14 Sep

Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost


The crossing of the Red Sea in this week’s reading from Exodus is a foundational story for Jews, Christians, and peoples around the world throughout human history seeking or trusting in God’s power to deliver them from oppression and danger.

The teaching in Matthew this week focuses on forgiveness as an indispensible practice for all Christians to offer to one another, and indeed to all people, under all circumstances always.

 

References:
Color(s):

Green

Planning

unmerciful servant

The Parable of the Unmerciful Servant” from Scots Church,
Melbourne, Australia. Public Domain. 


 


Revised Common Lectionary Readings
Revised Common Lectionary Prayersfor this service at the Vanderbilt Divinity Library.)
Leccionario en Español, Leccionario Común Revisado: Consulta Sobre Textos Comunes.
Para obtener más recursos leccionario, Estudios Exegético: Homiléticos.
Lectionnaire en français, Le Lectionnaire Œcuménique Révisé

Exodus 14:10-31.
If you are going to focus on U.S. Patriot Day in this service, use this text cautiously. Consider reading and preaching only from verses 19-22, 27a, and 29-30a. This shorter selection of verses preserves the narrative of God's deliverance at the Red Sea, a critical story in God's salvation revealed in Israel and in Christ, but excises any exultation over the death of the Egyptians. Christian worship should not contribute to further tensions between Christians, especially American Christians, and Muslims in the U.S. or around the world.

Psalm 114 (UMH 835).
Again, use this rather than the Canticle of Moses, for the same reasons listed above.

Romans 14:1-12.
Respect the diverse spiritual and personal disciplines of others and do not judge them for not being identical to your own. Jesus Christ is Lord of the living and the dead, and God alone is judge of all.

Matthew 18:21-35.
Peter asks what may be our question, especially on this day, "How many times do I have to forgive someone?" Jesus responds with a hyperbole, a story, and a warning.


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Worship Notes

Calendar

We continue in this Season after Pentecost to pursue the season’s main purpose—to support and challenge the baptized to live out the discipleship and ministries in the world in Christ’s name and the Spirit’s power.

September brings with it the possibility of pursuing a related theme either topically or using the existing lectionary texts. Called Season of Creation, the four weeks of September provide an opportunity to explore how our relationship to the creation and other creatures relates to our calling to discipleship and ministry. The original Australian developers of this mini-season have developed topical resources unrelated to the lectionary, here.
Discipleship Ministries provides planning starters based on the lectionary readings for each Sunday. This week’s Season of Creation lectionary theme, based on the Exodus reading, is “Sky, Wind and Sea as Agents of Deliverance and Destruction.”


all saintsDuring October, Discipleship Ministries also provides resourcing to enable your congregation to observe A Season of Saints, expanding the opportunity for your congregation to lift up historic Christian saints, significant leaders from our United Methodist heritage, and local saints you identify where you are—all in service to the overall mission of the Season after Pentecost. This is the fourth year we have provided support for this focus during this month, stretching from World Communion Sunday through All Saints Day/Sunday. Feedback from congregations who have pursued these series has been consistently positive! So consider whether this may be helpful in your context as your planning team completes its work for this season!

Hispanic-Latino Heritage Month begins tomorrow (September 15). It is a month-long U.S. civic observance (September 15-October 15) recognizing the contributions of Hispanic and Latino persons to U.S. history and current culture. . Resources specifically for this observance are linked above. For many more Spanish language and Hispanic-Latino resources, see Discipleship Ministries's Hispanic-Latino Resources page.

Looking Ahead


September
Whole Month: Season of Creation (2014 Discipleship Ministries lectionary-based themes and overview).

September 1 Labor Day (USA) (August 31, Labor Sunday)
September 15-October 15: Hispanic Heritage Month

October
Whole Month: A Season of Saints
October 5: World Communion Sunday (Discipleship Ministries Resources); “Living into the Mystery” Video (streaming; to order on DVD, send request to worship@UMCdiscipleship.org)
October 12: Children’s Sabbath (Discipleship Ministries Resources)
October 19: Laity Sunday

 

 

November
All Month: Native American Heritage Month

November 1/2: All Saints Day/Sunday (Also see Church and Civic Holidays)
November 9: “Restored” or Extended Advent 1, Organ and Tissue Donor Sunday (USA), International Day of Prayer for the Persecuted Church
November 11: Veterans Day (USA) (GBHEM resources)
November 23: Bible Sunday in National Bible Week (November 23-30) (USA)
November 27: Thanksgiving Day (USA)
November 30: Advent (Regular) Year B Begins, United Methodist Student Day
 
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Atmospherics -- Exodus: The Way of Deliverance
Brought Safely through the Sea

God made a way out of no way to bring decisive deliverance from the powers of death and oppression.

The crossing of the Red Sea in this week’s reading from Exodus is a foundational story for Jews, Christians, and peoples around the world throughout human history seeking or trusting in God’s power to deliver them from oppression and danger.

Part of the power of this event is its demonstration that the God of Israel is also the God of the Land, Wind, Sea and Sky. Every element of the created order—earth itself (mud), the sky (pillar of cloud and fire), wind (blowing all night), and sea (subdued, controlled, parted, and restored) was brought into play to deliver the ragtag, impromptu hosts of Israel. YHWH saved Israel that day (verse 30).

