Wednesday, September 28, 2011

15th Sunday after Pentecost - September 25, 2011

The Book of Psalms is sometimes called, “The Prayerbook of the Bible.”  The psalms were prayers written down by David and other Israelites.  Prayers that called on God in time of trouble.  Prayers that celebrated God’s goodness.  Prayers that cried out in frustration and uncertainty.  Prayers full of confidence that God would answer and rescue. 

Psalms speak to us because in spite of vast historical and cultural differences, we share common experiences with those ancient people: doubt, triumph, heartache, celebration, loneliness.  The sermon today is a personal reflection on Psalm 25.  But it’s also a kind of prayer.

Lord, Thank you for this psalm about the forgiveness of sins.

Verse 3, "[N]one who wait for you shall be put to shame." 
Waiting on God is trusting in him.  The psalmist waits on God in his distress,
trusting that God will not let him be put to shame.  Lord, I need not fear the
disapproval or hatred of any other, for you will not let me be put to shame.
This has come in awfully handy at times.  I remember when I was being interviewed by congregations last year.  I expected to be intimidated, even a bit scared about the whole process.  But then I remembered that I had nothing to fear.  Nothing.  No one who waits on you will be put to shame.

Verse 4, "[T]each me your paths."  God, you don't leave me defenseless and unable
to confront the challenges that life presents.  You lead and teach
me.  Not so that I can confront life without God!  No, to the contrary.  So that you enter into it all.  What do I do when my dad gets cancer?  You have taught me to hand that burden to you.  What do I do when I have not done all that I should?  You have taught me to repent and to get going.  What do I do when I don’t know what to do?  I call on you.  You teach me that with you and by you, all things are possible and no situation is too much to bear. 

Verse 7, "Remember not the sins of my youth or my transgressions."  And here is
the heart of the matter.  I have gone my own way.  Even after you
saved me I have gone my own way.  Persistently I take your love for
granted.  I am bound to sin....... And yet you refuse to remember it.  You
refuse to count it against me and instead teach me to depend upon your

Verse 10, "All the paths of the Lord are steadfast love and faithfulness, for
those who keep his covenant and his testimonies."  Fearful words.
Conditional words!  “For those who keep his covenant......”  I have not kept your covenant.  I have broken your laws.  I have fallen short.  This verse almost sounds like a promise, but it rings in my ear like a condemnation.......    But no.  For the sake of Christ, my God, you reckon that I have kept the covenant.  For the sake of Christ I am the object of your love and faithfulness.  I get the promise because he has earned it for me.

Verse 15, "My eyes are ever toward the Lord, for he will pluck my feet out of
the net."  Having eyes toward the Lord is trusting in him.  This is
what you have taught me, to look towards you for help in all circumstances,
to depend on your graciousness and faithfulness.  Even, especially,
when I have brought the trouble on myself.  For when I have brought the trouble on myself, then shame is there to trip me up and confound me.  That is when I need you, my Lord, to save me from myself.

Verse, 18, "Consider my affliction and my trouble, and forgive all my sins."  And
again.  There is trouble.  There is affliction.  But forgive my sins
Lord and deliver me.  Don’t let the trouble carry me away.  But stay near me all of my days.  Amen

Sunday, September 18, 2011

14th Sunday after Pentecost - September 18, 2011

If you had to boil today’s parable down to a line it might be this, “Yes, my dear disciples, you have been chosen to inherit eternal life by God himself, but don’t get fat heads about it.”  That is the long and the short of it, the Gospel and the Law all rolled into one sentence.  “Yes you have been chosen; don’t be fat heads.  Don’t pat yourselves on the back too hard.”

Now this would make for a rather short sermon.  And I’m not opposed to that.  But maybe I should explain just a little bit.

In order to see the situation clearly, we need to take a step back.  [This is often the case, by the way.  Context means a lot in the Bible.]  If you all had Bibles I would tell you to open them to Matthew chapter 19, verse 23.  And you would find this, “’It will be hard for a rich person to enter the kingdom of heaven.  It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.’  When the disciples heard this they were greatly astounded and said, ‘Then who can be saved?’” 

