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Sin Is Never A Private Matter
Luke 17:1-10  October 11, 2010

“Sin is never a private matter,” warned Walter Rauschenbusch, one of the great Christian pastors of the last century.

That was dramatically illustrated about six weeks ago when Rev. Jerry Falwell, Jr., the iron-fisted president of Liberty University, resigned after revelations of an eight-year extramarital relationship he and his wife shared with a man.

“What a hypocrite,” some outside the conservative movement clucked, no doubt pleased to see the downfall of the man who had rallied the massive white evangelical vote in the last election.

But stop: what was so wrong with he and his wife Becki having sexual escapades?

They are adults.

Apparently, everything was consensual.

That is the first of three issues raised in today’s passage.

Luke 17:1 Jesus said to his disciples: “Things that cause people to stumble are bound to come, but woe to anyone through whom they come.”

As leaders of a particular segment of the Christian community, their actions – which they went to great lengths to hide – could cause their people to walk away from their faith.

Their university prides itself as enforcing such rigid policies as, “A student may not be alone with an individual of the opposite sex in the academic classrooms or offices.”

A big part of their Christian message is sexual purity, but secretly they weren’t “walking the talk”.

Then as often happens, after the first revelation of misconduct, misdeeds in other areas of Falwell’s life also began to spill out.

The metaphor of sin being a stain is a good one because it not only blemishes, it also spreads.

We can’t compartmentalize our lives – we take who we are to every part of life.

But hold on.

Before we begin relishing the downfall of another self-righteous public figure – and we’ve seen them from all political parties and faith traditions – we have to remember that Jesus’ message here was addressed to all his followers.

To underscore that point, in verse 1 Luke mentions “disciples” (those personally with Jesus), but by verse 5 it expands to “apostles” (Christians who would come later).

That would be you, and that would be me.

You’ve heard me say that you may be the only Bible someone ever reads … so, what do they see from how you live, speak about others, forgive wrongs, and manage your money?

In the end, how we, as the larger Christian community of believers, live our faith publicly and privately – to our family, to our neighbors, and to our colleagues – will affect more lives than any pastor’s sermons.

To drive this point home, Jesus ends this subsection with a caution: Luke 17:3 So watch yourselves.

So, if we are doing our best to live our faith, what do we do with our outrage at someone’s public misdeeds, or with the personal hurt someone caused us?

Shake it off, let it go, don’t let it weigh you down.

That’s forgiveness – way easier said than done, but with God’s help it can be done – and that is the second point in this passage.

You’ve got to feel some sympathy for the disciples.

In recent chapters Jesus had asked some fairly extraordinary things of them.

Now he’s again insisting on extraordinary forgiveness.

Luke 17:4 “And if the same person sins against you seven times a day, and turns back to you seven times and says, ‘I repent’, you must forgive him.”

“The same person” – that’s what can make it so difficult.

Chances are you have a “same person” in your life who repeatedly gets under your skin – the one you can never please and who lets you know it.

You are to forgive that “same person” when they remind you how you messed up last year, how you are messing up now, and how you are just a mess up.

They are personal – they may be related to you – and they are repeat offenders.

“Why is she ALWAYS like that?” we ask about a mother-in-law, a sister, a neighbor, a coworker.

I hasten to say that Jesus isn’t saying to stay in an abusive relationship.

We’ve talked enough about the meaning of forgiveness to know that it is a process we do to free ourselves from carrying the hurtful baggage someone has tried to lay on us.

Yes, you’ve got to feel some sympathy for the disciples; no wonder they ask for more faith.

Of course, they feel inadequate to accomplish any of what Jesus is asking.

And in the midst of all we’ve been living through, I suspect many of us feel the same way.

Like we need more faith just to get through this pandemic and election without sinking into depression or staying chronically agitated – let alone to somehow make a difference.

So, when Jesus adds this demand for ongoing forgiveness the disciples respond with a hint of attitude.

“Yeah, right! Easy for HIM to talk.  We aren’t the Son of God, so you need to double up our dose of faith.”

Now, you’d think Jesus would welcome their request for more faith.

That’s a good thing, right?

But instead he seems to rebuke them, implying that they actually don’t even have faith the size of a mustard seed.

Did Jesus get out of the wrong side of bed that day or what?

But what if he gave a sharp retort because their question, while earnest and heartfelt, was also a little wrong-headed?

Jesus was teaching that faith is not some kind of scarce resource that needs to be saved, spent, or added to.

Rather, Jesus was trying to re-orient them to what they already have: the miraculous presence of God already around them that by grace offers totally-sufficient faith.

