“The Fate of The Unconvinced”

Sermon Delivered By Rev. Dick Stetler – September 10, 2017

Centenary United Methodist Church

Psalm 34:15-22; Matthew 18:15-22


    This morning we are going to discuss a passage from the Gospel of Matthew that I have never considered worthy of being sermon material.  Pastors are given a preaching schedule called the lectionary that provides four Scripture lessons that take us through the church year.  This schedule cycles every three years.   Each time this morning's lesson appeared in the past, I have skipped having to deal with it.  Why have I done so?

    There is significant evidence that Jesus never uttered these words. This passage was the work of a scribe who changed the manuscript of Matthew's Gospel that he was copying.  Only recently, have pastors felt confident enough to be truthful about correcting the Word of God. Most pastors practice avoidance instead of telling their congregations that not all of God's Word is as sacred as they believe it is.

    Scholars have known for decades where the ancient scrolls were adjusted by scribes through the centuries so that they conformed to the theology coming from Rome.  Control of what people believed was the name of the game in those days. Since the Scriptures were in Greek or Latin, lay people relied on the priests to communicate what they were told were God's Words.

    A prime example of this would be of interest to you women.  All the passages in Paul's letters that marginalized the role of women were added by scribes to reflect the prevailing attitudes of the elders during the early days of the Church's development.  How do we know this? The verses containing Paul's statements about women do not appear in the older Pauline scrolls.

    If we analyze our lesson today, first, the Greek is radically different from the rest of Matthew. Second, the Greek word for church was mentioned in the passage, and no churches existed during Jesus' ministry.  Third, the verses describe a strategy to be used by a congregation to deal with disagreeable members. Again, no congregations had formed during Jesus' ministry.  Clearly the language of this passage comes from a much later period.

    We cannot imagine Jesus ever saying, "If he still will not fall into line with the program, throw him out and treat him as you would a pagan or a tax collector." (Matthew 18:17)

    It is helpful for us to be reminded of the life and death struggles through which the Church's history has passed. There were once five different branches of Christianity that were at odds over which school-of-thought would prevail in providing leadership for the Way of Jesus movement.

    In the fourth Century, Theodosius was the last Emperor to govern over the Eastern and Western hemispheres of what was left of the Roman Empire.  He declared that the true faith and doctrines of Christianity would be determined by the one sitting on The Byzantine throne.    

    Everyone else who believed differently was asked to leave the empire or run the risk of being discovered and executed.  This declaration put an end to the bickering and quibbling over the theology and the organization of early congregations. The resulting massive exodus of people who differed from Theodosius brought an end to the Roman Empire.

    What was this scribe hoping to accomplish by inserting this passage between Matthew's versions of The Parable of The Lost Sheep and The Parable of the Unforgiving Servant?  Since the Scriptures were declared The Word of God, no doubt he was giving divine authority from Jesus on how to deal with rogue Christians.  

    Later in our lesson today, this same scribe had Jesus say to his disciples, "I will give you the keys of the Kingdom of Heaven, e.g., what you prohibit on earth will be prohibited in heaven, and what you permit on earth will be permitted in heaven."  This is a direct copy of what Jesus said earlier in Matthew 16:19.

    Was Jesus giving enormous power to his disciples to determine what can and cannot be done in heaven?  We can only imagine what would have become of heaven if flawed humans had the power to rearrange the furniture to suit their tastes.  Obviously, this was not the case.

    What Jesus was teaching is much closer to, "In my father's house there are many rooms."  In other words, the attitudes we outgrow and abandon in our lives on earth and the values and skills of spirit that we develop to replace them will be the ones that we take with us when we graduate from the physical level of our existence.

    For instance, we could be the greatest surgeon in the world, but if we became overwhelmed by an elevated sense of self-worth, that spirit would go with us at death. (Matthew 6:21) Our surgical skills and medical knowledge would be useless since, in our new environment, no physical forms requiring such attention will exist.  All we have when we leave is the spirit we have developed while living here.  

    The scribe who inserted this passage into Matthew's Gospel appeared to be insensitive to Jesus' teaching that immediately followed.  Shortly after Jesus reportedly said, "Throw out the bums," Peter asked Jesus how long he should keep forgiving someone who continues to sin against him.  Jesus responded by saying, "Peter, do not put a limit on your forgiving nature. Keep forgiving him every time because the Kingdom of God is like this."  (Matthew 18:22)

    These words have the spirit of Jesus written all over them.  God never gives up or loses patience with any of us. This is the ultimate fate of everyone who remains unconvinced about their need to awaken spiritually. We have an infinite amount of time to discover our true identities, even if that means that we will need to attend Summer School, i.e., whatever that environment is where our learning continues.  No matter how evil we become, God is always there holding out an olive branch while inviting us to make better, more creative and loving choices.

    A high school student named Bobby Miller spent most of his junior and senior high days misbehaving. He was evil to the thinking of most people. He was in fistfights, he cursed his teachers, he cheated on tests and he was expelled from school numerous times.  Finally, to the delight of his teachers and administrators, Bobby quit school the moment he came of the age to do so. Absolutely, no one could get to Bobby in a way that encouraged him to put away his childish attitudes and grow up.  He listened to no one. 

