Thursday, September 25, 2008

September 28, 2008

September 28, 2008
Philippians 2:1-13, Matthew 21:23-32

Title: Saying YES and Living NO

Didn’t you hear me? That’s what my Daddy would say, when we failed to obey him quickly enough. Didn’t you hear me? That’s what my Mama would say when she got home from work and found our chores undone. Didn’t you hear me? That’s what the elementary school principal would say when we failed to immediately do whatever it was he told us to do.

I grew up in a world in which it was assumed that children would do what their parents and teachers told them, without grumbling, hesitation or backtalk. Since they could not imagine a child NOT doing as he or she was told, the only excuse they could think of for such failure was not hearing the command, thus, Didn’t you hear me?

I heard those words a whole lot more than I care to admit or remember. I was not a terribly obedient child, but I was not outwardly rebellious either. I was a bit of a passive-aggressive slacker. So when a parent or teacher or coach or youth minister said, “Didn’t you hear me?”
I usually responded with something really clever like; Oh, you meant me?’ or Oh, you meant take out THAT trash can. No one was ever fooled by this, of course.

One of the distressing things about growing up is that we do indeed become our parents. This has led me to a peculiar and I think unique theory of genetics: I believe that we inherit traits from our parents through our children. I KNOW I didn’t become my father until I had two sons.

But, I was not an exact carbon-copy of my father. While, like him, I equated my giving orders to their immediate obedience (oh silly me); I developed a more modern, ironic, sarcastic approach, as in “exactly what part of “unload the dishwasher” did you not understand?, but the point is the same: to hear is to obey.

In our Gospel lesson, Jesus has a conversation with the usual suspects, the “Chief Priests and Elders.” They have questions about Jesus’ authority to teach. They are trying to set a trap for him, hoping he will claim divine authority in such a way that they came accuse him of the crime of BLASPHEMY.

Jesus does two things. First, he shows up their lack of honesty and integrity by asking them about John the Baptist. He shows that they are so afraid of public opinion that they will not dare speak an unpopular word.

He then lays out for them a parable about obedience:

He tells a simple tale of two brothers. They were both told by their father to go to the vineyard to work. One says Yes Father, but does not go. The other says no, but later changes his mind and goes. Jesus poses the question: Which of the two did the will of the father?

In this story, Jesus makes it clear that the tax collectors and prostitutes and other sinners may have turned their backs on God at first, but they later repented and turned their lives around.

Meanwhile, the Chief Priests and Elders have spent their lives professing obedience to God’s will, saying yes to God; but have never done any of the works of love and mercy to which God calls them.

This, Jesus says, makes it clear that the sinners will get into the Kingdom first.

Many of us in the church are like the Chief Priests and Elders; we are guilty of saying YES and living NO!

We say yes to the belief that God is the creator of all things, “I believe in God the Father Almighty, Creator of Heaven and Earth,” and yet we act as though what we have we made ourselves.

We say yes to the truth that all that we have and all that we are gifts to us from God, we say yes to the idea that we own nothing but simply take care of it on behalf of God and the Kingdom. We say Yes, our time, talent and treasure belong to God.

We say Yes to all this; and then worry about whether our percentage of giving is to be calculated on our gross or net earnings. We question whether or not the Christian is really expected to give a tithe. Oh did you mean Me? Oh, did you mean those poor people? Oh, you meant for ME to sell all I have and give to the poor. We say Yes; but find a way to live No.

We say Yes, the Gospel calls us to serve the poor and needy of the world, we say yes to the truth that “if we do it for the least of these,” we have done it for Jesus.

We say yes, Christ calls us to die to self and take up a cross. Oh, you meant that scruffy Bum, that homeless alcoholic, that boy with AIDS, that unwed mother. We say Yes, but find a way to live NO.

Soren Kierkegaard created a parable about this. It went something like this:

Suppose a King issued an order to his Kingdom to be obeyed by all. But instead of obeying it the people created Schools to teach people to teach this order to the the people. And these new Teachers then went out and held weekly study groups so people could study the King’s order and then they also had weekly Celebrations to sing praises to the King for giving the order. And, in the Universities, those who wrote the most interesting interpretations of the King’s order won
prizes and important titles. What if they did all this, but throughout the whole Kingdom, no one actually bothered to OBEY the order? “How,” Kirkegaard asks, “Do you think the King would react?”

I think the King would thunder, “Didn’t you hear me?”

This story is about us, the church, and our tendency to say yes while living no.

