Sunday, September 28, 2008

Who Do You See?

Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost
Sunday, September 28, 2008
Matthew 21:23-32

Feelings are often confused with compassion. Feelings are good. God created us with feelings. But feelings are not compassion. You can have compassion on someone even if you do not have strong feelings or no particular feelings for that person. Likewise, you can have strong feelings and actually not act compassionately toward a person because you are acting on feelings rather than doing what will actually help the person.

Feelings are good, but we can’t rely on them. They are wonderful, but they don’t always help. We’d all agree that we need to be compassionate. That it’s wrong not to have compassion. We look favorably upon compassionate people. We trust our leaders to be compassionate rather than rule with an iron fist.

The religious leaders in Jesus’ day were charged with the spiritual care of God’s people. We’d expect them to do that with compassion. One thing they understood was that you cannot be compassionate as a leader without authority. You yourself must submit to authority and must exercise authority over those you are leading. If your feelings are your guide then you’ll be all over the map. Not a sound way to be a leader. There are times leaders don’t feel like being compassionate. But if they are truly good leaders they will do what’s best for the people. If there is an outside solid authority they’re going by then they’ll be being compassionate on the people they’re to serve, even if at times they don’t particularly feel like helping them.

The religious leaders of the Gospel reading knew this. They knew that the crowds were excited about this guy Jesus. Were the people just going on their feelings? Was Jesus playing to their feelings and that’s why He was so popular? The religious leaders cut to the chase: by what authority are You doing what You’re doing? Because we see through You—You’re not falling in line under our authority. We’re the ones charged with the spiritual care of God’s people and You’re doing all kinds of things to undercut our authority.

They were right—He was undercutting their authority. But there’s the problem. They had taken the authority God had given them and took it for themselves. They even asked Jesus, who gave You this authority? They rejected it, but the answer is the same Person who gave them the authority to lead God’s people. Namely, God. The difference is that Jesus used the authority God His Heavenly Father had given Him in service to God His Heavenly Father. The religious leaders became full of themselves and didn’t use it in service to God’s people but for themselves.

Jesus wasn’t doing what He was doing for Himself but for people. The very people He created were the very people He was serving. That’s what authority is all about for God. Serving us. Loving and helping us. His compassion is not in addition to His authority, it is His very Authority carried out. Delivered to us.

The Christian Church has always stood on the authority of the Word of God. But even in the Church people can tend to think that it’s compassionate to go on feelings rather than the authority of the Word of God. One church leader put it this way: “I think sometimes we get bogged down and feel that people of faith all feel a certain way, and that’s so far from the truth.” Well here is the real truth: what we feel is not the basis for authority. God’s Authority determines what is right and wrong, what is good and evil—that’s why He gave us the Bible.

So the religious leaders were carrying out their duty of making sure that what was being taught in the temple was legitimate, but actually they weren’t doing that at all. In their discussion among themselves they were determining what they would do based on the reactions of other people. Their authority was themselves.

When they saw Jesus they saw someone getting in the way of their authority. Someone standing between them and their own self-proclaimed rightness. Jesus was getting in the way of their power and their very comfortable lifestyle. They were right where they wanted to be. They were holders of authority and had molded it into authority of themselves. They had come to convince themselves that God was pleased with them because of who they were. They didn’t need some Jesus coming in to straighten out their lives and tell them that all their secret sins had to go.

When you look at Jesus who do you see? Do you see the Lord over all and the Lord of your life? Or do you see a man who has a place in your life alongside all the many other important things to you? When you are confronted with the words of Jesus, what do you make of them? Do you submit wholeheartedly to them acknowledging that what He has to say is true and what is best for you? Or do you pass them off as another opinion among the many that may or may not apply to you personally? When you look at Jesus do you see Him for who He is or do you disregard the authority He holds?

