Don’t Be A Spiritual Bystander


16th Sunday after Pentecost – September 24, 2017

”Son of man, I have made you a watchman for the house of Israel; so hear the word I speak and give them warning from me. 8 When I say to the wicked, ‘O wicked man, you will surely die,’ and you do not speak out to dissuade him from his ways, that wicked man will die for his sin, and I will hold you accountable for his blood. 9 But if you do warn the wicked man to turn from his ways and he does not do so, he will die for his sin, but you will have saved yourself. 10 Son of man, say to the house of Israel, ‘This is what you are saying: “Our offenses and sins weigh us down, and we are wasting away because of them. How then can we live?”’ 11 Say to them, ‘As surely as I live, declares the Sovereign Lord, I take no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but rather that they turn from their ways and live. Turn! Turn from your evil ways! Why will you die, O house of Israel?’”

On March 13, 1964, a woman by the name of Kitty Genovese was walking through the streets of Queens, New York. She was heading home after work when the unthinkable happened. A man came out of the shadows, attacked her, stabbed her, and then killed her. The entire assault took 30 minutes. At the end of it the murderer fled the scene.

The murder case turned the city upside down. As the murderer was hunted down, detectives started to put the pieces together. When they reconstructed everything, they found out something heart-wrenching. After talking with the neighbors in the area they realized that 38 people had witnessed the murder. Now think about that. 38 people had witnessed an assault and murder that lasted for half and hour and not one of them helped Kitty Genovese. Not one of them called the police until after the killer had left.

How could that happen? Were these people just cold-hearted New Yorkers who were used to looking the other way when a murder happened? That just didn’t seem to be the case.

On other occasions people heroically helped one another. They had even prevented murders. So why not this time? Why didn’t any one of those 38 witnesses help Kitty?

Sociologists seem to have found the answer. It is called the “Bystander Effect.” Here’s what it means: the more people that are present when someone is attacked, the less likely any one of them is to help. So why is that? Are we just wired that way as people? Well, they seem to have come up with an answer to that as well. People are less likely to help when there are a lot of them because of what sociologists call “diffusion of responsibility.”

So here is the bottom line. The more people there are when something bad happens, the less likely any one of them is to help because no one wants to take responsibility. And that isn’t just a modern American problem. People have been doing nothing for thousands of years now.

And it is with that in mind that the Lord speaks these words through the prophet Ezekiel: “When I say to the wicked, ‘O wicked man, you will surely die,’ and you do not speak out to dissuade him from his ways, that wicked man will die for his sin, and I will hold you accountable for his blood.” On the other hand, “If you do warn the wicked man to turn from his ways and he does not do so, he will die for his sin, but you will have saved yourself.”

God is talking about the “Bystander Effect.” He is talking about taking responsibility for one another. And this isn’t just a physical responsibility. It is spiritual. In other words, God is saying, “If you don’t show your neighbor his sin in a loving way, if you become a spiritual bystander, I’m going to hold you accountable for him.”

We need that reminder. When we see someone living in sin it is far too easy to look the other way. We even come up with excuses for that person. “Well, I’m sure he has everything under control.” “It’s none of my business how she lives her life.” And then there is the biggest bystander effect of them all: “Someone else can show him his sin – I’m not going to do it.”

We’ve all been spiritual bystanders. We’ve all sat on the sidelines when it would have been so easy to enter the game. And the Lord is clear about how seriously he takes our inaction. As he stated through the prophet Ezekiel, acting out sins isn’t the only offense. Not helping someone else spiritually is just as bad of a sin.

Then the Lord went on to give Ezekiel the opportunity to no longer be a bystander. He had him speak to his people: “As surely as I live, declares the Sovereign Lord, I take no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but rather that they turn from their ways and live. Turn! Turn from your evil ways!” But someone has to stop being a bystander and actually speak to them.

A couple of years ago, a high school in Pakistan faced a situation no school would ever want to face. A suicide bomber approached the school, strapped with 13 pounds of explosives. Everybody watched as he got closer and closer. 1500 student lives hung in the balance. Then, one of the teenagers in the school stood up. His name was Aitzaz Hasan and he walked out to the bomber. The two struggled. The bomber tried to rush to the school. Hasan kept stopping him. Finally, the bomber set off his explosives, killing both him and Hasan. When an entire school was in peril, a teenage boy gave his life to save 1500 lives.

Jesus was no bystander. He said what needed to be said. He told adulterers and adulteresses to leave their lives of sin. He warned the Pharisees about their hypocrisy and made up rules. He gave the hard truths of sin to the crowds. And for all of this brutal honesty Jesus was put on trial and beaten and crucified.

There were a lot of bystanders in Jerusalem when Jesus was suffering. No one went to help him. And it had to be that way. We had to be a world of bystanders as Jesus died on the cross for our sins. He took our sins as his responsibility.

