By The Rev. Dr. James D. Kegel
GRACE TO YOU AND PEACE
FROM GOD OUR FATHER
AND THE LORD AND SAVIOR JESUS CHRIST, AMEN.
Billy Graham went to see President Dwight Eisenhower in Walter Read Hospital when he was on his deathbed. After their visit, Dr. Graham started to leave the room. Eisenhower said, “Wait a minute. I want to ask you a question. Do you think an old sinner like me will get to heaven?”
Billy Graham turned around and answered, “General Ike, I know you have accepted Jesus Christ as your savior. You are a man of faith, and you have asked the Lord to forgive all your sins. So when you die, as far as my knowledge goes, you’ll get into heaven.” As Billy Graham closed the door, he looked back saw tears streaming down the old general’s cheeks.
Men and women of faith, you do not need to doubt your salvation in Christ Jesus. Those who believe and are baptized shall be saved. God so loved each one of you that God sent His only Son, Jesus, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life. Repent of your sins, turn back to God, and receive the good news that your sins are forgiven, you are God’s child, the promises of God’s kingdom are yours. When you die, you will go to heaven. Now live out your faith in this world knowing that the blessings of the world to come are certain. You are Christ’s women and men, disciples of Jesus, apostles of the Lord. As you believe, so do.
In today’s Gospel, Jesus is instructing his followers. His teaching is for all who bear his name, who are brothers and sisters of one another in Christ. In the text just before our lesson, Jesus is warning his disciples not to be a stumbling block to others. The Greek word is the same from which we get our word scandal. We should never be a stumbling block, a scandal, a snare, a trap – that’s also what the Greek word SKANDALON means. Jesus says it is better to have a millstone around one’s neck and be tossed into the sea, to die even, rather than cause others to fall away from their faith in the Lord. It is a hard saying.
Many years ago, when I was in college, I had the opportunity to visit St. Petersburg, Russia. It was during the height of Soviet power and of course the city was called Leningrad, U.S.S.R. The great cathedral of Our Lady of Kazan had been turned into the Museum of Atheism – praise God that today it is again a house of worship and praise.
At the time the museum displayed articles of religion. There were displays about the Crusades, displays on the Inquisition, on the tortures and burnings and expulsions that had occurred in the name of religion. We have certainly seen in these past few years how religion can be used as the pretext for criminal activity, the burning of houses of worship, the persecution of those who believe differently, torture and beheading of opponents. The word, Islam, is only vaguely related to Salaam, the word for peace – it is more clearly submission. It becomes quite easy for us to both fear and loathe a religion that puts tolerates terror, denigrates women, and at nearly every point where Muslims encounter other religions, Jewish, Christian, Hindu, Buddhist, animist, there is warfare. Yet we also know that through history the actions of the Christian Church have also become a powerful stumbling block to others.
It has often been said that the only Bible the world will ever read is the lives of Christians. This is a warning to us that our Monday through Saturday selves should reflect our Sunday confession of faith. It is what Jesus is saying to the disciples in our Gospel text. We are not expected to be perfect people but we are called to live out our faith in daily life. We are to live in such a way that others may come to faith too. At our baptism, we hear the charge, “Let your light so shine forth before others, that they might see your good works and glorify your Father who is in heaven.” As we say, we do; we show the love of Christ. We are called to forgive one another, accept one another, love one another. We are called to care about each other so much that we are even willing to call one another to task for wrongdoing. We show our faith in Jesus as we live our daily lives as Christian friends, brothers and sister of each other in Jesus Christ. We become the Bible the world reads.
Jesus tells us, “If another disciples sins, you must rebuke the offender, and if there is repentance, you must forgive.” Even seven times in one day, we are called to forgive. What God for us in inviting us to repent and confess our sins and be reconciled to God, is also our model for our relationship with each other. Secret sins must be confessed not glossed over. There can never be growth in Christ’s Church when there is sin at the heart.
Dr. F.B. Meyer tells of a meeting of a church which was seeking a revival. During the meeting an elder got up and said to the minister, “I don’t think there is going to be a revival here as long as Brother Jones and I don’t speak to each other.” He went across to Jones and said, “Brother, you and I haven’t spoken to each other in five years. Let’s bury the hatchet. Here’s my hand.” Shortly afterwards another elder got up and said, “Minister, I think there will be no revival here while I say nice things about you to your face and am disloyal to you behind your back. I want you to forgive me.” Soon others were on their feet settling old scores. Then says Meyer, God began to visit them. The meeting was crowded and a revival broke out that swept over the whole district. We can see what has happened in South Africa since the end of apartheid. So many people were afraid that after the years of tyranny and injustice a race war would have broken out. It did not in large part because of the Truth and Justice commission led by Archbishop Desmond Tutu. Past sins were brought to light and the perpetrators and victims were brought together. There was time for confession and an offer of forgiveness and healing.