And, you know what? If we were left only with words, directives, orders, from Jesus, I think we would be stuck in this cycle of self-deception and failure forever.

Fortunately for us, the Creator not only invited us to go into the Vineyard to work, the Creator also sent us a Saviour to show us the way.

This is the point of our Second Lesson, the reading from Philippians. Listen as I read a part of it slowly and carefully. I wish I knew the tune and had a good voice, because this is one of the church’s earliest hymns:

Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus:
Who, though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited,
But emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
being born in human likeness,
and being found in human form.
He humbled himself
and became obedient to the point of death - -
Even death on a cross.

Therefore God also highly exalted him,
and gave him the name that is above every name,
So that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
And every tongue confess,
that Jesus Christ is LORD.

Jesus came to the Vineyard to work, fulfilling the will of the Creator. He obeyed, and this obedience led to his death, his death upon a Cross.

But Christ’s obedience did not end there; the Cross was not the end but the beginning of life, both for Jesus and for us.

God’s Yes at Easter led Jesus and us out the other side of the Tomb.

We are the new and Risen Body of Christ in the world, called to obedience, called to shout out and live out a Resounding YES to God’s proddings and promises.

In the early days of the Reformation, Martin Luther wrote an essay in answer to what he called “Poor, confused persons trying to find the true Christian Church in the world.”

In this essay, Luther laid out seven marks of the Church:

1 - Preaching of the Word
2 - Baptism
3 - Communion
4 - Confession and Forgiveness
5 - Ordaining Ministers
6 - Thanksgiving, prayer and praise
7 - “the suffering of the Cross”

We are all more than willing to say YES to the first six of these. The seventh one, “the suffering of the cross” makes us hesitate, gives us pause.

It is this hesitancy to say yes to the suffering of the cross that leads us to the sin of saying yes with our lips while saying no with our lives.

But, the Gospel is, the Church is incomplete until our YES to God leads us to solidarity with those who suffer. We are incomplete in our Yes to God until our YES leads us to suffer with those who suffer. We are incomplete until our Yes to God leads us to suffer with Christ for the salvation of the world.

Then, we can rest assured that when our days here on earth are over, God will look at us and say
Well done, good and faithful servant. I see that you heard me.

Amen and amen.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

September 14, 2008

September 14, 2008
A sermon preached at Advent Lutheran Church, Murfreesboro, TN
Text: Matthew 18:21-35
Title: “On Forgiveness”

True Story. Saw it on the news a few years ago. Couple in Switzerland. An International Banker and his wife. Noone knows exactly what started it. Maybe the husband cancelled one too many vacations because of business. She lost it.

Wife poured baking soda in his tank of rare tropical fish.

Husband threw her diamonds in the garbage.

She threw his jewelry in the swimming pool.

He poured Chlorine Beach on all her furs and designer gowns.

She doused his $70,000 Ferrari with Gasoline and set it on fire. (These days the Gas may have cost more than the car!)

He put his foot through her $250,000 Picasso original.

She opened the sea cocks on his million-dollar yacht, sinking it in Lake Geneva.

At this point their daughter intervened and called the police; who refused to get involved, saying there is no law against destroying your own property.

Would you agree that when we have an unforgiving spirit,
when we harbor a grudge,
when we seek revenge rather than reconciliation;
the main damage we do is to ourselves,
to our own emotional property,
to our own mental and spiritual health and well-being?

In today’s Gospel lesson, when Peter says to Jesus that he thinks forgiving seven times is enough, Peter is feeling pretty good about himself.

After all, the Law only requires that we forgive an actual brother, a blood relative, three times for the same offence.

Peter generously expands the notion of “brother” or “sister” by including members of the church. Then he more than doubles the amount of forgiveness required.

But Jesus stuns Peter, and us, by expanding it even more, to 77 times or maybe to 70 x 7. The Greek is obscure and the actual # is not important.

Jesus is making a point that he expands with the parable of the Master and the unforgiving servant. That there are no limits to God’s forgiveness, nor should there be on ours.

First the Master calls in the slave who owes him 10,000 talents. This the slave cannot pay. He begs that the debt be forgiven. And the Master does indeed forgive the slave the debt.

Then, that very day, almost at the same time, this same recently forgiven slave goes out and cruelly throws a fellow servant in jail over a debt of 100 denarii.

Let me see if I can make these numbers make sense. 1 Talent = 6000 denari. So, doing the math; the first slave owed the Master 60 million denarii while the second slave owed only a 100. Talents, Denarii, Dollars; it doesn’t matter, the point is obvious.