And now he gives you a responsibility. This morning Jesus is reminding you of your responsibility for your neighbors and friends and family. Some of them of struggling physically. Help them when they need it.

Even more importantly, many of them are struggling spiritually. Your mission from Christ himself is to help them spiritually. Jesus himself talked about that in our Gospel reading. “If your brother sins against you, go and show him his fault, just between the two of you. If he listens to you, you have won your brother over.”

Sometimes we think that saying nothing is the loving thing to do. It isn’t. Love speaks to others. Love shows sin. Love shows our Savior’s forgiveness.

“Let none hear you idly saying, “There is nothing I can do,”

While the multitudes are dying, And the Master calls for you.

Take the task he gives you gladly; Let his work your pleasure be.

Answer quickly when he calleth, “Here am I — send me, send me!” Amen.

Some Will…Some Won’t


Trinity Mission Festival – September 17, 2017

At the king’s command, couriers went throughout Israel and Judah with letters from the king and from his officials, which read: “People of Israel, return to the Lord, the God of Abraham, Isaac and Israel, that he may return to you who are left, who have escaped from the hand of the kings of Assyria. 7 Do not be like your parents and your fellow Israelites, who were unfaithful to the Lord, the God of their ancestors, so that he made them an object of horror, as you see. 8 Do not be stiff-necked, as your ancestors were; submit to the Lord. Come to his sanctuary, which he has consecrated forever. Serve the Lord your God, so that his fierce anger will turn away from you. 9 If you return to the Lord, then your fellow Israelites and your children will be shown compassion by their captors and will return to this land, for the Lord your God is gracious and compassionate. He will not turn his face from you if you return to him.” 10 The couriers went from town to town in Ephraim and Manasseh, as far as Zebulun, but people scorned and ridiculed them. 11 Nevertheless, some from Asher, Manasseh and Zebulun humbled themselves and went to Jerusalem. 12 Also in Judah the hand of God was on the people to give them unity of mind to carry out what the king and his officials had ordered, following the word of the Lord. (2 Chronicles 30:6-12)

Do you know the difference between dogs and cats? To be sure, there are many differences. Some are funny and some are biological. Christopher Hitchens, a writer, pinpointed perhaps the most important difference between dogs and cats. “Owners of dogs will have noticed that, if you provide them with food and water and shelter and affection, they will think you are god. Whereas owners of cats are compelled to realize that, if you provide them with food and water and shelter and affection, they draw the conclusion that they are gods.”

Why is that? After being given everything they need, why do dogs treat you like a god while cats think of themselves as gods? While we may never be able to read the minds of cats and dogs, we can see a lot of those same ideas among humans.

God gives everyone what they need to survive. Some praise and thank him for it, while others praise themselves for having what they need. So again, we have to ask the question: Why is that? In fact, we can boil down the question even further to its base. Why do some believe God’s Word and others don’t?

That is the timeless question that believers have been asking ever since Adam and Eve were alive on this earth. Don’t you think they wondered that, too? On the day that they heard their first born son, Cain, killed their second born son, Abel, don’t you think Adam and Eve were asking that question in anguish? Why did Abel believe in the Lord and Cain didn’t? God even spoke to Cain from heaven! Why did he reject?

On down through history the same question remains. One brother believes the Lord, the other does not. We see it once again in the Old Testament in our first reading. King Hezekiah had been bringing God’s people back to the Lord. He had been fixing up the temple after a century of unbelief. And now came time to tell the people about who the true God is. “At the king’s command, couriers went throughout Israel and Judah with letters from the king.”

It wasn’t every day the king sent letters out to the entire kingdom. This information was important. Here’s what those letters said: “People of Israel, return to the Lord.” It was a plea. Their king was begging them to not become like their parents had been. “Do not be stiff-necked, as your ancestors were; submit to the Lord. Come to his sanctuary, which he has consecrated forever. Serve the Lord your God…”

That message went to everybody. From Asher in the far north along the sea down through the fields of Zebulun and the wide open plains of the tribe of Manasseh. Then came the powerful tribe of Ephraim and finally, the city of Jerusalem itself. Those northern tribes had mostly been wiped out or carried off. There weren’t many left. But all who remained, north and south, heard the words of the king.

Then came the response. “The couriers went from town to town in Ephraim and Manasseh, as far as Zebulun, but people scorned and ridiculed them.” But that wasn’t all. “Some from Asher, Manasseh and Zebulun humbled themselves and went to Jerusalem.” The word of the Lord had gone out to his people. Some rejected. Others believed.

I bet you know how that goes personally. Every family has some who reject God’s Word, or don’t care about it, and others who believe it. And that hurts, doesn’t it? It is sad when some of your loved ones don’t really care about God or don’t make an effort to hear his word.

