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July 28 lesson: Encourage One Another

July 21, 2019
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Encourage One Another

Jesus Teaches about Spiritual Discernment

Summer Quarter: Living in Covenant 
Unit 2: A Heartfelt Covenant


Sunday school lesson for the week of July 28, 2019 
By Rev. Ashley Randall


Lesson Scripture: Matthew 7:1-6, 15-23
Key Verses: Matthew 7:15-16


Purpose: To examine ourselves honestly in light of God’s truth and love

A Long and Honorable Tradition

You have heard the news: “Today a federal grand jury returned a six-count indictment...” It sounded serious no matter who was named in the indictment or what crime they were accused of committing. Until I had the opportunity to serve a six-month term as the foreperson of the federal grand jury for the Southern District of Georgia, I didn’t realize the full significance of being named in an indictment.

When a crime has been committed, law enforcement officials start an investigation. They gather evidence. Their goal is to build a case against the person who is responsible for the crime, and then to determine the specific statutes that person has violated. When those acts are considered criminal or illegal under federal law, the Fifth Amendment to the Constitution of the United States provides that the evidence must first be presented to a grand jury. The United States Attorney or one of the Assistant United States Attorneys presents the evidence of alleged violations of the law to the grand jury as part of the process of bringing formal charges.

Federal law requires that a grand jury be selected at random from a fair cross section of the community in the district in which the federal grand jury convenes. The names of prospective grand jurors are drawn at random from lists of registered voters under procedures designed to ensure that all groups in the community will have a fair chance to serve. Thus, all citizens have an equal opportunity and obligation to serve. Those persons whose names have been drawn, and who are not exempt or excused from service, are summoned to appear for duty as grand jurors. When these persons appear before the court, the presiding judge may consider any further requests to be excused. The judge then directs the selection of 23 qualified persons to become the members of the grand jury.

Witnesses are called to testify. In most cases the grand jury hears testimony primarily from the government’s lead witness: the lead agent from one of the agencies responsible for enforcing the law that has been violated. That could include the FBI, ICE, ATF, Homeland Security, U.S. Postal Inspection Service, or an officer of a local police department who is assigned to a special task force. After being sworn in by the grand jury foreperson, the witness is questioned. Ordinarily, the attorney for the government questions the witness first, followed next by the foreperson of the grand jury. Then, the other members of the grand jury may question the witness.

During my term on the grand jury we have considered lots of cases involving persons found to be in the country illegally, carrying firearms or ammunition when they are prohibited from doing so (primarily because they have been previously convicted of a crime that carried a sentence of more than one year), and possession of a controlled substance with the intent to distribute.

We have also heard about schemes to operate pill mills, to import illegal drugs, to avoid export sanctions on technology, to empty the retirement/investment accounts of unsuspecting persons, and to obtain funds through false pretenses. We heard about murders, robberies, carjackings, and physical assault.

Some of the most heartbreaking cases have involved the sexual abuse of children. We heard about numerous cases involving the production, transmission, and possession of child pornography. A few of those cases included evidence that parents were exploiting their own children. We heard dozens of cases of persons using the internet to arrange to have sex with underage girls – some under the age of 12. (The attorneys and the agents that presented these cases seemed particularly more somber that those who presented other cases. After hearing testimony, one of the grand jurors asked if we could go take a shower before we continued our work.)

When the grand jury has received all the evidence on a given charge, all persons other than the members of the grand jury must leave the room so that the grand jury may begin its deliberations. After all persons other than the grand jury members have left the room, the foreperson asks the grand jury members to discuss and vote upon the question of whether the evidence persuades the grand jury that a crime has probably been committed by the person accused and that an indictment should be returned. 

Every grand juror has the right to express his or her view of the matter under consideration, and grand jurors are urged to listen to the comments of all their fellow grand jurors before making up their mind. Each grand juror must be absolutely fair in his or her judgment of the facts. Otherwise, the grand juror will defeat the democratic purpose the grand jury is designed to serve. Only after each grand juror has been given the opportunity to be heard is the vote taken. At least 16 jurors must be present and 12 members must vote in favor of the indictment before it may be returned.

The grand jury is not responsible for determining whether the accused is guilty beyond a reasonable doubt, but only whether there is sufficient evidence of probable cause to justify bringing the accused to trial. If the grand jury finds probable cause to exist against a person suspected of having committed the crime, then it will return a written statement of the charges called an “indictment” or “true bill,” which is the formal criminal charge returned by the grand jury. Upon the indictment's being filed in court, the person accused must either plead guilty or nolo contendereor stand trial.

While much of the work involved hearing about the numerous ways people scheme, devise and conspire to serve their own interests, regardless of its impact on the welfare of others; the whole experience has left me with a much greater respect for the diligence of those who have accepted the responsibility of enforcing the laws on the land. Without exception, the United States Attorneys and the agents from all the different law enforcement agencies have shown a careful respect the law and concern for the preservation of order.