After it happened, this story was retold in many songs (the Psalm recommended by the Revised Common Lectionary, and many others besides) and used multiple times in many ways to remind the people of Israel of their identity grounded in the One who delivered them so decisively. The prophets referred to this story time and again to call the people to return to the ways and the will of YHWH, to warn them that this same God could turn similar power against them and would do so if they did not repent. They also used it to describe God’s decisive action yet to come in delivering them from captivity in exile in Babylon. There may be no more paradigmatic story of God’s salvation anywhere in the Tanakh (Hebrew Bible).

Remembering that Christians, and especially Gentile Christians are “wild grafts” into God’s saving story with Israel (Romans 9-11), the power of this story can and should be just as powerful for us. When New Testament writers, Christian preachers and preservers and composers of liturgies after that time have invoked this story to describe what God has done for us in Christ and what happens to us in baptism, they were not making a mere passing allusion to a peculiar but mostly forgotten story in “an antique volume written by faded men” (Emily Dickenson). This was a story that was full of life, a story that captivated and offered the hope and the reality of deliverance by the God who was out to save.

In early Christianity, those who were being prepared for baptism would have heard this story. After they have come through the waters, they would have been instructed more fully in what God had just done to deliver them just as decisively from the powers of sin and death and to join them to a people set free to be witnesses of God’s saving power in and to all the earth.

Among oppressed peoples in the times since then, and for those of us in the United States, particularly among persons of African descent, this story has been told and retold, woven into work-songs and watch-songs, encoded into the DNA of a people who knew oppression and know it still, but in and through it all have known and trusted in the power of this God to deliver and decisively save from it all. 

This is our God, and we will give praise; the God of our ancestors, and we will rejoice! (Exodus 15:2).

This is our God, breaking the power of cancelled sin, setting the prisoner free.

And we are the people of this God, the sheep of this God’s pasture (Psalm 100).

When Christ has made us free, we are free indeed—free and freed to declare and help the world and all creation know and experience deliverance by its Liberator, God with us in Jesus Christ.

In Your Planning Team

Week by week in this series, we have seen more and more ways God has been out to deliver God’s people from oppression and captivity and made it happen. God delivered Moses at his birth, and many other male Hebrew infants, through the agency of midwives who subverted the Pharoah’s orders. God sought out Moses at the burning bush to commission him to become an agent of deliverance for the whole people in captivity in Egypt. God effected that deliverance on Passover night, causing Pharoah finally to decide to let the people go. And today we see God employing earth, wind, air and water to clear a path for his people from a pursuing army, but rout the arriving army in the ensuing flood.

However you plan worship today, find some way to remind people of this larger narrative of God’s persistent efforts to save God’s people… and that this same God pursues salvation for all just as persistently to this day.

Find the people where you are who are telling this story of God the decisive deliverer. This is a day for those stories to be heard, loud and clear, and to be celebrated “with tamborines and dancing” (Exodus 15:20, UMH 135). Think about the sermon time for today being an occasion for just such celebration.

Consider what you can do about soundscapes today, especially. This text roars with sound—lightning and thunder (crackling and rumbling in the night sky from the pillar of cloud), wind, waters held back and rushing forth, cries and songs of deliverance. But don’t overdo it. Focus first on making sure it is read well— then add sounds in ways that will enhance rather than detract from the reading. 

If you have a baptism or reaffirm the baptismal covenant today, or even if you don’t, call people’s attention again to what those waters not only symbolize but have, by the power of the Spirit, made real in the lives of all the baptized (see the thanksgiving over the water at baptism, UMH 36, para 10). When you celebrate around the Lord’s Table today, or even if you don’t, draw out the line in Word and Table I that points to this event: “you delivered us from captivity.” Or use a version of the anaphora (the praise of God preceding the Sanctus) that captures this imagery, perhaps something like this:

It is right, and good and a joyful thing
always and everywhere to praise you, Almighty God, Savior and Deliverer for all.
You breathed upon chaos, and called forth order, light and life.
You opened barren wombs,
and brought forth a people
to reveal your love and glory in all the world.
When they had fallen into slavery, you were mighty to save,
in wind and fire, earth and flood.
Great is your name, O God of our ancestors,
and greatly to be praised!
And so, with your people on earth…


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Romans: Christian Theology and Ecclesiology, 101
R-E-S-P-E-C-T and True Mutual Love

Romans this week provides guidance for dealing with significant differences in personal or possibly even house church disciplines among the Christian communities at Rome. This conversation is just as essential for Christians today, and especially on this day, as it was then. Paul does not reject the validity of these differing disciplines for those who undertake them. He respects that they may be integral to their faithfulness to Christ.

Thus, when Paul writes, “Let all be fully convinced in their own minds,” (14:5b) he is not at all saying that one practice is, on the face of it, just as good as any other, or that none of them really matters. He’s not being the least bit relativist here. Rather, he’s insisting that we all respect one another in and across such differences while firmly holding what we have each received and seeking to live fully into that in faithfulness to Christ. So, for example, if one house church had a rule that the whole house fasts on Tuesdays and Thursdays, but another house fasts on Wednesday and Fridays, and a third does not fast regularly, but only on certain days, none is to hold the other in contempt, and each is to live out its own house rule faithfully in reverence to Christ and in support of each other.