So this is the context, Jesus is teaching the disciples about how someone gets saved.  And he says something astonishing to them.  He says that rich people, the very people whom God has blessed the most, as any clear thinking individual could see, these rich people can’t get into heaven.  It is as if Jesus has said, “Nobody who gets baptized and goes to church is going to heaven.”  What he says seems like absolute crazy talk to the disciples.  And so they say, “Then who can be saved?”  “If the people whom God has blessed can’t get in, where does that leave the rest of us?  Gulp.” 

And Jesus answers, “For man it is impossible, but with God anything is possible.”  Translation, “It isn’t the individual who decides; it is God who decides.”

Well, at this point, the disciples are feeling a bit insecure about things.  And so one of the disciples speaks up [Can you guess which one?], “Look, we have left everything and followed you.  What then will we have?”  “Lord, do you mean to say that after leaving our careers and families and walking all over the country with you, we’re going to end up on the wrong side of the Pearly Gates?”  Peter and the disciples are pretty worried at this point.  They’ve had their lives turned upside down by this Jesus character and they’re not even going to get into heaven?

Jesus moves quickly to reassure them, “At the renewal of all things, when the Son of Man is seated on the throne of his glory, you who have followed me will also sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel.  And everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or fields, for my name’s sake, will receive a hundredfold, and will inherit eternal life.”

Jesus knows how much they need some reassurance and he gives it to them.  He gives them a lavish promise about sitting on thrones in heaven.  He promises them that they will receive a hundred-fold blessing.

And then he says something peculiar.  “But many who are first will be last, and the last will be first.”  And with that, he launches into our parable for today.   The message of the parable is that the reward given to those who have been called is equal.  All of the workers in the vineyard, whether they worked for 12 hours or only one, all of them receive the same reward.  Likewise, all those who have been called by God in baptism will receive the same reward.  

Now this seems almost to contradict what Jesus has just said, that the disciples will receive a special reward: sitting on the thrones on the judgment day.  He has just told them that will receive a unique reward and then he turns around and tells them a parable that shows that their reward will be equal to those who come after them. What is the meaning of this? 

“Yes, my dear disciples, you have been chosen to inherit eternal life by God himself; you need not worry on that score.  But don’t get fat heads about it.  For it is not so much an honor as you think.  In fact, it means that you will work through the heat of the day.  Others will come after you and benefit from this work that you have done and they will receive the same reward.”

To put this in clearer terms, after Jesus died and was raised from the dead, the disciples underwent tremendous persecution.  It was no easy thing to be a Christian.  And what is their reward?  The forgiveness of their sins and eternal life.  Many came after them, including us, who have benefited from this work that they did.  We stand on the shoulders of giants.  And yet we will receive the same reward.  So with this parable, Jesus is reassuring the disciples, but also telling them not to get too full of themselves.  

Clearly we are in a much different position than the disciples were, we have been employed later in the day.  But I think the message is the same for us.  “Yes, we have been chosen to receive a wonderful reward.  Hallelujah for that!  But let’s not get complacent about it.  Our reward is no badge of honor, as if we had earned something that others have not.  Instead, this reward is invitation to work in the vineyard, a calling to do God’s work with the time that we have.  And surely there are others who will come after us.  And their reward will be like ours.  Amen.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

13th Sunday after Pentecost - September 11, 2011

I’m of a mind to be blunt this morning.  If someone comes to you for forgiveness, you have to forgive them.  You have to.  If they did something terrible, you still have to.  If they hurt you, you still have to.  If you’re not ready to forgive yet, you still have to.  Are there exceptions?  No.  If someone asks for your forgiveness you have to give it to them period.  Well, not period.  You have to do more than that.  Not only do you have to forgive them, you have to forgive them from your heart.  That means you have to do more than simply mouth the words, you actually have to let go of your grievance.  That is what this gospel lesson is about.  You have to do this because you are the one who needs forgiveness.  To make this point, Jesus tells the parable of the Wicked Servant.  There are three layers to the story that I’d like to talk about, one at a time.

First Layer:
The parable is a straightforward story that Jesus tells in order to convey an ethical teaching.