According to the “Handbook for Federal Grand Jurors,” “the grand jury operates both as a ‘sword,’ authorizing the government’s prosecution of suspected criminals, and also as a ‘shield,' protecting citizens from unwarranted or inappropriate prosecutions.” Why is it important that the grand jury perform both roles in maintaining an orderly society?

Dealing with Tensions in the Covenant Community
Matthew 7:1-6

As we consider what Jesus is saying in this passage, it is important to remember that Jesus has been describing a community that reflects the character of God. It is the community Jesus is establishing through the new covenant. Those who are invited and empowered to be part of this covenant community are the ones who are favored by God – the “blessed” – the “happy.” As members of this covenant community, their relationships with the world will be transforming.

That does not mean that Jesus expects their relationships with each other will be without misunderstanding or offense. Indeed, Jesus seems to expect that there will be occasions when conflict is inevitable. When that happens, what is Jesus’ counsel?

“Don’t judge, so that you won’t be judged” (Matthew 7:1).

It sounds quite clear and direct, until you begin to look at all that Jesus has said before and following this command. In case after case Jesus has been urging those who want to participate in the life of the covenant community to distinguish themselves from the world, to live to a higher standard – even higher than the standards of the Pharisees. Immediately following this command, Jesus warns his followers, “Don’t give holy things to dogs, and don’t throw your pearls in front of pigs” (Matthew 7:6).

Apparently, Jesus is not asking his followers to suspend all critical judgment. He is not asking them to turn a blind eye or to live in denial. He is not asking them to ignore harmful, or even unhelpful, behavior. What he is suggesting is that our relationship in this covenant community must be tempered with a radical humility.

In the face of transgressions, the first step needs to be a look within – it’s crucial that you consider why you feel you have been injured. Perhaps you have heard that often the habits and behaviors of others that bother us most or those same things that we are guilty of doing ourselves; “but you don’t even notice the log in your own eye” (Matthew 7:3b). As you deal with the tensions with others in the community, it is vitally important to adopt an attitude of profound humility.

Notice that this doesn’t mean we should never correct a fellow member of the community. Jesus is clear: “First take the log out of your own eye, and then you’ll clearly see to take the splinter out of your brother’s or sister’s eye” (Matthew 7:5b). You should seek to be helpful, but not judgmental. Prioritize the health of the relationship over the need to be right.

As Jesus makes the shift to talk about “dogs” and “pigs,” it seems that he is calling his followers to practice this same humility when they are dealing with those who have not indicated an openness to join the covenant community. Jesus warns his disciples that there are many who will not welcome them or receive the good news of God’s kingdom (cf. Matthew 10:14). To persist in “ramming” your message “down their throats” is an insult to them and a devaluation of the “pearl of great price.” The passage that follows (Matthew 7:9-11) further suggests those who are guided by God’s principles will give appropriately to those in need.

It is often difficult for us to acknowledge our own weaknesses, particularly the things we do that harm those around us. How have you given people permission to hold you accountable in the areas where you struggle?

Grapes and Figs or Thistles and Thorns
Matthew 7:15-23

It is crystal clear in this section that Jesus is calling his followers to practice discernment. “Watch out for false prophets. They come to you dressed like sheep, but inside they are vicious wolves” (Matthew 7:15). Appearances can be deceiving. What a person says may sound convincing. It its own perverted way, it may even seem to make sense. The question that must be asked: what is the result? Is it “good” or “bad”? Paul told the Galatians, “the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control” (5:22).

To make sure his followers stay anchored, Jesus goes on to call them to not fall victim of thinking too highly of their own accomplishments. Pride is the sin that may be most likely to exclude someone from entrance into the kingdom.

This sounds harsh, but Jesus is unwavering in his call to remember that this covenant community is founded, established, and sustained by God. “Only those who do the will of my Father who is in heaven will enter” (Matthew 7:21b). Any who seek to set up other standards are destined to find themselves defenseless on Judgment Day.

You should be encouraged as you remember that Jesus is committed to ensuring that his followers produce good fruit: 

Remain in me, and I will remain in you. A branch can’t produce fruit by itself, but must remain in the vine. Likewise, you can’t produce fruit unless you remain in me. I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, then you will produce much fruit. Without me, you can’t do anything (John 15:4-5).

Who helps you evaluate whether the fruit of your life is good or bad? What are you doing to ensure that you “remain in the vine”?

Rev. Ashley Randall is pastor of Garden City United Methodist Church. If you receive a notice that you have been selected to serve on a jury, please do not ignore it. “Jurors who fail to report for jury duty and who are not excused by the Court may… [face] a fine of not more than $1,000, imprisonment of not more than three (3) days, performance of community service, or any combination thereof.”

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