Today we may remind ourselves that this call to such mutual respect for differing religious practices within the Christian community extends to the larger global human community of which each of us is also a part.

Neither is Paul saying “do not judge” as a blanket statement. U.S. culture (with many western cultures more generally) is deeply infected with the notion that any sort of discernment about the propriety or impropriety of any action must be ruled out of bounds either by Jesus (in verses such as this) or by classical liberal or humanist standards. That is simply not the case. There is a massive difference between discernment that leads to judgment about behaviors that are destroying people’s lives or relationships and acts of condemning people. Jesus continually offered words of judgment. So did the prophets before him. So does Paul, even here in this very chapter, when he calls these people not to condemn each other for differences in personal or house church disciplines. These words are words of judgment—but they are words of judgment against condemning others for doing what they can to be faithful in their way to Christ.

What are some different customs and disciplines within the “houses” of your congregation? Of your wider community? How are people in your congregation and community encouraged to be faithful to these disciplines out of reverence for Christ? Where are there examples of different “houses” both practicing their disciplines and respecting the practices of others with differing disciplines? What images (of disciplines, of living them, and of respecting those of others) do folks who talk about each of these things use to describe them?

And seek, too, stories of good examples of mutual respect for persons who practice different religions where you are—how Muslims, Buddhists, Jews, Hindus (or whoever lives where you are) show respect to you as Christians, and how you as Christians show respect to them. Again, this is not about saying other religious paths are equally valid. It is about us learning how to love our neighbors as ourselves out of reverence for Christ.


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Matthew: On Mission with the Master
"Forgiveness Always"

The teaching in Matthew this week completes the teaching begun last week. Last week focused on the process of reconciliation and the necessity of engaging that process when conflict or offense has occurred within the life of the Christian community. This week’s text focuses on forgiveness as an indispensible practice for all Christians to offer to one another, and indeed to all people, under all circumstances always.

Efforts at reconciliation may fail, even at the highest levels. People may choose not to listen and act positively to restore relationships even when the whole community pleads with them to do so (Matthew 18:17). But the obligation upon and opportunity for each and every member of the Christian community to forgive the offender—no matter who that offender is or how many times the offender has offended-- is by no means diminished. Forgiveness does not mean everything is resolved. Forgiveness means that I no longer assign responsibility for the pain I have experienced to the person or persons I believe have wronged me. I release those persons from owing me anything (cf. the “debt-vision” from last week’s epistle reading) to pay for that pain.

Jesus is realistic in describing what it takes to make this radical expectation of unconditional forgiveness a reality in the hearts of his followers. Forgiveness is a basic practice and sign of God’s reign that he expects to stick. That’s why he says, in response to Peter’s question, “No- don’t just forgive seven times! Forgive seventy-seven times!” (or in some manuscripts,” seventy-times seven times!”) Keep releasing, keep letting go your need to assign blame to others for the pain you feel. It may well keep coming back. Keep releasing it every time it does. If it takes seven times, let it go. If it takes seventy-seven times, let it go. If it takes seventy times seven times, let it go. Let it go until it doesn’t come back again. Our calling and blessed opportunity in Christ is nothing less than that we will forgive our sisters and brothers from our hearts (18:35).

This is not easy. But it is essential if we’re not going to end up on the ash heap of history, also known as hell.

Jesus is just as clear about this at the end of the story he tells (18:34). When the man who forgave the original (and very large!) debt learned the one he had forgiven had demanded payment in full for a much smaller debt, he cancelled the forgiveness and turned that man over to be tortured (yes, tortured!) until the full debt was repaid. “So will my heavenly Father do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart.” In other words, forgive, or face God’s wrath in full!

In Your Planning Team

Is your worshiping community ready to hear this hard but liberating teaching from Jesus?

How have folks where you are experienced the freedom that comes by forgiving always? How have folks experienced wrath when they did not forgive?  

How will you design worship space today to help your congregation embrace and celebrate this core teaching of the way of Jesus?

Are there stories or signs of forgiveness offered that are particularly meaningful where you are?

In Word and Table I and II, United Methodists are given words to say to each other after the confession of sin (UMH 8). The leader of the prayers, usually the pastor, begins, “In the name of Jesus Christ, you are forgiven.” The people respond, “In the name of Jesus Christ, you are forgiven.” All together say, “Glory to God. Amen.”

Consider the possibility of embodying these words differently today. Add a step. Encourage people to turn to those around them and to take some time, as they may need, to go to those in your midst who may have wronged them, and say to each of these people, individually, “In the name of Jesus Christ, you are forgiven.”

And then, add another. Ask people to think of anyone else in their lives, anywhere at all, whom they have not yet forgiven. Then invite people to say to these persons, present or absent, silently or aloud, “In the name of Jesus Christ, you are forgiven.”

