christ. I have urged you all often to turn off the news, to stop listening to the radio for a reason, because what the media is doing to us is causing a continuous cycle of anger that is drawing us deeper into darkness. It is distracting our attention from what is most important and focusing it to things that overwhelm us. We are allowing the opinions of the news channels to place wedges between our friends and even cause division between those within our family. But I want us to consider something, how much does the things we hear about on the news really affect your everyday life? Yes, at times it is important to know, but are we using the information to encourage those around us or to cause greater tension?
Today, Jesus and his disciples have returned to their home base by the sea of Galilee. And Jesus is still trying to get his disciples to understand what his ministry really is. We often look at the disciples’ lack of understanding and laugh but we are seeing them on this side of history. We know the outcome, the history we know had yet to occur for them. Each of them had perspectives and opinions that were being derived from their current events. They were attempting to understand what was going on around them while only knowing a small portion of the total story, and they were interpreting that story through the ideas they hoped for. When Jesus told them that he was going to die at the hands of the religious and political elites, they did not want to hear those words because they were hoping for something else, they were hoping for a kingdom and a nation of their own.
What is a kingdom or a nation? When we look at a map, we see a world filled with nations. Each different nation or state has a different color that is set off with a dark line. We know the reality of those lines because one of those lines is just a few blocks to the west of our Meetinghouse, the only reason there is a line on that boarder is because there is a road, without that road we would be unable to distinguish where Missouri ended and Kansas began. If you were to download the Google Earth app on your phone you would see this expanded to the entire world. Where are the nations on our satellite images? You cannot see them because nations and boarders are concepts that humans develop and are recognized by consent. Canada, the United States, Mexico, and the other central American nations are one land mass the boarders that we recognize were agreed upon by mutual consent of governing bodies of people made an agreement at the end of a war. And those boarders are maintained as long as the people continue to agree. When one side chooses to stop recognizing that boarder peace has been broken.
But what is a nation? A nation is simply a group of people that have been unified or brought together under a common system or form of order. A nation like a boarder is nothing but a concept within the minds of humanity held together by the consent of the people within. How that consent is obtained and maintained is different. The majority of nations garner consent with the use of force, but there are other organizations that are built by voluntary consent. This is the difference between that kingdom that the disciples are wishing to gain and the kingdom that Christ is ushering in. The kingdoms of men use force where the kingdom of God is voluntary.
A kingdom or nation can also be a scope of influence and not merely geography. We consider ourselves part of the United States, but we are also part of other nations as far as influence goes. The organizations of NATO, and the UN offer avenues that allow influence to extend far beyond the boarders of one geographic nation. And in these voluntary unions of nations seemingly small nations hold an influence that is greater than their collective might. This idea causes many to become fearful of the future.
I want us to think about nations, not as geography, but as people. When I was in school we would often go on field trips and our teachers would tell us before we got off the bus that we represent the school. I always found that annoying because I was an individual not the school, but as I have matured I have come to realize that it is true. We are more than mere individuals, but we are part of a community. Our position and influence within that community can be positive or negative, and it can inspire a community or promote feelings of despair. When the read the words of the prophets we can sometimes be confused by some of the wording because they speak as parts of a community and not just as individuals. When Isaiah says, “I am undone for I am a man of unclean lips from a people of unclean lips.” He says this because he knows that he is part of a community that has not always done the things that it should. He knows that he personally had not contributed enough to his community to move them to righteousness, so he held some of the blame. Spiritual directors across Christian traditions recognize this phenomenon, even among Protestant groups. Dallas Willard, in his writing on the Renovation of the Heart, recognizes the community as part of an individual’s soul, because the community can influence the individual and the individual can influence a community. You are Willow Creek Friends, you are Kansas City, you are Kansas or Missouri, you are the United States. You might seem insignificant, but you are important.