If you’re honest you will admit that your feelings aren’t always reliable. You will conclude that you like yourself being your own authority because then you don’t have to deal with God and His Word telling you that you can’t do everything that makes you feel good. That though you often say yes to God you really have no intention of conforming your life to His holy will. And if by the grace of God you come to this knowledge you will see something else. You will see that you have changed your mind. That it’s a joy to serve the Holy God.

Because you will see that God’s holy will is not met in your feelings or your self-convinced rightness. It is met in the One who was given authority by His Heavenly Father and used that authority to be beaten and bloodied on a cross. He used that authority to submit Himself to be subjected to the damnation you and I and the religious leaders and the tax collectors and everyone else deserve. Jesus doesn’t give moral lessons. He gives you righteousness. He gives you Himself. He doesn’t tell you to be good, He gives you His Body and Blood and in so doing forgives you all your sins and strengthens and preserves you. He doesn’t tell you you must submit to His authority or else—He freely and joyfully gives up His life so that you may freely and joyfully live under His gracious and compassionate authority. When you want to know what God has to say or what He thinks about you, who you need to see is Jesus, the one who is your life and salvation. Amen.


Sunday, September 21, 2008

What the Christian Life Looks Like

Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost
Matthew, Apostle and Evangelist
Sunday, September 21, 2008
Matthew 20:1-16

Today’s Gospel reading shows us that being a Christian seems unfair. The world may say, if the end result is the same, then I’ll just hang around and convert toward the end of my life. The Christian looks at it and says that that’s unfair. What you end up having is non-Christians and Christians thinking and living in much the same way.

But Christians are to be different. We’re to be in the world but not of the world. We are to think differently, and we should be living differently. In order for us to do this Jesus has given us the parable of the Laborers in the Vineyard. The point is not that being a Christian is like getting hired to work a day job. The point is the grace of God.

The grace of God is by definition unfair. If God were fair we wouldn’t have anything here to discuss because we’d have no hope of salvation. God doesn’t save us according to fairness but according to mercy.

So if you think about the Christian life in terms of grace, doesn’t it stand to reason that the longer you’re a Christian, the more you get to rejoice in the grace of God? The Christian who’s been so for a hundred years will be in heaven alongside the thief on the cross who was a Christian in this life for only a few hours. But that thief went through a life separated from God and not under His blessings. The other person received a lifetime of gracious blessings from God.

What would you rather have? Our sinful flesh looks at the parable and the Christian life the way the world does and complains that it’s unfair. The new man in us, however, rejoices in a lifetime of receiving God’s grace.

Would you rather be born into a loving and caring family or be adopted into that same family much later in life? Both would be a blessing, of course, but the one receives a lifetime of those blessings whereas the other comes into it later on.

Those of us who have the joy of being Christians our whole lives need to quit our thinking about how things are unfair to be a Christian and start living as God has intended us to live. How, then, does a Christian live? What does the Christian life look like?

We may compare the bearing the heat of the day of the parable to the servanthood life of being a Christian. It’s hard. There’s blood, sweat, and tears involved. There’s a lot of pain in this world. Sometimes, that pain is in our own lives. But as Christians, when we bear one another’s burdens we bear their pain, too. When they hurt, we hurt. When they’re suffering, we’re suffering. When their lives are consumed by trouble, our hearts go out to them, we pray for them, we are there for them.

This is probably the most obvious way a Christian lives out his or her life, in helping others when they’re in need. When someone is having troubles, they can count on us. But is that all there is to it? What about in the day to day stuff? There is indeed difficulty in helping others in need. It can be an emotional drain on us. It can take up a lot of our time. But it can be even more difficult to live out the Christian life in the normal day to day living.

There are many reasons for this. We may be lazy. We may not think that the ordinary things we do are all that holy. We may not take too kindly to hearing how we are to live. We may simply not think much about it. But the main reason is that we carry around that old sinful flesh with us our whole lives long and it’s always wanting to go back and live the way the world lives.

Our sinful nature doesn’t want to give offerings. It doesn’t want to spend time each day in the Word of God and pray. It doesn’t want to be in the House of God for worship each Sunday. Or if it does, it wants to think about other things that are pressing at the moment. It doesn’t want to take the time to be in the Word of God with other Christians in Bible Study in order to grow and be strengthened in faith.