 After all or most have returned to their places, the presider may say “In the name of Jesus Christ, we are all forgiven!” And then all may respond, “Glory to God! Amen!”

Then share the Peace, collect the offerings, present the bread and wine, and celebrate God’s forgiveness made real in your midst around the Lord’s Table.


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Embodying the Word: Intercession for the Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost 2014

The image of Moses with arms outstretched as the waters of the Red Sea part and then outstretched again as the waters flood back in is a powerful picture of the role of intercession given to all of us, individually as Christians and collectively as the body of Christ. We do not direct the waters, but we act as those who stand before God entrusting even the forces of nature into God’s care and delivering power.

How might your congregation enter more fully into this powerful image of intercession as they offer their prayers for the church and the world today? Consider the possibility of an embodied prayer in which some stretch forth their hands, some walk the aisles as a sign of crossing over with those for whom they pray silently or aloud, and others voice the general intercessions. You will want to rehearse this with a few people who will carry out these roles beforehand, so they can act as models for others to follow when you pray in this way together. The leaders in particular should proclaim the biddings with boldness, and encourage the congregation to offer itself in full voice in their responses, individual or collective.

Leader 1: Almighty God, Compassionate to the weak, Deliverer of the broken, Redeemer of the Captives, and Advocate for all who have been wronged;

Leader 2: Jesus, Son of God, Messiah, Way, Truth and Life, Eternal Word, and our Passover from Sin and Death’

Leader 3: Spirit of God, Ruach Ha Kodesh, Wind of Air and Flame of Fire, Oil of Gladness Running Down, Flowing Over, Convicting, Coaching, Spurring all to Truth:

People: Inspire and hear our prayers!

Leader 1: Inspire and hear our prayers for all who have been threatened and pursued by the powers of sin, sickness and death

People ready to pray for such persons walk into the aisle, to the front and back to their seats, naming these persons aloud or silently, while the congregation repeats the prayer:

Hear us and deliver them, O God!

Leader 2: Inspire and hear our prayers for justice and peace in the world, for leaders to be delivered from blind self-interest and to embrace the courage to work for the good of all…

People ready to pray for such persons walk into the aisle, to the front and back to their seats, naming these persons aloud or silently, while the congregation repeats the prayer:

Hear us and deliver them, O God!

Leader 3: Inspire and hear our prayers for us your people gathered here, for our leaders and clergy, and for all who claim Jesus Christ as Lord in heaven and on earth…

People ready to pray for such persons walk into the aisle, to the front and back to their seats, naming these persons aloud or silently, while the congregation repeats the prayer:

Hear us, empower us, and send us in your name, Jesus!

Leader 1: Inspire and hear our prayers for the earth and all that lives upon it…

People ready to pray for such persons walk into the aisle, to the front and back to their seats, naming these persons aloud or silently, while the congregation repeats the prayer:

Come Holy Spirit, and renew the face of the earth!

Leader 2: Inspire and hear our prayers for ourselves and all who have asked us to pray…

People ready to pray for such persons walk into the aisle, to the front and back to their seats, naming these persons aloud or silently, while the congregation repeats the prayer:

Lord, have mercy. Christ, have mercy, Lord, have mercy.

Leader 3: Waymaker, Sea-parter, Savior of us all

People: Hear us, in the name of Jesus. Amen!


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Resources in The United Methodist Book of Worship/UM Hymnal with Links to Other Suggestions

Greeting (Call to Worship): You might sing the greeting using UMH 149, stanza 1. In UMBOW consider 385, 388 (Exodus).

Acts of Response to the Word:

Confession: UMBOW 479, adding a pardon or declaration of forgiveness (Exodus); UMBOW 481, adding a pardon or declaration of forgiveness (Matthew).

Ecumenical Cycle of Prayer: Bulgaria, Hungary, Romania

"The Great Thanksgiving: UMBOW 70-71

Prayer of Thanksgiving if there is no Communion: UMBOW 557 (Exodus)

Preaching

Notes for Exodus 14:19-31

Like many people from my generation, whenever I read this passage, I can’t help but picture the scene from the movie The Ten Commandments, where Charlton Heston as Moses stretches out his hands over the sea and the waters part and stand along each side like twin Niagara Falls facing off while the Israelites pass through safely.

Then, in the next scene, the same force that held the waters back suddenly breaks loose and the waters come gushing in, drowning the Egyptians, their chariots and horses, and everything else with its sheer, uncompromising force.

In the movie, it is a clear triumph and a pivotal moment for the Israelites. It is proof positive that they are the favored ones of God. They are God’s chosen people. Their God is stronger than Pharaoh’s gods, and they can now trust Yahweh to protect them from their enemies and even violently destroy their foes if need be.

Unfortunately the scene from the movie is now all muddled together in my mind with all of these other water catastrophes—images not generated by Hollywood, but by Mother Nature. Furthermore, far from being moments of triumph, these images portray moments of pure tragedy: the victims of Katrina, the tsunamis in Indonesia and Japan, Hurricane Sandy and the great Mississippi flood of 1927.