The influence of the individual within a nation, or group of people, is the kingdom that Jesus is concerned with. When he stood in trial before the people of great status they asked him if he is the king of the Jews, and he responded you say so. It seems like an odd response, but it is accurate. When the Roman official made that statement, he was forcing Jesus to represent the entire population of the Jewish people. At that moment the behavior of this one individual was seen as the response of the masses. This is also why Jesus also said that his kingdom is not of this world, because the nations of the world use force to influence where Jesus uses voluntary response. The kingdom of God is beyond the borders of earthly nations because the kingdom of God includes all people.
The disciples, like many of us, were unable to see the difference. They have a desire to make Jesus their king, but they do not understand the manner of which Jesus will provide influence. Jesus told them that he was going to suffer, and they responded in a manner that prompted Jesus to call them sons of Satan because they had their eyes set on the things of man instead of the things of God. Today Jesus is explaining to us the true kingdom.
“If a brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained a brother.” If someone sins against you, what do you do? The natural response is often to hold a grudge against the person. They have wronged you, so the response is to withdraw from that relationship, to stop talking to them until they realize how they have wronged you. There is a problem here, and that problem is that we as humans are stupid. We do not always realize what we have done and we will never know until we are told. If we train someone to do a job, we show them how it should be done and then we let them do it. As they are doing the task, if they transgress we quickly correct them. In some cases we do this because if they do not perform the task in a certain way they can cause harm to themselves and others. We again show them the proper way to do the task and we let them try again. We do this in a work setting but when it comes to our relationships we often withdraw. We leave those we often care about the most blowing in the wind. They are doing something that threatens the community, threatens our friendship but instead of speaking to them and building a stronger community we often let the transgression cause division.
Jesus urges us to speak to them, let them know how their actions are causing harm within the community, and maybe if we speak together, we can build understanding and a compromise that will be mutually beneficial. Jesus says when we do this, we gain a brother. We have gained someone in our community that will assist and promote a common goal.
But personal relationships are tough. There is an entire industry within our culture devoted to assisting others talk with each other. If we are unable to find a way forward individually, we are charged to seek counsel with others. And if we are still unable to find a mutually profitable way forward we are to take it before the community. This very specific counsel from Christ points to something deeper and more pressing. The kingdom is not about force. The kingdom is not about power over others or even power within a nation. The kingdom is about how we interact with each other.
You are the church. You are our nation. You are the world. And you are the kingdom. We can look at everything going on around us, we can even cast blame upon a specific generation or political ideology if we want to. But what does this actually gain? If we do not personally get involved encouraging the people around us to enter a different type of lifestyle, we have done nothing and are just as equally at blame as those on the other side of the issue. That is a very sobering reality, but the reality all the same. What are we doing to promote peace in the Middle East? The reality is that that process does not start in Israel or the United Arab Emirates, it starts right here in our own community. Peace begins in your own interpersonal relationships. It begins with how you respond to your family and your friends.
What we bind on earth is bound in heaven and what we loose on earth will be loose in heaven. Again we this weird saying comes to us in the words of scripture. Before it seemed like power over others but when it is spoken in this instance it takes on a new form. We are actual instruments of binding and loosening, and more accurately we are the one bound or loosed. If we refuse to initiate the acts of reconciliation we bind not only those that offend us but we bind ourselves. They are bound on earth, but we are bound in heaven. We are bound because we know the truth and by refusing to participate in the call of the kingdom, we close the gate on ourselves.
There is much at stake in this passage. How we respond to something as small as a seemingly insignificant slight of another can build into quarrels between nations. Am I being a bit overly dramatic, sure, but there is truth in the words. If we do not practice conflict resolution with those around us, how can we expect it on a global scale. If we will not encourage those within our community that seemingly fall away from faith, how can we expect to legislate faithfulness on a national scale? Are we a Christian nation? The answer will not be found in the media, the answer is right here. Are you? Today we have an opportunity to adjust our course and repent. Today we can take steps of reconciliation and promote faithfulness. Today we can become instruments of healing, by speaking to our brothers and sisters. We can encourage those around us to turn from a life of pain and destruction and embrace an abundant life with Christ. We can loosen the gates of heaven and it all begins with how you respond to the ones God has by his grace allowed you to live among.