The First slave owed the Master a debt that it was impossible to pay. Then he turned around and refused to forgive someone else a tiny debt.

This, Jesus says, is the way we human beings treat one another. God has forgiven us much and yet we are reluctant to forgive one another a little.

Marina Gottshalk wrote a column in the Oakland Tribune a few years ago about a gun amnesty program in the town of Kensington, CA.

A woman brought in a loaded pistol she had bought 20 years ago, planning to kill her husband. She never shot him, but notice; she kept the gun LOADED.

All too often, our forgiveness is like the woman choosing NOT to kill her husband. Someone does us wrong, and while we may not cause a scene, neither do we forgive. We don’t shoot them, but we keep the gun loaded just in case.

How do we learn to forgive? Only through remembering how much we have been forgiven.

We all owe to God a debt we cannot possibly pay.

Yet God forgives us:
Not because of our promises to be good,
not because of our promises of future service,
not because of our commitment to give more to the church.
None of that is enough.

God forgives us because of who God is, not because of who we are.

The grace and forgiveness of God are Free, but they are not cheap; they cost Jesus his very life.

In our story, the man who was forgiven much then turns and fails to forgive another man a little thing, a small debt. Again, the connection to us is painfully obvious.

How can we, who have been forgiven so much, fail to forgive others their little sins against us?

That is why we pray in the Lord’s Prayer that we are to forgive others the little things because God has already forgiven us EVERYTHING.

Dr. Martin Luther, in his Large Catechism, says, “For just as we sin greatly against God every day and yet he forgives it all through grace, so we also must always forgive our neighbor who does us harm, violence and injustice, bears malice against us, etc. If you do not forgive, do not think that you are forgiven in heaven. But if you forgive, you have the comfort and assurance that you are forgiven in heaven - not on account of your forgiveness (for God does it altogether freely, out of pure Grace . . .)” [Book of Concord, Fortress, 2000 edition, p. 453]

April 25, 1958 - Philadelphia PA. Korean student at the University of Pennsylvania, waylaid on the way to Post Office by a street gang. Beaten, robbed, killed.

City of Philadelphia appalled, prosecutors called for death penalty.

In the midst of the furor, a letter arrived from Korea. It read:

Our family has met together and we have decided to petition that the most generous treatment possible within the laws of your government be given to those who have committed this criminal action . . . .

In order to give evidence of our sincere hope contained in this petition, we have decided to save money to start a fund for the religious, educational, vocational and social guidance of the boys when they are released.

We have dared to express our hope with a spirit received from the Gospel of Jesus Christ - who died for our sins.

How do we truly forgive one another? Only through remembering that we have already been forgiven much by God.

Amen and amen.

Thursday, September 04, 2008

September 7, 2008

Sept. 7, 2008
Matthew 18:15-17
A sermon preached at Peace Lutheran Church, Knoxville, TN

Last Sunday I had the opportunity to visit my mother on the farm where I grew up in the foothills of Virginia. Leaving worship at Hatcher’s Chapel Methodist, I glanced down the road and across a pasture at the Pentecostal Church and remembered a story my late father had told me about that church. It brought a smile to my face as I stood at his grave.

Most of the denominations in NC were against tobacco, but the vast majority ignored the fact that many of their members were tobacco farmers or worked in tobacco factories. Not the Pentecostal Holiness. They took their anti-tobacco stance seriously.

Daddy told me that every spring, when the farmers in his congregation planted their tobacco, the Preacher would go and see them and read them the section in the Pentecostal Holiness Discipline forbidding involvement in “the tobacco trade” and the scripture we read from Matthew. A few weeks later he brought two elders with him and did it again. And some time before Memorial Day, the women and children of the congregation gathered in Solemn Assembly to excommunicate their Fathers and Husbands and Brothers, etc. Then everyone would go home to a nice Sunday Dinner.

Sometime in the Fall, after everyone had harvested their crop and sold their tobacco, the women and children would gather again and vote their menfolk back in, just in time, my father added with a wink, for the church to collect a tithe on the proceeds of the tobacco sale.

Somehow, while following the Bible literally and carefully, the good folks at the PH church managed to miss the entire point of Jesus’ teaching in this matter. They used this text as a way to keep the CHURCH clean from the messiness of sin while Jesus meant it as a way to bring messy, sinful people back into the household of faith.