The new man within us sees possibilities. The new man sees that God desires our all and that there are all kinds of opportunities to serve Him. That since God doesn’t need money, that a portion of our money is given in order to help bring the Gospel to others. The new man within us sees that when we give a portion of our money as offerings, it’s not really our money we’re giving at all, but that everything we have is because God loves to give us His grace and loves to bless us. When we’re thinking things are unfair, we’re missing out on the blessings God loves to give us.

The new man sees that when one is united with Christ in Baptism that it is no longer he who lives but Christ who lives in him. The new man sees that if it seems boring to daily and often be in the Word of God and prayer that it is by this very sustenance that He receives the grace of God. The new man rejoices in the coming of his Lord in the Sacrament as his Lord gives to him His very Body that was given into death and His very Blood that was shed on the cross. The new man sees more and more that, far from being unfair, he is the recipient of continued undeserved love, grace, and strength. That, far from having the right to complain, he has only the opportunity to give thanks for all the benefits His Lord bestows on him.

What the Christian life looks like to the world is probably not much. They might even feel sorry for us because of how unfair it all seems. But what it looks like to the Christian is the ever new and daily opportunity to receive, rejoice, and share in the grace of God. Amen.


Sunday, September 14, 2008

What Will You Do?

Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost
Holy Cross Day
Sunday, September 14, 2008
Matthew 18:21-35

What will you do when your brother Christian sins against you? You will forgive him, of course. That’s what Christians do. What will you do when he sins against you again? And again. And then again? And, you probably know where this is going. It would get wearisome to keep forgiving the one who keeps sinning against you after he has repented each time. Wouldn’t you be giving him the message that what he’s doing is really okay? Is this really what Jesus wants us to do?

We can imagine this is what was on Peter’s mind. He was thinking maybe seven times would be a very gracious gesture. After all, we can only put up with so much. But Jesus isn’t interested in gracious gestures. He’s interested in mercy. He concerned with compassion and forgiveness. For all you math people, you can figure this out, don’t forgive seven times, but seventy times seven. And for those of you who need to use a calculator, I’ll save you the trouble: it’s 490 times.

But His point is not really the math of it all. It’s more about what forgiveness actually is. To do this, He does what He so often does, He tells a parable. He tells us of a king whose mercy is immeasurable. Strangely, the parable goes on and the king’s action toward the man at the end seems excessively harsh. Jesus’ summary of the parable is disturbing—there’s no Gospel here, only the harshest of Law.

So what is Jesus teaching us about forgiveness with this parable? Which is harder to say, I’m sorry, or, I forgive you? It’s really hard to say you’re sorry. To admit you’re wrong, to humble yourself in order to be reconciled to a person you’ve harmed, that’s hard. But is it easy to forgive? Maybe one time it is. But what if the person keeps sinning against you? How easy is it to forgive them then? Won’t you start feeling like they’re taking advantage of you? Won’t you just be giving them the green light to keep doing what they’re doing to you? Are they really sorry, or are they just taking advantage of you?

These are questions we have. We have them because it’s hard to forgive. We may forgive, but do we forget? We may let bygones be bygones, but do we wonder if they might do it again? Wouldn’t we feel better if they somehow made it up to us, then we’d know that they’ve really seen how badly they hurt us and might think twice about doing it again?

What does Jesus show us in the king of the parable? Does he ask questions of the servant? Does he put stipulations on him? The servant owes a debt to the king that is impossible to pay back. Summoned to the king, he has no hope except to appeal to the king to give him more time to get the money. But there will be no getting the money. The debt is beyond what he could ever imagine owning. But the king has no interest in hearing the man’s plea for more time. Instead, he forgives him the debt. It’s impossible for you to pay it, but I won’t sell you off, and your effort to pay it back is just that, an effort. The man walks away from the king as if he had never owed him a thing.