In this parable there is a king.  Generally speaking, kings are bad news.  Kings are rich, demanding and greedy.  Kings don’t usually show mercy.  So here’s what happens.  The king wants to settle up his accounts with all of his slaves.  That means that he wanted to collect all of the money that they owe him.  There is one particular slave who is brought before him and it turns out that this fellow is very deeply in debt to the king, ten thousand talents.  Just how much money is ten thousand talents?  Let me explain it this way.  If a regular working guy in the time of Jesus saved every penny of his paycheck, it would take him about 200,000 years to come up with 10,000 talents.  Roughly translated, then, 10,000 talents means billions of dollars.

So this slave is brought before the king and he is billions of dollars in debt.  And so the king is ticked off.  And he orders that the slave be sold along with his wife and children.  But the slave starts groveling, “Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.”  This is an example of the Bible telling a joke.  The slave will never be able to pay back the debt or even make a dent and everyone hearing Jesus tell the story would have laughed at the idea of the slave saying something so ridiculous.

At this point, the expectation is that, groveling or no,  the king will punish the slave.  But something unexpected happens.  The king says, “Never mind.  Go home.  Your debt is forgiven.”

Now this is an example of forgiveness!  This is what we are to do.

So the slave leaves the palace of the king and it must have felt like he had just won the lottery.  No more debt!!!  Hallelujah!  And he runs across another slave who owes him a hundred denarii, which is a few thousand bucks.  Not chump change, but a tiny drop in the bucket compared to his debt that has just been forgiven. 

So the first slave grabs the other one and starts choking him and screaming, “Give me the money you owe!!!  Give it to me!  If you don’t pay by yesterday, so help me, I’ll throw you into prison!”  The other slave begs for mercy, “I don’t have the money on me, but I will pay you.  I promise.  Be patient and I’ll get it to you.”  Well that wasn’t good enough and so the first slave throws the second slave into prison.

This, of course, is an example of unforgiveness.  Clearly we are not supposed to do this.

The last part of the parable relates how the king punishes the first slave for being such a terrible jerk, for not forgiving as he has been forgiven.  Jesus finishes off by telling the disciples that they too must forgive each other.

This is the first layer of the parable.  It’s pretty straightforward.  It’s a morality tale.  And the moral is this: “Be like the king who forgives.  Don’t be like the slave who refuses to forgive.”  When the parable is explained like this, it encourages (or you could say threatens) people to be forgiving. 

2nd Layer
The parable is a straightforward story that Jesus tells in order to show both Law (what we are commanded to do) and Gospel (what God has done for us.)  This layer focuses on slightly different things and delivers a different message because it uses a Lutheran understanding of reading the scriptures.  So let’s go back to the beginning.

The slave is brought before the king.  He owes an enormous amount of money.  He cannot pay it.  Therefore he is guilty.  Therefore the Law condemns him.  This is the way the Law works.  It is pure reason and logic.  There are no exceptions.  There is no mercy. 

Surprisingly, however, the king decides to have mercy on the slave.  It’s not because the slave might be able to pay him back if only he had a little more time.  No, the debt is way too big.  It could never be repaid.  The king has mercy on the slave because he has compassion for him.  He has mercy because he decides to have mercy.  Period.  This is the gospel.  The slave does nothing to earn it.  Mercy is a pure gift.  So far, so good.    

In the second scene, the first slave leaves the presence of the king.  He is no longer in bondage to the debt.  He has been set free from it.  And then he comes upon his fellow slave who owes him some money.  So far in this parable, we have seen how the law works (it condemned the first slave) and we have seen how the gospel works (it set him free when the king decided, out of the blue, to have mercy on him.)  What will happen in this new situation?  Will we hear the law or will we hear the gospel?

The first slave insists on his rights according to the Law.  The other slave owes him money and he demands to be paid.  And we must understand that he is fully within his rights.  The first slave is playing the game according to the rules, according to the Law.  The Law says that the second slave owes him the money and must pay it.  Period.  Remember, the Law has no mercy. 

What happens then?  What happens to this one who desires to live according to the Law?  He is condemned by the king.  We must understand that the Law can only kill.  It can never bring life.  The slave clings to the Law and demands his rights.  Fine.  He has a right to be condemned because he has not kept the Law.  That is the only possible option.
The Law has no mercy.

