Just Do It

A sermon based on Luke 17:5-10
given at Mount Vernon, Ohio on October 6, 2019
by Rev. Scott Elliott

Right after World War ONE there were movements in Christian quarters to try and unite the Church, for Christian nations to not be at such extreme odds that they’d end up fighting another world war. At that time World War ONE had a different hopeful name: “The War to End All Wars.” There actually was a sincere, if retrospectively quite naive, belief that it was the last big war.

And to their credit many in the Church began working at trying to bring Christians together to make double sure no more world wars occurred. As a part of that movement, what would become the United Church of Christ began forming, the Congregational and Christian denominations merged, as did the Evangelical and Reformed denominations.

Then those two newly merged denominations worked together toward becoming one even bigger denomination. But tragically World War TWO broke out. That war and legal maneuvers by those NOT wanting a merger held it off until 1957.

In that year, we finally became the United Church of Christ and we adopted as our motto these words from the Gospel of John Chapter 17 verse 21 “that they may all be one.” I set the flag out on my left to display that it’s still our UCC motto.

Before the efforts at a lasting peace failed with the outbreak of World War Two there was another effort to harmonize Christians toward oneness. It was spearheaded by the Presbyterian denomination. The idea was to have churches all over the globe annually celebrate communion together prayerfully and carefully as one, lifting up the bread and the cup united as one in the Body of Christ. As the Presbyterian website puts it: “The first Sunday in October is designated as World Communion Sunday, which celebrates our oneness in Christ with all our brothers and sisters around the world.” he first World Communion Sunday was held in 1933.

Obviously –and sadly– neither the UCC mergers, nor World Communion Sunday, nor any other efforts to bring Christians together, prevented the Second World War. That horrendous war pitted not just Christians against one another, but also against many people of other faiths – all of whom were and are of equal value to God. And all of whom not only deserved to be at peace, but deserved to be treated with respect and care especially by those who follow Christ who commands that we show that sort of love to everyone.

While early Twentieth Century efforts at uniting Christianity did not stop a terrible Second World War and its unspeakable atrocities from unfolding, Christians did not give up on aims toward oneness. I have just given two examples. The unification of denominations into the United Church of Christ which happened a dozen years after World War II. And here we are today seventy-four years after the war still celebrating World Communion Sunday with millions of Christians.

Aiming toward our oneness as brothers and sisters in Christ is as critical today as it ever has been. Indeed if Christians really want to conserve the very heart of Jesus’ teachings, and stay on his path then we need to consider every other person as family– not distant cousins but as siblings the brothers and sisters Jesus tells us we are. Jesus taught we all have one father, God. Which is why every Sunday we pray “Our Father who art in heaven,” it is not to my father . . . but to Our Father. There is a unification in the prayer that Jesus taught – we are family all of us brothers and sisters with one Father, God.

A part of Jesus’ oneness efforts include a set of simple and clear instructions in Matthew 23 that we Christians tend to wander away from and really should pay more attention to. At verses 9 to 11 Jesus says:

“[We] have one Father, and he is in heaven. Nor are you to be called instructors, for you have one Instructor, the Messiah. The greatest among you will be your servant.”

While the UCC and World Communion Sunday’s attempts to unite Christians can certainly find support in the “one Father” instruction, that alone is not enough. The second part of that instruction – which we tend to ignore when it is convenient – is that we only have one instructor, the Messiah, for Christians that is Jesus. We are to take our instructions from him alone. We are not to take our instructions from anyone touting things he never said, let alone those that countermand him.

To state the obvious the Nazis in before, during and after World War Two should not have had a single instruction followed by a single Christian. EVER! White supremacy is counter to all that Jesus instructs. But it is not just Hitler and his ilk then and now who are not to serve as our instructors. We are not to follow any instructor in the religious or secular world who does not pass on Jesus’ instructions.

The instructions Jesus gave are all about love. His greatest commandment – bar none– is for his followers (for us) is to love God and neighbors as we our selves. Jesus made sure to point out that this includes loving enemies. Instructors touting lack-love are not not to be our instructors. We have one instructor and it is the Messiah, Jesus. Past, present and future leaders not in line with Jesus are not to be followed.

As a part of His love message – as we have heard in recent Lectionary texts– Jesus repeatedly teaches that we have to forgive. And he instructs that we have to do it over and over again.

Peter came to Jesus and asked, “Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother or sister who sins against me? Up to seven times?” Jesus answered, “I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times. (Matthew 18: 21-22 NIV).