That might sound like one of those problems that Jesus wouldn’t know anything about. But he does. During his ministry Jesus’ own family had come on one occasion to “take charge” of him and carry him back home. His brothers, sisters, and even his mother, Mary initially didn’t think very highly of what Jesus was doing. If it happened to Jesus’ family, it will happen to yours, too.

In fact, Jesus goes further in our Gospel reading this morning. As he is sending out his disciples to share their faith, Jesus tells them, “Go! I am sending you out like lambs among wolves. Whoever listens to you listens to me; whoever rejects you rejects me; but whoever rejects me rejects him who sent me.” And reject him they did. Some believed Jesus to be the Christ, but even they ran away when he was capture and crucified.

Jesus knows what it is like to be rejected. He knew he would be, and he came to this world anyway. He came to be the Savior we needed. He came to be the Savior the entire world needed.

I have to admit, if given the choice between a cat or a dog, I think I would choose a dog. Cats don’t think they need you. And even if you give them something, they usually take it as though they had it coming anyway. Most dogs remain loyal to you no matter what. Most dogs will look so happy even when you give them the littlest things. No wonder there is a prayer out there that says: “Lord, make me the person my dog thinks I am.”

The truth is, you can’t be that perfect person. And that is why your Savior, Jesus came. For all of our cat-like sins, when we thought we deserved God’s gifts, or when we thought we were responsible for what we have apart from God, Jesus died for you, for me, and for the whole world.

And it is to that world that we are once again sent today. There will be those who reject God’s Word when you share it with them. They might be your own neighbors, coworkers, or even your own family members. Don’t give up! Keep working to share your faith and live your faith around them. Perhaps a day from now, or a year, or a decade, that person will all of a sudden want to hear more.

That’s what eventually happened to Jesus’ family. His mother Mary and brothers who once came to take charge of the Savior eventually became some of his greatest missionaries. Jesus isn’t asking you to be his greatest missionary. He is simply sending you out to share your faith and live your faith in this community.

A couple of years ago a family in Tampa Bay, Florida found a stray dog. The two boys wanted to keep the dog, but their mother said they would do their due diligence and put up posters to try and find its rightful owner. Four days later, as the mother was coming home from work, this stray dog quickly jumped to the door, barking wildly. The mother ran in to find her younger son in the midst of a violent seizure. She quickly brought her son to the emergency room where he was saved in the nick of time. This stray dog, who had only know the family for a couple of days saved the boy.

Be that dog. Save your dying neighbors, your dying family members by sharing God’s life-giving word. Amen.

Beauty in the Most Unlikely Place


13th Sunday after Pentecost – September 3, 2017

Before the spies lay down for the night, she went up on the roof 9 and said to them, “I know that the Lord has given this land to you and that a great fear of you has fallen on us, so that all who live in this country are melting in fear because of you. 10 We have heard how the Lord dried up the water of the Red Sea for you when you came out of Egypt, and what you did to Sihon and Og, the two kings of the Amorites east of the Jordan, whom you completely destroyed. 

11 When we heard of it, our hearts melted and everyone’s courage failed because of you, for the Lord your God is God in heaven above and on the earth below. 12 Now then, please swear to me by the Lord that you will show kindness to my family, because I have shown kindness to you. Give me a sure sign 13 that you will spare the lives of my father and mother, my brothers and sisters, and all who belong to them, and that you will save us from death.” 

14 “Our lives for your lives!” the men assured her. “If you don’t tell what we are doing, we will treat you kindly and faithfully when the Lord gives us the land.” 

15 So she let them down by a rope through the window, for the house she lived in was part of the city wall. 16 Now she had said to them, “Go to the hills so the pursuers will not find you. Hide yourselves there three days until they return, and then go on your way.” 

17 The men said to her, “This oath you made us swear will not be binding on us 18 unless, when we enter the land, you have tied this scarlet cord in the window through which you let us down, and unless you have brought your father and mother, your brothers and all your family into your house. 19 If anyone goes outside your house into the street, his blood will be on his own head; we will not be responsible. As for anyone who is in the house with you, his blood will be on our head if a hand is laid on him. 20 But if you tell what we are doing, we will be released from the oath you made us swear.” 

21 “Agreed,” she replied. “Let it be as you say.” So she sent them away and they departed. And she tied the scarlet cord in the window. (Joshua 2:8-21)

Beauty can be found in the most unlikely places. And if there was ever an unlikely place for beauty, it was Nazi Germany during World War II. Jews were being taken to concentration camps to be killed. The sick and the handicapped were being euthanized. Even for those white Germans of Hitler’s Arian race Germany could be a dangerous place.