This second layer of the story explains how two things work.  First, mercy comes from outside of us like an undeserved gift; this is the gospel.  Second, the Law can only bring condemnation.

3rd Layer
The parable isn’t a straightforward story used to convey information, like a moral or an explanation of how things work.  Instead, Jesus tells the parable to DO something to his disciples. 

Our gospel lesson actually begins with a question from Peter.  “How many times should I forgive someone?”  The assumption in the question is that there is some kind of limit, that forgiveness should be given and then at a certain point the guilty person no longer deserves to be forgiven.  Jesus responds by saying, you must forgive seventy-seven times, which is another way of saying, infinitely.  You must never cease to forgive.  There is no limit on forgiveness.  And then Jesus tells the parable.

As we listen, we initially feel mercy for the first slave.  He is in a tough spot and we can relate to that.  And so we are glad when the king forgives him his debt.  Hallelujah!  Forgiveness is truly a wonderful thing. 

But then, as the story progresses, we come to understand that the first slave is actually very wicked.  Having just received forgiveness, he refuses to do likewise.  If you are like me, you want to give him a good kick in the butt. 

Instead of feeling mercy for the first slave, now we feel mercy for the second slave who surely deserves it more.  And so when the other slaves turn the first slave in for being so unforgiving we are glad.  He refused to forgive and so he will not be forgiven.  This is the way things are supposed to work.

Except that it makes no sense at all.  Before Jesus tells the parable, he has just told Peter than we must forgive and keep on forgiving.  And then in the parable, the king forgave the slave only one time, not seven, not seventy-seven.  He forgave him one time and then when he screwed up...... BAM.  Judgment. 

If you are like me and if you felt some sense of justice that the slave has been condemned, then you have been taken in.  You have been taken in by Jesus’ parable.  We have just condemned ourselves.  People who think like us are willing to forgive, but we are also quick to judge.  We were glad that the wicked slave was forgiven the first time, but once he proves himself unworthy of this forgiveness, then our sympathy runs out.  He deserves what he has coming.

What Jesus has done is turn the tables on Peter and on us.  Or to use a different metaphor, he has held a mirror up for us to look into.  Peter asks, “How many times should I forgive someone?  When those other people sin, how many times should I give them pardon?”  Peter is focusing on someone else’s sin.  Jesus replies with a parable that shows him his own.  It’s as if he is saying to Peter, “You ask me about how many times you should forgive.  Let me show you that it is you who need forgiveness.” This parable works by inviting Peter (and us!) to condemn the wicked servant in direct contradiction to what Jesus has just said.  Jesus preaches mercy, and we are happy to have it for ourselves.  But in the unguarded moment, we are all too willing to clamor that justice be applied to another person, instead of mercy.    

In the parable, none of them are following the command that Jesus has given.  None of them forgive as he calls us to forgive.  The first slave doesn’t forgive.  The other slaves don’t forgive either; they hand the first slave over to be judged.  The king forgives for a moment, then goes back on his promise of forgiveness and condemns the slave to be tortured.  The whole thing is an awful, terrible mess.  Unforgiveness spirals out of control and destroys everyone.  This whole scene dramatically illustrates what Jesus has just told Peter.  We must forgive. Why must we forgive lest unforgiveness destroy us all.   

And so I stand before you today and I point my finger at you and I point it at myself.  We are the guilty ones.  We are the ones who haven’t had mercy.  We are the ones who have held the grudge.  We are the ones who are deeply in debt, over our heads, with no hope to ever pay it back.  We are the ones who forgive with our mouths and then go back on our promise.  And so long as we do not forgive, we destroy ourselves and others.

Is there any good news today?  Is there any gospel here?  Or as the Apostle Paul asks with such force in his letter to the Romans, “Who will rescue us from this body of death?” 

“Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord.”  Yes, we are rescued from this terrible situation.  Jesus Christ himself breaks in and for his sake God forgives.  God forgives us, yes, over and over.  And God forgives those whom we would still condemn.  And so we also must forgive.  We will forgive because we have been forgiven.  God help us.  