And as I think about it more, I realize it isn’t just the destruction of life as a reult of natural disaster that gets mixed up in my images of mass human suffering. My internalized movie reel also includes images of the destruction of populations as a result of man's inhumanity. In my mind’s eye, I can see millions of Jews being slaughtered by the Nazis and Native Americans falling at the hands of European invaders. I can see the destruction of the Sunnis by the Shiites, and the Shiites by the Sunnis; the Palestinians by the Israelis and the Israelis by the Palestinians. I can see the Twin Towers crumbling and twin bombs being dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. And of course, I can see that destruction goes both ways in many cases. It is not always so clear-cut as it is in the Book of Exodus or the movie with Charlton Heston whose side the hand of God is on.

And this is where I get into trouble with this passage. I want to just see Charlton Heston. I want to be able to preach the story of pure victory and God’s favor. I want to preach about God’s promises kept and God’s faithfulness, power, and strength. I want to celebrate the oppressed being set free from the enemies of God’s people by the powerful and just hand of the Lord.

Likewise, I want to believe that there is nothing redeeming about those who served in Pharaoh’s army. I want to believe that they were just as evil as he and that they had volunteered to go after the Israelite slaves and bring them back to continue to perform hard labor as captives of an evil state.

But it isn’t so clear-cut for me anymore. I have to wonder how many of those Egyptian soldiers who were killed by the waters of the Red Sea were just like any other young soldiers. Did they have families at home, partners and children to support, and mothers and fathers who loved them? Were they soldiers who were simply serving their countries in situations over which they had no control and were paid very little? Had they even been given a choice about their service?

Barbara K. Lundblad, writing in Feasting on the Word, Year A, Volume 4, offers helpful insight from the Jewish tradition as I sit here pondering my own questions as I read this story against the backdrop of the current world situation. She notes,

Long after the sea was crossed, after the singing died out, the rabbis struggled with this text. They wondered about many things. Did the people walk into the sea, or did they walk on dry ground? The text seems to say both. Did God part the sea only after the people showed their faithfulness by stepping into the water? To answer such questions the sages developed the art of midrash, stories that fill in the gaps, to deal with questions and contradictions. In one story from the Babylonian Talmud, angels watching the victory wanted to sing as the Egyptians went under the waters. God rebuked the angels, saying, "The works of My hands are drowning in the sea, and you would utter song in My presence!" (B. Sanhedrin 39b). A rabbi friend told me that over the years this midrash has been retold with God rebuking the Israelites themselves.

The midrash did not erase the text; a midrash never does that. Nor did the midrash ease the tension. How could God chastise the angels when it was clear in the story that God had caused the Egyptians to drown? The text could not be erased, but a new word could be spoken, a word that gathered up other strands of Torah—words about strangers and foreigners, exiles and wanderers. If God is the God of the stranger and the alien, why would God delight in the drowning of foreigners, enemies? Who can answer? Only God is God. Biblical scholar John Collins put it this way: "The Bible does not demystify or demythologize itself. But neither does it claim that the stories it tells are paradigms for human action in all times and places." The rabbis found a way to live with the tension: hear the text, yet also hear that God's heart was broken by the need to destroy these Egyptian people whom he had created.

Given the brutal images of wars, destruction, and human suffering that we are subjected to daily through the power of media, and the ever-increasing difficulty in being able to discern with clarity who is good and who is evil in this world, are we not called, just as the rabbis who came before us, to at least name the tensions, if not live with them? Can we hear the story of victory in this text, even while acknowledging that God’s heart is broken whenever one of God’s children suffers, no matter who it is?


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Notes for Romans 14:1-12

In order to fully understand this passage which begins with the sentence, “Welcome those who are weak in faith, but not for the purpose of quarreling over opinions,” it helps to know the particulars of the people to whom Paul was writing this letter. Thus, we need to remind our congregations that Jesus was Jewish, as were Paul and the majority of early Christians. As such, many of the early followers of Jesus continued to follow strict dietary customs left over from the rituals of their Jewish faith. Further, most had grown up understanding that the Sabbath was on Saturday, not Sunday.

Through their practices, the disciples and other early followers of Jesus called some of the most sacred and traditional Jewish customs into question. For example, since Jesus’ empty tomb had been discovered on a Sunday, the early followers of Jesus had declared that Saturday was no longer the day of Sabbath. Furthermore, the followers of Jesus, when quoting him as saying, “It is not what a person eats that defiles a person,” were declaring themselves free from observing the traditional Jewish taboos that forbade eating pork, shellfish, and certain other foods. To call all of these traditions into question was truly radical stuff.

In Paul’s letter to the Romans, Paul is urging the disciples and other pioneer followers of Jesus not to be so radical, but rather to take it easy on those who have only recently converted from Judaism to being followers of Christ. It is these newly minted Jewish Christians that Paul is thinking of when he uses the term, “weak in faith.” It is specifically to them that he offers this advice:

Just welcome those who are weak in faith. Do not argue with them about their cherished opinions. Your faith in Jesus Christ may have set you free from the old customs, so that you now understand that it is all right for you to eat foods that were formerly forbidden, but even though you may be right about this, you should not impose these new standards of freedom on recent converts, because the shock of this much radical change all at once may be more than then the new Christian can bear.