After Adolph Hitler came to power he had a contest held to find the picture perfect Aryan child. Hitler and his people had placed an emphasis on white Germans being the “master race” and he wanted to illustrate that for his entire country. So pictures of good looking white children were brought to compete in this contest of sorts. And the winner was a girl named Hessy Taft. She was pictured in Nazi propaganda magazines across the nation. “This is the ideal German child – this is perfection” they said.

Little did Hitler and his Nazi regime know that this girl wasn’t an Aryan German at all. She was a Jew. Hitler never knew it, but his ideal of perfection, the picture they showed to all of Nazi Germany, was a Jewish girl.

Beauty can be found in the most unlikely places. The book of Joshua paints another brutally ugly picture of the world this morning. The massive city of Jericho may not have been Nazi Germany, but those Canaanite peoples hated Israelites just as much…if not more.

That was because the Israelites were slowly making their way to the land of Canaan. And the city that was first in their sights, was the large, impregnable city of Jericho. Everyone in Jericho was on edge. The city gates probably rarely opened in those days. Everyone was looking for Israelites in Canaanite clothing.

Into this dangerous situation Joshua sent two spies. Their mission, whether they chose to accept it or not, was to walk in to the belly of the beast. They were to inspect the city of Jericho and somehow return back to Joshua alive.

Somehow those two spies did get in to the city – even now that everyone was on heightened alert. That’s when everything went wrong. People were starting to find out that these men were Israelite spies. So the spies went to the last place they could – a place in Jericho that would welcome anyone – the house of a prostitute named Rahab.

But it was too late. Someone told the king of Jericho, “Look! Some of the Israelites have come here tonight to spy out the land.” The jig was up. The king told Rahab, “Bring out the men who came to you and entered your house.”

This was probably it. The person who was housing the spies was a prostitute – and who would put any faith in a woman like that to keep you safe. That type of person would get rid of you as quick as possible if it meant saving herself.

But in one of the most amazing turn of events in all of Scripture, she didn’t. Instead of handing them over to her king she hid them on her roof and told the king, “At dusk, when it was time to close the city gate, the men left…Go after them quickly.”

As Rahab lowered the spies down from her window on the outside wall of Jericho, she said something even more amazing. “I know that the Lord has given this land to you…spare the lives of my father and mother, my brothers and sisters, and all who belong to them, and that you will save us from death.” And the spies swore an oath with Rahab the prostitute, telling her to tie a “scarlet cord in the window” so they would know where she was when they attacked the city.

It can be hard for us to place ourselves in the position of an Israelite spy hiding on the roof of a Jericho prostitute’s house. Let’s try anyway. Would you have trusted Rahab enough to hide in her house? Would you have questioned her honesty given her wicked line of work? And when she asked for her and her family to be spared in the coming war, would you have taken the time to remember? I’m not sure we would have. In fact, I think we would have given up on Rahab.

Rahab’s profession and her willingness lie to her king and turn against her own people seemed to epitomize the Canaanite enemy. What business did the spies have helping her? After all, maybe Rahab simply knew which way the battle winds were blowing and wanted to save her own skin?

Sometimes people operate that way. Sometimes we refuse to give people a chance even before we know who they are. We can be pretty judgmental about the job a person has, or about the house they live in, or about the education they have…or don’t have. The problem is, when we are willing to judge others by externals we soon realize we have no one left. You can find something wrong in anybody.

Well, anybody but Jesus. There were a lot of people who thought they knew Jesus. They thought he was the crazy guy from Galilee. They thought he was someone who could give you a free loaf of bread. They thought he was a rebel-rouser and an enemy. But few saw Jesus for who he really is.

Jesus, on the other hand, saw everyone for who they were. He took the time to speak with adulterers and fishermen and Pharisees and tax collectors. He saw the beauty in people, even if it was hidden. In fact, while these people were his enemies by nature, he was willing to die for them…and for us. That was the hidden beauty on the cross when Jesus died.

Rahab was not the enemy. And after the Israelites marched around the walls of Jericho for seven days those walls came tumbling down…except one part. One place in the rubble remained safe, and wouldn’t you know it, there was a scarlet cord hanging in the window. A Canaanite family, a prostitute’s family, had survived one of the worst forces of destruction in history.

Of course, the account doesn’t end there. This woman, Rahab, removed herself from her past. She got rid of the false gods and her wicked job and her city and she married an Israelite named Salmon. They had a son they named Boaz. His descendant was David, and his descendant was Jesus.

So how could all of the walls of Jericho fall but one small part? How could a scarlet cord save a family? How could a Canaanite prostitute be saved? By faith.

How could we sinners survive when the walls of this dark world come crashing down? How can we have any hope in what comes next? How can we find the hidden beauty in this world? How can we possibly be saved? By faith.

To the Lord, you are more important than any poster of beauty in this world. To the Lord you are are more precious than gold. To the Lord, you are beautiful. Amen.