Sunday, September 4, 2011

12th Sunday after Pentecost - September 4, 2011

One of the things I dearly love to talk about and proclaim to you is that God forgives sinners, and more particularly, that God forgives you and me.  To that end, we confess our sins each and every Sunday at the beginning of the service.  And then I give what is called the absolution, “I therefore declare unto you the entire forgiveness of all of your sins.”  Often enough, I talk about God’s forgiveness in the sermon as well.  And then, to really drive the point home and to put it into a form that touches our bodies as well as our ears, we take communion, which is for the forgiveness of sins.  God’s forgiveness of us is the heart of every one of our worship services.  It is the heart of our faith. Without it, there really wouldn’t be any such thing as Christian faith.  We wouldn’t have any good news to hear.  And we wouldn’t have any good news to tell.

But there is another side to the forgiveness of sins that we speak about less often.  Or at least I feel convicted for not having spoken about it during my time with you.  This other side of forgiveness has to do with what happens outside of the church building, what happens between us, what happens when we hurt one another with our sins.  So here’s what we’re going to do.  Next week we’ll talk about how we are commanded to forgive one another; that’s what the gospel lesson is about and it’s pretty important.  This week we’re going to focus on what we do when a Christian brother or sister has sinned against us.

Our gospel lesson today begins, “if another member of the church sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone.”  The rest of the lesson describes a whole process to be gone through that includes bringing witnesses, involving the whole church, and then finally kicking the offender out of the church entirely.  Now this is the kind of thing that makes many of us very, very uncomfortable.  Do we really have to do this?  Do we really have to go to the one who has sinned against us and invite them to repent? 

It is at this point when we can start to rationalize. 
  • Going to someone to point out his sin might cause more problems than it solves. 
  • Wouldn’t it be easier just to forget about it?
  •  Couldn’t we just forgive him without having to say anything?    

Avoiding confrontation might seem like a good idea, but it’s no good.  Jesus isn’t calling us to avoid confrontation.  He isn’t calling us to sweep things under the rug.  No, he is calling us to go to the one who has sinned against us and “point out the fault.” 

Why is this so hard?  When I am confronted by situations like this, I come up with all kinds of reasons to avoid the confrontation.  I’m deathly afraid of it.   I’m afraid of damaging a relationship.  I’m afraid of having my own sin pointed out.  I’m afraid that I have no right to confront someone else over their sin because I know all about my own and secretly I hope that no one else will notice it.  Maybe if I don’t say anything to anyone else then they won’t say anything to me.  Perhaps you have felt yourself caught in the same situation.

These evasions that I have just described are dangerous because they are based on a lie.  The lie I tell myself is that the sin is between me and another person.  Not true.  Sin is not just a matter between two people.  Sin is always against God.  King David wrote in Psalm 51, “Against you, you alone, have I sinned.”  Sin against us damages the one who has committed the sin because they have sinned against God.  We dare not sweep such sin under the rug for we do no favor to the one who has sinned against us.  Nor do we do any favors to ourselves by ignoring the sin.  Sin that is ignored doesn’t disappear.  It festers and it hurts and ultimately it kills

So if you are like me, you find yourself in a predicament.  You know that you should do something, but you’re afraid of doing it.  You know that you should be concerned about sin in the lives of people you love, but you don’t want to mess everything up by following Jesus’ command. 

Well, I am going to try to give you some encouragement.  But to do that, we need to take a step back and look at all of Matthew 18 and not just our gospel lesson.  Today, we’ll look at the part of chapter 18 that comes before the gospel.  [We’ll look at what comes afterwards next week.] 

At the start of Matthew chapter 18, the disciples ask a question, “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?”  They are being prideful and seeking to be better than one another.  They are seeking honor for themselves.  But Jesus confounds them by giving them an unexpected answer.  “Unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven,” Jesus says.  “Whoever becomes humble like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.” 

What is it about children that makes them greatest?  It is their neediness, their dependence, their weakness, their inability, their vulnerability.  Jesus is identifying children as a model because they can do nothing for themselves, but must rely completely on their parents for everything they need.  Jesus is telling his disciples that the greatest in the kingdom of heaven are those who are most dependant on God, those who are weakest, the most vulnerable, the most needy. 