He continues this advice by giving another example:

The same thing goes for insisting that the day of Sabbath be changed from Saturday to Sunday. Besides, who is to say that you are absolutely right? Isn’t this just a matter of personal opinion anyway? One person thinks that a certain day is holier than other days, but someone else may think that all days are equally holy. One person refuses to eat certain things because he thinks they are unholy, while another thinks that no food is unholy.

Who is to say who is right? The important thing is not what custom you follow. The important thing is whether or not you are doing what you do in the spirit of the Lord. The important thing is that we understand we belong to the Lord. You, then, who eat only vegetables—why do you pass judgment on your brothers and sisters in Christ? And you who will eat anything—why do you despise your brothers and sisters in Christ? We ought not judge one another, because God alone is the final judge. All of us will stand before God to be judged by God and God alone.

 

Paul goes on to say that his own personal understanding of Christianity makes him certain that no food is in and of itself ritually unclean. Yet, if another person still believes that some food is unclean, then that same food IS, for that person, unclean. Therefore, says Paul, if that person is around some new convert to the faith, and that new convert believes that eating meat or drinking wine is a sin, then he, Paul, will refrain from eating meat and drinking wine out of respect for the new convert.

Paul seems to think that a Christian ought to be tolerant of differences with other Christians. The important thing, for Paul, is not what you eat or don’t eat and it isn’t whether you keep a certain day as Sabbath. Rather, what is important is that each of us understand that Jesus Christ speaks for God, and therefore each of us ought to commit our life to God through Jesus Christ and promise to follow in his way, which results in a transformation of our lives.

You know what I think? I think Paul would have made a good Methodist.

From the beginning, Methodists have been long on tolerance and short on doctrine. I like being a Methodist because out of all the denominations, we are probably the most confused.

It makes me think of that old joke about the person who died and went to heaven, whereupon Saint Peter took the person on a tour. The people in heaven were all in separate little compartments, all grouped according to their particular beliefs. As Saint Peter went by each group, he asked them why they were in heaven.

The Baptists said it was because once they were saved, they were always saved because that’s what the Bible said.
The Catholics said it was because they had confessed their sins, and the priest had granted them absolution.
The Presbyterians said it was because God had elected them and preordained that they should end up there.
The Pentecostal Free Will Baptists said it was because they had freely chosen heaven instead of hell.
As they passed the next group, Saint Peter put his finger to his mouth. “Shhhh,” he said. “That’s the Church of Christ group, and they think they are the only ones here.”
At last they came to a group whose members seemed to have nothing at all in common. These were the Methodists. “Why are you in heaven?” he asked. They all shook their heads in bewilderment. Finally one of them spoke up. She said, “Well, it seems to me . . . “

The Methodists could very well take up as our motto the very first sentence of this passage, where Paul says, “Welcome those who are weak in faith, but not for the purpose of quarreling over opinions.” John Wesley, in fact, preached one of his most famous sermons, “The Catholic Spirit,” on the subject of not arguing doctrine. A memorable line from that sermon sums up the whole point he was making. Wesley said, ‘I care not for doctrine, but if your heart is as my heart, then give me your hand.”

It was not that Wesley didn’t think a person ought not have opinions or that Methodists should not have any doctrines. Wesley had very strong opinions and belief,s and he thought that everybody else should too. In fact, another of his most famous sermons is on this very subject, and the title of the sermon says it all: “Work Out Your Own Salvation in Fear and Trembling.” But Wesley did not let a difference in opinion cause him to judge another person to be somehow not a Christian, or even a lesser Christian.

Paul says it best when he says, “Who are you to pass judgment on servants of another? It is before their own Lord that they stand or fall. And they will be upheld, for the Lord is able to make them stand?” (Matthew 14:4, NRSV).

That’s the ticket, don’t you think? We are all saved only by the grace of God, and if God is for us, who can be against us? It is the Lord who saves us and not our personal opinions. It is the Lord who takes us just as we are. It is the Lord who heals us, changes us, makes us into creatures we could never be on our own. It is the Lord who causes us to be born again.

Our differences are not very important when compared to the great saving grace of the Lord. What is important is our faith. Our faith may be weak and small, like a mustard seed, but God can make us grow. Our strength is in the Lord God who made heaven and earth.

So let us stick to our Methodist roots and trust not in any of our own opinions or arguments! It is the Lord who we all have in common, not our differences. It is the Lord who judges, and it is the Lord who saves.


Back to top.

The Scripture lessons from Matthew’s gospel over these weeks (including last week) are part of what scholars have dubbed as the “sermon on the church”: a section from Matthew that deals with how the Christian community conducts its corporate life together.

And let’s just acknowledge an essential truth:  Life together isn’t easy.  The people in your pews know this because they experience the difficulties firsthand: as couples, as families, as neighbors, as members of a global neighborhood, and as a church family.

These lessons are based on Jesus’ teachings, but they are distinctive in that they reflect the need in Matthew’s church to establish some guidelines on how they are to move forward as Christians when the inevitable disagreements that are a part of every human community come. Last week’s Scripture lesson reflected upon how the church is to deal with unrepentant sinners who are disrupting the life of the church.  This week’s lesson has to do with the necessity for grace and forgiveness.