That’s what forgiveness is. The king is a picture of God. We know what kind of a God He is, He is the God who forgives. So we know what forgiveness is all about. It is not about holding accountable.

This is all fine and well when it comes to God forgiving us. That’s easy. We can hear about that all day long. What about when it comes to us forgiving others? If we like to hear about God forgiving us, do we want to hear that we don’t have to forgive others? Does free grace from God mean that we are free to hold others accountable? Are we uneasy with Jesus’ portrayal of the merciful king who turns in anger on the servant to send him to prison to be tortured and never to be released?

And this is not just some story about a servant who did not forgive as he had been forgiven. Jesus says why He told this parable: “So also My heavenly Father will do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother from your heart.” So there is God’s forgiveness of you—and that’s fantastic!—but then there is the injunction upon you to forgive others. As He even teaches us to pray in the Lord’s Prayer: “forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.” Are we eager to hear the second as much as the first?

But the even more pressing question is this: How? How are we to do what Jesus is here commanding us to do? We’re well aware of how unwilling we are to forgive others as we have been forgiven by our Lord. We know that we tend to hold on to grudges rather than freely absolve those who sin against us. If we are to forgive others as we have been forgiven by God, what hope do we have? How do we reconcile the mercy of God upon us with the demand to forgive others willingly, freely, gladly? We can’t.

His parable ends with no hope. His closing warning leaves us in judgment. We are in the position of the servant who owed an insurmountable debt to the king but held accountable to him. Jesus doesn’t give us the answer in the parable. But He does give us the answer. Why would He have come all the way down to earth only to tell us of an insurmountable debt we have to God the Father? He is the answer. He came to be the reason why our Heavenly Father forgives our debt. The very judgment He proclaims upon us He Himself undergoes. He has no debt to pay to God the Father, He Himself is God. Yet, He paid the debt. Tortured, condemned, forsaken by God, He paid the debt as if He was the one who was the sinner. We’re often so unwilling to forgive when Jesus willingly, even gladly, walks the path, not to prison, but to suffering for the sin and guilt of debtors such as you and I.

So what will you do? There is nothing you can do. You are too often like the servant who is freely forgiven and then walks away unwilling to forgive others. The only thing you can do is ask what Jesus has done for you. After all, why did Jesus give us the parable? To show us that He is the answer, right? There is only hope in Christ and only despair or self-congratulation in ourselves. God does not put us through hoops. He simply forgives. Because of Christ. In Christ. Through Christ. On account of Christ. And because it is so, you will forgive freely and joyfully because it not you who live but Christ who lives in you. Amen.


Sunday, September 7, 2008

The Church—What It’s All About

Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost
Rally Sunday
Sunday, September 7, 2008
Matthew 18:1-20

Today is Rally Sunday. It might not seem like a big thing like Christmas and Easter. What is Rally Sunday? For years I’ve wondered why we call Rally Sunday, Rally Sunday. So I looked up “rally” in the dictionary. It’s what Jesus in the Gospel reading is teaching us about His Church. Rally means “to bring into order again; to gather and organize or inspire anew; to draw or call (persons) together for a common action or effort; to concentrate or revive, as one’s strength, spirits, etc.; to come together for common action or effort.”

We might think of Rally Sunday as simply the beginning of the new Sunday School year. But why is it we have Sunday School? Why do we have Bible Class? What is so important about gathering each week to study God’s Word together? Jesus shows us in the Gospel reading. He shows us why we need to bring into order again; to gather and organize or inspire anew; to draw or call each other together for a common action or effort.

In a word, it’s reconciliation. Reconciliation is something we don’t think about much. We go through our lives without thinking much about how we relate to one another. We know who everybody is. That’s my neighbor. He’s my co-worker. She’s a parent of one of the kids my daughter plays soccer with. He’s a member of our church.

This shows us how we know each other. Even how we’re related to each other. But how do we relate with one another? And this is for all those we know, whether they are Christians or not. Do we just know them casually? Do we lean on them for emotional support? Do we just get together with them for exercise? Do we live in the same neighborhood they do? Do we happen to go to the same church they do? Are we related to them?