Lewis Smedes, famous for his work on forgiveness, wrote, “The Holy Spirit, thank God, often enables people to forgive even though they are not sure how they did it.”

Forty-six-year-old Pascale Kavanagh of Bedminster, New Jersey experienced the freedom of forgiveness after decades of abuse by her mother.

As children, Pascale and her younger brother endured constant torments from their mother who would hit them, fling plates in their direction, and call them names.”

Pascale’s parents were both successful physicians, but their homelife was constant screaming, caustic comments and drama.

Even after she was away at college, she felt that she was about to go over the emotional ledge as her mother constantly called to taunt her, ridicule her appearance, belittle her friends, and criticize her academics.

Eventually Pascal got married and had a daughter of her own, Sofi, whom she hoped would soften her mother.

But once Sofi became independent-minded, Pascal’s mother’s rages returned, now directed at Sofi.

Then, in 2010, at the age of 73, her mother suffered several massive strokes leaving her brain irreparably damaged.

Arriving at the hospital, Pascale was shocked to find her mother unable to communicate or even understand language.

For the first time in decades, she felt safe from her abuse.

But as the only remaining relative capable of caring for her mother she felt duty-bound to help.

She sat by her mother’s side for long hours, reading books aloud and just talking—though not sure what, if anything, her mother could understand.

Pascale explains that at first, she was bitter that she now had to take care of a mess left by her mother – a woman who had harmed her deeply.

But as the months went by, her fury at her comatose mother slowly dissipated.

Finally, one day, an exhausted Pascale suddenly laid her head down in her mother’s lap.

She says, “And the hatred went away. It was just … gone. For the first time, I stopped condemning her. And that gave me peace.”

Forgiving her mother also helped Pascale let go of other resentments that had accumulated such as anger at her former husband whom she had divorced three years earlier.

She says, “I’ve become less interested in holding on to all forms of bitterness.”

Again from Lewis Smedes, “Forgiveness is to set a prisoner free and then to discover that the prisoner was you.”

Which leads to Jesus’ third point in this little passage: faith is just doing what you’re supposed to do as a member of his family – simple, ordinary things done unselfishly.

As elsewhere, Jesus uses hyperbole to drive home his point, but we should not take his hyperbole to confuse faith with spectacular miracles or mighty acts of heavenly power.

Faith is not a deep-rooted mulberry tree that will walk around on command of a deeply faithful person, but that a deeply faithful person will live in the Kingdom family as a servant does on behalf of their master.

Deep faith is living with Jesus as our master, demonstrated in everyday acts of doing what needs to be done, responding to the needs around us, and caring for the people who come our way.

Writing 500-years ago, Martin Luther praised the virtue of a father changing diapers.

In that time, a father doing such a thing was extremely rare, and probably considered unbecoming.

He wrote, “When a father goes ahead and washes diapers or performs some other menial task for his child, and someone ridicules him as an effeminate fool … God with all his angels and creatures is smiling”.

So, what’s the point of his closing story of the servant and his master?

Scott Hoezee, one of my “go to” Bible commentators summarizes this passage:

It’s like Jesus saying, “Oh and by the way, WHEN you have forgiven someone seven times with the faith you already have, don’t come trotting back to me like some dancing dog and expect a pat on the head for being such a super disciple.  You’ll be doing no more than what you’ve seen me do.  It’s the family way in the kingdom of God.”

But especially in the pandemic shut down, and in the face of political tensions that are escalating to violence in some areas, you may wonder how your little acts of faith make a difference.

Being a part of this church means that we can travel through life our in the company of people who really care.

I’ve made a few notes of things I know people have done for each other over the past week or so – each trying to work around COVID restrictions.

I wrote them on these 3×5 cards.

Called me after I said at our fellowship meeting that I was feeling depressed.

Called someone at hospital even though he could not visit because of COVID-19.

Sent a card with a carefully chosen poem that touched me.

I was surprised when I got a check from someone to help me cover an expense.

Prayed with me over the phone.

Texted me everyday during that time I was feeling so bad.

A book I had mentioned I wanted at a meeting just arrived on my doorstep today.

Gave me a ride to a doctor appointment.

He just sat quietly and listened to me for the longest time.  I so needed that.

Invited me to lunch in their backyard because I so need to just see someone.

He remembered that I’d had a medical test today that I was nervous about and he later called me to see how it went.

Small things … but they made a difference.

Now, imagine what this would be like if these small things had not been done.

Nothing … just a void.

Small things, done with great love make the difference, just like Jesus said.