Matthew offered a three-step process whereby the community, following a very disciplined process, lovingly talks to the sinner about the problem and asks for a change in behavior. If the person is unable to respond or refuses to listen to his or her brothers and sisters in faith, the community has no choice but to take action to maintain the holiness of the church.  This is necessary not only for the health of the community, but also to shock the sinner into realizing the seriousness of his or her action and to becoming open to repentance and restoration.

And while we may have difficulty dealing with the notion of casting out sinners because we like to think that sin is an individual matter between the sinner and God and NOT the community’s business, Matthew is here to remind us that if we believe that, then our thinking is in error, because it most certainly IS the business of the community to deal with matters of sinful behavior that disrupts the body of Christ.

It is clear that if the community shuts its eyes to hurtful behaviors and allows them to continue unchecked, then the witness of the entire body is affected.

This is important for those of us inside the church to hear because, as I heard a district superintendent say one time, our local church exists not for those of us who are already a part of the body of Christ, but for those who are not yet here.

Let me say that again: the church you serve is not there simply for the purpose of taking care of its own members. Your church is there to serve all of your neighbors who are not yet part of your community of faith. Your church is there for the people outside your doors who are hurting, who are in need of hope and the good news that Jesus loves them just as they are. Your church is there for all the people who desperately need a community where they can find love and genuine Christian care and experience the healing and saving grace that Christ offers.

In order to be able to do the job of loving others as Christ has loved us and offer Christ’s love to our communities and neighborhoods, each congregation must be a healthy body.  So Matthew’s lesson teaches the community of faith how to be healthy and how to be accountable to one another in the way that Jesus has just outlined, without becoming mean or vindictive or stuck in a place of hurt and anger.

Jesus says to all who would hold on to their pain and anger, all who would choose to sit around nursing their wounds for a lifetime, that only a congregation that forgives seventy-seven times—that is, as often as necessary—can maintain this life of accountability. According to Jesus,

  • Forgiveness is the key to congregational health.
  • Forgiveness is the key to moving forward and healing. 
  • Forgiveness is a necessary part of the way we deal with our differences and conflicts. 
  • Forgiveness is crucial to the way that we love one another as Christ has loved us.

Consider, for example, Jesus’ final words on the cross:  Forgive them, Father, for they know not what they have done. He offered forgiveness even to those who brutally murdered him.

And let us be sure to not miss the point of Jesus’ comment and the story that follows.  It isn’t that we are supposed to keep count and when we get to seventy seven times, we get to stop. The point of the saying and the story is that whoever keeps score is missing the point. That person has not forgiven at all, because Christian forgiveness isn’t about counting up and keeping score.  Christian forgiveness is about the state of the heart.

So it is those final three words in this lesson—that we must forgive our brothers and sisters from the heart—that is for me the part that is most critical and the most difficult. After all, simply saying the words, “I forgive you,” is a whole lot easier than genuinely feeling a true sense of forgiveness inside our hearts.

What does it mean to forgive our brothers and sisters from the heart? How do we do that? I’ve really been thinking about this and praying about this, and I have come to the conclusion that this isn’t something that we can really do ourselves. Changing our hearts is something only God can do.

Our hearts can be hardened, and according to Scripture, hardened hearts lead to all kinds of trouble for God’s people. 

Pharoah’s heart is repeatedly described as “hardened,” and it is this hardened heart that causes him to not be able to listen to the Lord speaking to him. It is this hardened heart that causes him to lash out against God’s people. And it is this hardened heart that eventually leads to his downfall.

Hardened hearts do not just happen to people who are not following the ways of the Lord.  Hardened hearts can happen to God’s people as well. The prophet Zechariah speaks of the people of Israel having hardened their hearts against the Lord, which led eventually to their destruction and exile in Babylon.

And Matthew talks in an earlier chapter about how people who are not open to God’s word will not be able to hear or understand the wisdom in his parables.  Speaking to his disciples, Jesus quotes the prophet Isaiah, saying,

“You will indeed listen, but never understand, and you will indeed look, but never perceive.  For this people’s heart has grown dull, and their ears are hard of hearing; and they have shut their eyes, so that they might not look with their eyes and listen with their ears, and understand with their heart and turn, and I would heal them” (Matthew 13:15, NRSV).

 

Likewise, this is what Jesus is talking about when he tells this parable about the slave, who, after he himself had been forgiven a debt, refused to turn and forgive another.

Our hearts can be hard, and if they are hard, not only can we not understand the word of God, but according to Jesus, we can’t be healed until our hearts become soft enough to open up to the power of God’s healing love and grace.

I think there is a clue here in trying to understand forgiveness of the heart. For true forgiveness and healing to happen, our hearts must be open; they must be soft; they must be willing to accept that maybe something in us needs to change, needs to turn, needs to allow Christ in so that God can work a miracle on our hearts.

We can’t change our hearts. Only God can change our hearts. All we can do is pray that our hearts may be soft, and ask God to come in and help us to see that which we cannot see on our own, and do what we cannot do on our own.