We know a lot of people in a lot of different ways. Things may go just fine, they way we’d like them to go. But what happens when they take advantage of the relationship? Now all of a sudden you’re relating to them in a way in which this isn’t beneficial to you, and you’re even being burdened. What do you do? Do you try to get out of the relationship? Do you try to act as if nothing happened? Do you let them know in some subtle way that you’re hurt? Do you talk to a mutual acquaintance to let them know so that they can try to get them to apologize? Or do you just talk behind the person’s back so that other people will know what a rotten thing they did to you?

Jesus shows us a better way. It’s not necessarily easier. And things may not end up the way you’d like, but it’s the true way of love. God has brought us into the Church. There’s a way things go in the Church, and it’s not the way where we try to shove things under the rug and hope they’ll go away. It’s not the way of bitterness or revenge, either. And it’s not the way of dissolving the relationship because it’s not working out the way you anticipated.

It’s the way of reconciliation. In the Gospel reading Jesus describes a people who are in the Word of God and living out that Word. This is why we teach our children the Word at home and in Sunday School. This is why we’re in the Word daily and in Bible Class weekly. Our sinful flesh is all too willing to reciprocate a slight with a slight. We’re all too ready to put the worst construction on what someone does rather than put the best construction on what they do. We’re more ready to criticize one another than we are to build up one another. We’re often more concerned about what will make us satisfied rather than what will not cause another person to stumble in their faith, or if they’re not a Christian, to be turned off to Christianity.

Christ’s Church is like a house. It doesn’t matter if you’re upstairs or downstairs, it matters if you’re in or out. Christ has brought you in. He wants you in. But we who are in the Church sometimes act like those who are out, don’t we? We don’t always treat each other, and those outside as well, lovingly. We’re in the Church, we need to act like it. The way we do that is by reconciling with one another, with those within and those without.

Reconciliation is an action word. It’s not a static thing. It’s an actual thing. Without reconciliation there’s always that guilt, that grudge, those hard feelings, hanging around. Reconciling means apologizing. It means admitting your guilt to the other person, seeking restoration. It means gently telling the other person of their sin against you so that they may make amends and receive your forgiveness. It means bringing to the other person’s attention how they are bringing harm to a child or one who is weak in faith so that that person may repent and be restored to the person they have harmed.

Jesus says that wherever two or three are gathered in His name, there He is. It’s true that Jesus is everywhere. He’s God. But being everywhere doesn’t help us out, because He’s just “there.” We need Him among us in an action way. Apart from where He is among us actively giving us His grace, we receive only judgment. That’s why we need those things that give us Him. Those things that we gather around where we can know He is among us and with His grace, mercy, and peace. God is reconciled to us when we are united with Christ in Baptism. We are restored to right standing before God when we hear the Gospel proclaimed. We are forgiven when we receive Christ’s very Body and Blood in His Holy Supper.

Being Baptized doesn’t just mean that you’re forgiven. It means you’re born into the Family of God. You are a part of the Church of Christ, with brothers and sisters in Christ. You need them. They need you. Treat them as brothers and sisters. Bring the Good News of Christ to those who are outside of the Church so that they too may know of the power of reconciliation in Christ. Treat them always in love and humility.

Receiving the Lord’s Supper doesn’t just mean that you are communing with Christ. You are communing also with your brothers and sisters in the Family of God. You are communing with the Christian Church, including those who have gone before you. You are not alone. As they have been reconciled to God and are now in heaven, so you will follow in their footsteps. Nothing separates you from reconciliation, not your sin, your guilt, not the distance between you and God, not even death.

What the Church is all about is reconciliation. In other words, it’s about Christ. Because of Christ we are reconciled with the Father. In Christ we may be reconciled with one another. That is something to rally around. It’s something to rejoice in. It’s something to dig deeper and deeper into, through the hearing and receiving and studying of His Word—and for that there is ample opportunity. Amen.