With all the complications and nuances of Christian theology piled up for centuries, at the end of the day Jesus actually started it out quite simple as being all about love. In addition to teaching us to provide necessities for physical well being, Jesus knows that remedying disputes and healing harms is also necessary for well being, so he insists we forgive. Forgiveness is a process by which we learn to remedy harms and restore right relationship by working to understand those who hurt us –and those we have hurt– as our brothers and sisters under one God who loves everyone.

As I mentioned a few sermons ago forgiveness is hard to do, just getting in the same room with wrongdoers is difficult. It’s a process that can take a long time. This week there was an incredible example of forgiveness by Brandt Jean. In an interview Mr. Jean indicated forgiveness is a process and it can take a long time. It took him a year of hard work to reach a point where he could forgive a woman after a trial that convicted her of his brother’s murder. It may take others a lifetime to work out forgiveness.

The love that 18 year Brandt Jean showed in that courtroom was an act of love. It is pure and good–and incarnational itself. But forgiveness fully complete requires wrongdoers to do the hard work of remorsefully confessing, repenting and remedying the harm. If any of the wrongdoers treat a victim’s forgiveness as a discount ticket to redemption– they are sorely mistaken. There IS great power in Brandt Jean’s forgiveness, but none in failures to fully confess, repent and remedy the harm by the killer in that case . . . and the institutions and people of a culture that foster the racist violence and attitudes that led to the killing of Botham (Bow-thum) Jean, and to so many other sinful tragedies.

One of the reason Jesus had meals at a table with all manner of people was to provide more than physical nourishment, it was also to offer spiritual nourishment. This meal is a place that treats victims and wrongdoers as equal in the eyes of God, as worthy of love including that which comes through forgiving acts.

At the Lord’s Supper we commune with those who come to the table, not just Christ in the bread and cup and words, but Christ in everyone sharing the meal–today that intentionally includes everyone at Jesus’ table world wide. At Jesus’ table we are encouraged to find and give or try to begin to give forgiveness and repent and remedy harm done. To model this Jesus’ Last Supper included Judas whom Jesus knew had betrayed him, and he was welcome to the table. Today Jesus’ Table includes not just Jesus’ body and blood given for all of us, but it also includes Jesus’ spirit, his Way– which we are to follow. A Way that is loved-soaked and includes the process of forgiveness.

It is hard to tell from the Lectionary cutting but our lesson today is about forgiveness. Just before the lesson Jesus said

“Be alert. If you see your friend going wrong, correct him. If he responds, forgive him. Even if it’s personal against you and repeated seven times through the day, and seven times he says, ‘I’m sorry, I won’t do it again,’ forgive him.” (17:3-4)

It’s no wonder that the apostles response was “Give us more faith.” They are thinking – like we probably are– that to do all that forgiving we got to get help from God, some more faith to pull it off seven times . . . not to mention seventy-seven times! Forgiveness is hard work, so we tend to think we need some hard work from God to get it done. But Jesus gives an unexpected answer. First he says basically “Nonsense! You don’t need more faith, a poppy seed of faith is enough to toss a giant tree into a lake. So you have enough faith.” In other words, the apostles are questioning if they need more from God to forgive, and Jesus’ response is essentially, you have far more than you need from God “Just do it.”

And then Jesus adds a difficult parable about a servant doing the work expected and not bugging the boss to do it or expecting an additional reward for getting it done. That’s the servant part from Jesus’ instruction in Matthew 23 that I read. See the oneness we seek as Christians is gained by understanding we are all siblings and have one God and one instructor who through words and deeds instructed us to serve everyone.The service Jesus provided, provides, and referred to is: love. And that love includes not only working toward the physical well being, but also the spiritual well being of every person. his includes one of the hardest task humans face: forgiving and seeking forgiveness.

And Jesus’ message is we do not need to wait for more faith to forgive. We just need to do it. And to do it as an expected part of serving God. Without seeking more from God, without an added bonus or reward in mind, we are to just do it. The communion we are about to partake on this World Communion Sunday can serve to remind us to just do it. Last week I mentioned we are to be Holy as God is Holy. In New Testament speak that means we are to do as Jesus did. To love without strings attached and to work on forgiveness. We are to do it as servants of God, as God’s servants to others.

The only reward we should expect is what God promised as ordinary payment for such work. Which is doing what is right. Which is to love, which includes forgiving. Which God promises leads to no more than, well, you know . . . Heaven breaking in and peace on earth good will to all.