    Twenty-seven years later, Bobby went on a search to find his high school homeroom teacher. He found her still teaching.  He lingered in the hallway outside of a teachers’ meeting until it was appropriate to talk to her.  When the two met, he asked if he could speak to her briefly as the other teachers were leaving. She did not recognize him as being a former student.

    He reached into his pocket and pulled out his wallet.  In it was a well-worn hand-written note that she had sent to him after she learned that he quit school.  He said,

You may not remember me, Miss Wilson, but I am Bobby Miller, who made everyone's life miserable until I quit school 27 years ago.  I wanted you to know that the note you sent to me shortly after I left school has been with me every day since I received it.  It has served as my mirror that I could look at when I started doubting myself. I came here this afternoon to thank you for believing in me.  Also, I wanted you to know that, because of your words, I am now a district manager of a number of stores that bear the name, Home Depot.  In case you have forgotten what you wrote, I want you to read your words to me written 27 years ago.

    Miss Wilson, now Mrs. Bittenger, sat there with tears streaming down her face as she read the note that she had written to Bobby many years before. As she read her note, old memories came flooding back to her mind.

Dear Bobby, I hope this note finds you well.  I want you to know that I became heart-sick when I learned that you had quit school.  I wish you could see yourself as I see you. You are one of the roughest diamonds I have ever met, but a diamond nevertheless. 


One day when you center yourself, you will become a wonderful, kind and generous leader in the business community.  The good in you shines through your aggressive exterior, and I am so sorry that more people did not understand you the way I do.


Please take some time to find yourself.  Learn to respect authority and learn from it rather than rebelling against it.  Three quarters of any job is being a team player with all the other people surrounding you. Doing so requires people and visionary skills. Please, please, please, learn to develop those skills. Do not waste your life trying to figure out why no one seems to understand you.  I am one who did. Our world will need your leadership abilities when you take the time to allow your inner skills to develop.  Fondly, Miss Wilson 

    This episode accurately captures the spirit of what Jesus was teaching during his short ministry.  We can contrast his spirit with the spirit of what that scribe assigned to Jesus when he reportedly taught, "If he still will not fall into line with the program, throw him out and treat him as you would a pagan or a tax collector." There is no comparison.

    When Bobby discovered for himself what Miss Wilson was seeing in him, his new self-understanding was a spiritual awakening that caused him to make a massive course correction. The transformation was like being born again.  His new orientation toward life led to a fulfilling life and a fruitful career, three beautiful children and a wife that helped tame this wild creature through her loving, gentle spirit. 

    Few people understood that his challenging behavior was nothing more than abrasives that were slowly polishing his diamond.  But, it took the love of Miss Wilson to sow one more seed in written form.  That seed developed roots in Bobby's life and he grew into quite a leader.   

    God does not need to throw people away because they remained blind to truths that they were incapable of understanding at their level of awareness.  We cannot exhaust God's patience by our stubborn attitudes or our preoccupation with the things of this world.         

    Had that scribe understood Jesus' message, he would never have inserted those verses in the Gospel he was copying. Our joy is that we do understand what Jesus was teaching. Today, we know just how good and supportive God really is to all people until the end of time whether they realize it or not.  God's grace is greater than the resistance of those who remain unconvinced. 



We thank you, God, for your mercy and patience.  As we come together, having lived through another week, we recognize our limitations of faith.  We had flashes of thoughtfulness alongside moments of insensitivity.  We have experienced areas of growth alongside moments where we were vulnerable to the tyranny of little things.  We have used our sense of humor and smiles alongside moments when we engaged in fault-finding and blame.  In spite of the mixed signals we send into the world, we thank you for calling us your children.  Amen.



Loving God, help us choose everyday to live together peacefully in this world you fashioned for us.  We are thankful that you created us with the ability to have visions, to use our intuition to dream and to have the courage to make visible those ideas and beliefs that fuel our hope for a brighter tomorrow.

Help each of us to model what it means to invest our energy in what produces peace, kindness and compassion.  May what we become inspire others to move toward a day when swords will be molded into plows, and where resources used to manufacture weapons of war may be converted into what will create a world where people are no longer starving for food and pure drinking water.

With the hurricane damage in the Caribbean, the U.S., Nepal, Sierra Leone, the 8.1 earthquake in Mexico and the enormous fires in Seattle, there are plenty of opportunities to make visible Jesus' message of love your neighbor.  Bless all those who are caught in the cross-hairs of nature's fury that comes in many different forms, the victims, those who bring us the news from those locations and those who roll up their sleeves to help during the months and months of recovery. 

May the world’s people learn that we are one, and only by serving one another on a global scale will we truly be free from toxic attitudes toward people that we never took the time to meet or understand.  We pray these thoughts through the spirit of Jesus, the Christ, who taught us to say when we pray . . .