Until we open ourselves up to the Lord, until we repent from our sins and soften our hearts, true forgiveness and healing simply cannot happen, and we can’t move forward as a community of faith to offer ministry to others, because it can’t make its way into the place that it needs to be: our hearts.

 

 

 

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Hymns

Hymns

BOW - The United Methodist Book of Worship
CLUW - Come, Let Us Worship (Korean)
MVPC - Mil Voces Para Celebrar (Spanish)
SOZ - Songs of Zion
TFWS - The Faith We Sing
UMH - The United Methodist Hymnal
URW - Upper Room Worshipbook
WSM  - Worship & Song, Music Edition
WSW  - Worship & Song, Worship Resources Edition
SoG  - Songs of Grace

 

Exodus 14:19-31 UMH MVPC CLUW TFWS SOZ URW WSM WSW SoG
Come, Ye Faithful, Raise the Strain

315

Deep in the Shadows of the Past

2246

Faith, While Trees Are Still in Blossom

508

97

Give to the Winds Thy Fears

129

282

Glorious Things of Thee Are Spoken

731

256

God Almighty, we are waiting

3047

God the Sculptor of the Mountains

2060

Guide Me, O Thou Great Jehovah

127

In the Midst of New Dimensions

2238

Lead On, O Cloud of Presence

2234

Let My People Seek Their Freedom

586

O How He Loves You and Me

2108

O Mary, Don’t You Weep, Don’t You Mourn

134

153

On Jordan’s Stormy Banks I Stand

724

54

Praise, My Soul, the King of Heaven

66

75

Spirit, Spirit of Gentleness

2120

What a Mighty God We Serve WSM

3016

Exodus 15:1b-11, 20-21 (UMH 135) UMH MVPC CLUW TFWS SOZ URW WSM WSW SoG
¡Canta, Débora, Canta!

81

Awesome God

2040

Canticle of Moses and Miriam

135

Come, Ye Faithful, Raise the Strain

315

Deep in the Shadows of the Past

2246

Go Down, Moses

448

112

God of Many Names

105

He Is Exalted

2070

Holy, Holy, Holy! Lord God Almighty

64

4

79

How Majestic Is Your Name

2023

I’ll Praise My Maker While I’ve Breath

60

123

In the Midst of New Dimensions

2238

Lead On, O Cloud of Presence

2234

Let’s Sing Unto the Lord (Cantemos al Señor)

149

49

67

Majesty, Worship His Majesty

176

171

204

My Life Is in You, Lord

2032

O Lord, Hear My Prayer

2200

390

O Mary, Don’t You Weep, Don’t You Mourn

134

153

Praise the Lord with the Sound of Trumpet

2020

Praise, My Soul, the King of Heaven

66

75

Spirit, Spirit of Gentleness

2120

Wade in the Water

2107

What a Mighty God We Serve (MIGHTY GOD)

2021

You Are My Hiding Place

2055

Romans 14:1-12 UMH MVPC CLUW TFWS SOZ URW WSM WSW SoG
At the Name of Jesus Every Knee Shall Bow

168

Creator of the Stars of Night

692

218

Crown Him with Many Crowns

327

157

He Is Lord, He Is Lord!

177

173

233

Help Us Accept Each Other

560

253

In Thee Is Gladness

169

Jesus, Name above All Names

2071

Jesus, United by Thy Grace

561

Majesty, Worship His Majesty

176

171

204

Many Gifts, One Spirit

114

212

My Life Is in You, Lord

2032

The Family Prayer Song

2188

There’s a Wideness in God’s Mercy

121

We Are Called

2172

When We Are Living (Pues Si Vivimos)

356

337

310

175

Matthew 18:21-35 UMH MVPC CLUW TFWS SOZ URW WSM WSW SoG
A King Once Told His Servants
Come Out the Wilderness 416 136
Come, Share the Lord 2269
Forgive Our Sins as We Forgive 390
Freely, Freely (God Forgave My Sin) 389 258
God, How Can We Forgive 2169
Heal Me, Hands of Jesus 262
Help Us Accept Each Other 560 253
I Am Leaning on the Lord 416
Jesus, Lord, We Look to Thee 562
Joyful, Joyful, We Adore Thee 89 5 75 65
Lord, I Want to Be a Christian 402 215 76
Make Me a Channel of Your Peace 2171
O How I Love Jesus (There Is a Name I Love to Hear) 170 198 36
Our Father, which art in heaven 3068
Padre nuestro 3069
Rise, Shine, You People 187
The Lord’s Prayer (West Indian) 271
There’s a Wideness in God’s Mercy 121
Where Charity and Love Prevail 549

Prayers

Merciful God, you have filled our lives with a deluge of love and grace. Yet we are too often stingy with forgiveness for others. While Christ’s sacrifice on the cross removed the weight of our sin, we continue to blend in with a world that is intent on keeping score and settling debts. May the gifts we give this morning, small in comparison with all we’ve received, help strengthen the church’s ministry of love and compassion. In our giving, may we make a witness as those who have been forgiven much and who seek to have Christlike grace shine through our lives. We pray this in his name. Amen. (Matthew 18:21-35)

 

 

See all Offertory Prayers and Invitation for September 2014