It is interesting to note that Matthew 18:15-17 is the only bit of Scripture cited explicitly, chapter and verse, in the Model Constitution for Congregations of the ELCA. It is in Chapter 15, THE DISCIPLINE OF MEMBERS.

The wording of the constitution is important here. It says, “Prior to disciplinary action, reconciliation will be attempted following Matthew 18.” Did you notice? “PRIOR TO disciplinary action, reconciliation will be attempted.”

This text is not about “How to throw someone out so the church will be pure.”

This text is about “How to love somebody back in so that they might be saved.”

There are three things in the text that show us this:

1) CONTEXT: Matthew placed this episode between two important sayings of Jesus about forgiveness and the reclaiming of the lost.

It comes after the shepherd leaving the 99 to go search for the one lost sheep
and before Jesus tells Peter that we should forgive sinners not seven times but
seventy time seven. It is obviously a part of a forgiveness reconciliation section.

2) Within the text itself, verse 15, Jesus says, “If the member listens to you, you have regained that one.” indicating that the whole point is to bring people back into the family of faith.

3) And for me, the most important point is the one most misunderstood, verse 17,
“if the offender refuses to listen even to the church, let such a one be to you as a gentile and a tax collector.”

This text is usually taken to mean that we should exclude, ignore, shun, excommunicate, disown, debar, avoid, treat as null and void and nonexistent these folks; but let me ask you an important question: How did Jesus himself treat Gentiles and Tax Collectors?

Let’s see: Matthew, in whose Gospel we read these words, was a what? Does anybody know? Matthew 10:3 “Matthew the tax collector.” That’s one tax collector he invited into his inner circle.

What about Zaccheus? The “wee little man” in a sycamore tree. A Tax Collector.

The Pharisees were always fussing about Jesus, mostly for eating and drinking and partying with whom? “Tax Collectors and Sinners.” That doesn’t sound like shunning and avoiding to me.

And what about Gentiles? Let’s see. There’s the SAMARITAN woman at the well. There’s the Roman Centurion who sought to have his daughter healed. Wasn’t that the person Jesus said had more faith than anyone in Israel? That doesn’t sound like shunning and avoiding and excommunicating to me?

Matthew certainly had a reason for telling us that Jesus said we should treat sinners like Gentiles and Tax Collectors; but it does not seem to be have been the reason we have traditionally assumed.

We thought it meant that we should wash our hands of them, shun them and have nothing to do with them. And because Lutherans, generally speaking, just don’t act like that, we have ignored the whole thing. We have not attempted reconciliation under Biblical Standards because it is too messy emotionally and we don’t want to deal with getting to the end of the process and having to kick somebody out.

But kicking them out is not the point. What Jesus really meant was that we should treat people with whom it is hard to reconcile as people in need of serious love.

This text is about learning to love people, even when they don’t particularly want to be loved.

It is about reaching out to people, even as they push us away. It is about loving others enough to talk to them about their behaviour and to offer them help in changing it.

And it is about refusing to give up on anybody, anybody at all.

It is about the willingness to go that extra mile to find a lost sheep.

It is about a willingness to forgive and forgive and forgive, until the sinner is redeemed.

Simply put, it is about treating other people the way Jesus treated Gentiles and Tax Collectors, as people to be loved and brought into the Kingdom of God.

There is an old Jewish Midrash that goes like this:

A fervent new student came in to see the Teacher.

He zealously reported on his fellow students' sins and imperfections and vehemently demanded that they be expelled from the learning community.

The Teacher said: “No, that is not what we need to do.”

The Student was appalled, “How can you tolerate evil like this?”

The Teacher said, “Your father is a carpenter isn’t he. He makes furniture doesn’t he? You know how to handle an axe don’t you?”

The Student said, “Yes.”

Teacher: “Well, I need your help. See that table by the window. It has a scratch across the surface and one leg is wobbly. Chop it up into firewood for me, won’t you?”

The Student said, “Are you crazy? That table is made of a very fine oak! And I recognize the design. It was made by one of the most famous furniture makers in Europe. There’s no need to throw it away. The scratch is minor and I can fix the leg.”

“Just so,” smiled the Teacher, “God is the Master Craftsman of our souls, and God is unwilling that any should be discarded because of a few scratches and imperfections. What we do here, in this community of faith and learning, is make repairs and improvements.”

And here, in this community of faith and learning called Peace Lutheran Church, we too are busy making repairs and improvements. We too are busy learning how to love because Jesus first loved us, Gentiles and sinners though we may be.

Amen and amen.