Chapter 18 illustrates how this principle works, how God instructs us in very, VERY strong language to care for these vulnerable ones.  For example, in verse 7, Jesus says, “If any of you put a stumbling block before one of these little ones who believe in me, it would be better for you if a great millstone were fastened around your neck and you were drowned in the depth of the sea.”  I have always heard this to mean that we must take care with children, which is certainly true.  But Jesus isn’t talking about children here.  He is talking about the ones who have become like children; he is talking about those Christians who are vulnerable and weak.  In other words, if you are causing a weak and vulnerable Christian to stumble, to lose faith, then you are committing a very terrible sin. 

Then we get to verse 10 and Jesus says, “Take care that you do not despise these little ones (that is to say, weak and vulnerable Christians)”  And then he tells a short story about a shepherd and his sheep.  One sheep out of the hundred gets lost.  What does the shepherd do?  He leaves the ninety-nine behind and he goes after the lost one, the one who is weak, the one who is vulnerable, the one who screwed up.  God is that shepherd and prizes the one who is in danger more than all the others.  Jesus is clear about this. 

Then we arrive back at our lesson for today.  And as we look at it we should ask ourselves the question, “In this gospel lesson, who is the little one? who is the lost sheep?  who is the weak and vulnerable Christian?”  The vulnerable one is not the Christian who has been sinned against.  The vulnerable one, the weak Christian, is the guilty one, the one who has sinned, the one who has caused hurt.  The precious lost sheep is the one who has caused the problem.  The greatest one in the kingdom of heaven is the Christian who desperately needs God’s forgiveness and grace because he has messed up. 

This, therefore, is what Jesus is saying.  “You must go to the one who is causing problems, the one who hasn’t repented yet, the one who is stubborn.  You must go after this lost sheep of mine in order to bring him back.  Do not just let him wander off!  Do not wash your hands of him and let him stay lost!  No!  Go after him!!!  Set the sin before him and give him the chance to repent.  Bring him back into the fold.  I don’t want sinners to be judged; I want them to be forgiven.  But it is you who must go.  You must go to bring about this restoration.”

So this gospel lesson is about repentance, yes, but even more it is about watching out for the weak and doing everything in our power to protect them and bring them back when they stray.  And it describes a process to bring them back into the fold.  This process begins by going to the person by yourself.  Do not shame a brother or sister unnecessarily by making things public.  After all, the point is not to set the sinner straight, but to bring them back in love, as gently as possible.  And if we are unable to do this ourselves, then we must bring other brothers and sisters with us.  Again, the point is to be discreet and considerate because we want restoration, not a big fight.  And if that doesn’t work, then and only then, should the church be involved. 

All along, the point is always to bring them to repentance and to bring them back in love because as we have learned, the one who is desperately in need is very precious in the sight of God.  We musn’t let one of our brothers or sisters in Christ remain in unforgiveness.  It is only after trying everything that we are to cut the person off, and this not as a punishment, but in the hope that this last resort might awaken them. 

Now this is an awful lot of responsibility.  Jesus is telling us here that we are responsible for more than ourselves, we are responsible for our brothers and sisters, particularly for the ones who are weak and who do not do what they should.  How can we handle it? 

This is where Jesus gives one of the sweetest promises in the Bible.  “Truly I tell you, if two of you agree on anything you ask it will be done for you by my Father in heaven.  For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there in the midst of them.” 

These words, given in this context, mean that you will not go alone.  It is your job to go to the Christian who has sinned against you, but you must know that Christ goes with you.  And this is a great advantage.  God our Father hears us when we pray for the restoration of this lost one, because it is Christ who is there with us praying for it, praying that the lost one’s sins be forgiven.

So there it is.  This hard lesson about sin and confrontation ultimately comes around to God’s promise to forgive sin for the sake of his Son.  As I said at the beginning, this is the very heart of our faith.  This is the good news. 

One last word.  I have spoken all through this sermon as if we were the ones who were being commanded to go to the one who has sinned.  And this will sometimes be true.  But it will also be true that someone will come to us, putting our sin before us, calling on us to repent, seeking to restore us.  In such a situation, it is easy to be defensive or angry.  That is understandable.  But know this.  Christ comes to you along with your brothers and sisters, Christ comes to you in order to forgive and to restore.  And in that moment when you so desperately need his forgiveness, you are God’s child, the one he loves, the very greatest in the kingdom of heaven.