There could be no forgiveness without repentance and confession; no healing without recognizing the disease.
A few years ago one of the largest Lutheran churches in Fargo, North Dakota went through a time of scandal. The pastor was involved with sexual misconduct with two of his parishioners at the same time, women on his staff; the congregation was involved in a conspiracy of silence. Bishop Rick Foss of the Eastern North Dakota Synod made the comment that he believed this large congregation had not grown through the previous years because as he put it, “There was something rotten at the core.”
What Christ is telling us in our text is very clear. We must repent. We must confess our sins and shortcomings. Only then can we accept the repentance of others and receive forgiveness. Remember the prayer we were taught? “Forgive us our trespasses,” and the Lord’s own words to remind us, “As we forgive those who trespass against us.” Even seven times each day we are asked to forgive.
How did the disciples respond to their instruction? They said, “Increase our faith.” It is not easy to recognize one’s own failings – so much easier to see the sins and shortcomings of others. It is not easy to ask for forgiveness either. We need more faith. But Jesus reminded them, “If you had faith the size of a mustard seed, you could say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea’ and it would obey you.” The faith of a mustard seed – the smallest of all seeds – if it be genuine is able to move mountains. Mulberry trees, sycamore trees have very deep roots that are never toppled in storms. But faith can replant them in the ocean. Even small faith in Jesus is enough to grant us power to seek forgiveness for ourselves and receive God’s promised gift of forgiveness. It is faith enough to accept our neighbor, to so love that sister and brother that we are willing to put ourselves on the line to rebuke, but not cast off, to admonish but not to scold, to seek that neighbor out to call him or her to task with the result that the neighbor is reconciled to God and to the community. We could cry out, “Increase our faith,” just like the disciples in Jesus’ day. It is a difficult thing our Lord asks of us – even to interfere in the life of our neighbor for that neighbor’s sake.
I’d like to share a story with you or repentance and forgiveness. Years ago, two young men with a long history of delinquency and crime robbed a YMCA on the lower east side of Manhattan. On their way out of the building, they saw a young man at a telephone switchboard. They were frightened and assumed that he was calling the police. They seized him and beat him savagely with brass knuckles and a black jack. Thinking him to be dead, they hid him behind a radiator near the swimming pool and escaped.
Later that evening Gertrude Ederle, the first woman to swim the English Channel, was walking by the pool. She slipped in the young man’s blood, screamed and then found Donald Tippet’s body. He was rushed to the hospital where he lingered for days between life and death. Eventually he lived but one eye was so badly damaged it could not be saved.
Meanwhile the two young men were apprehended and brought to trial. Their past records assured that they would both get long sentences. However Donald Tippet did an amazing thing. He requested that the judge allow the two young men to be paroled to his charge. He wanted to give the boys a chance to change.
One of the boys blew his opportunity. He committed another crime, was caught and sent to jail. The other boy, however, was responsive to Tippet’s kindness. He went to college and eventually to medical school. He became one of our nation’s leading surgeons – an eye surgeon.
When Everett Palmer wrote of Donald Tippet’s amazing story of forgiveness and this surgeon’s accomplishments, he added, “I wonder if he ever performed one of those delicate eye operations without thinking of that night in the YMCA.”
“If we confess our sins, God who is faithful and just will forgive our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” We are sinful and fall short. We repent and ask for forgiveness and we receive pardon for the sake of Jesus Christ who died for our sin. And then we seek out our sister and brother. We share what we have – we forgive as we have been forgiven. We love because God first loved us.
Oh, we will never be perfect. Until our dying day, we will look at ourselves as unworthy servants, worthless slaves. No matter how much we do in response to God, it is never enough to pay off the debt we owe to our Savior. But we have the power to be God’s people, to be the Bible the world will read, to be Monday morning Christians, to have even that little faith like a mustard seed that can uproot trees and move mountains and bring us to eternal life.
Increase our faith, O Lord, Amen.
Copyright 2004 James Kegel. Used by permission.