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Sermon for Pentecost 14

September 19, 2011 Leave a comment

Augustana, 2011

Click here for mp3 audio 53 Sermon for Pent 14.mp3
 

Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.  Amen.

The sermon today is from the Gospel reading, the parable of the laborers in the vineyard.

In order to get the full sense of this parable we just have to go back one verse from our Gospel reading for this morning.  Jesus is speaking and says, “30 But many who are first will be last, and the last first.”  (19:30).  As Jesus ends the parable, this is a parable about who is first and last in the reign of heaven.  In fact, we need to see this parable as the explanation to the statement we heard Jesus say two Sundays ago when we overheard the interchange between the disciples and Jesus back at the beginning of chapter 18.  “At that time the disciples came to Jesus, saying, “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” And calling to him a child, he put him in the midst of them and said, “Truly, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.’” (18:1-4)  Do you want to know who’s greatest in the kingdom of heaven?  It’s not who we’d typically think it is.  “Many who are first will be last, and the last first.”

In fact, Jesus says, “the kingdom of heaven is like a master of a house who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard. After agreeing with the laborers for the typically wage for a day laborer, he sent them into his vineyard.”  He went out again at 9 am and saw others standing idle in the town square, and to them he said, ‘You go into the vineyard too, and whatever is right I will give you.’ So they went. Going out again about noon and 3 o’clock in the afternoon, he did the same. And about 5 o’clock, an hour before quitting time, he went out and found others standing. And he said to them, ‘Why do you stand here idle all day?’ They said to him, ‘Because no one has hired us.’ He said to them, ‘You go into the vineyard too.’ And at the end of the day, the owner of the vineyard said to his foreman, ‘Call the laborers and pay them their wages, beginning with the last, up to the first.’ And when those hired about an hour before quitting time came, each of them received a full day’s pay.  10 Now when those hired first came, they thought they would receive more, but each of them also received just a regular day’s pay.  11 And on receiving it they complained at the master of the house, 12 saying, ‘These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.’ 13 But he replied to one of them, ‘Friend, I am doing you no wrong. Did you not agree with me for a day’s pay? 14 Take what belongs to you and go. I choose to give to this last worker as I give to you. 15 Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or do you begrudge my generosity?’ 16 So the last will be first, and the first last.”

Do you want to know about the generosity of God?  This is how generous God is.  This is how desperate God is to bring people into His kingdom.  That’s how God wants to be king in His kingdom.  It’s not how we’d do it, is it?  In fact it makes no sense to us that God would do it this way but this is the way He is doing it.  The last shall be first and the first last.  God is generous, crazy generous with His grace.

I do want to briefly mention what this parable is definitely not about.  Jesus is not trying to day that those who work just an hour do as much as those who work all day.  I don’t think Jesus is alluding to Gentiles latecomers verses the Jews.  And I don’t buy the argument that this text means that all men are equal before God or that all kingdom work is equal. Nor is this text about labor relations or minimum wage laws or any other social criticism.  This parable is not about those things.

Jesus very cleverly uses a story to make a powerful point about the generosity of God.  He tells the story in such a way that it’s a set up.  The last hired get paid first and get a full day’s wage.  It’s only because the others see them get a full day’s wage (20:9) that those first hired expect to get more than they negotiated for.  When the landowner fails to meet their new expectations, they start grumbling because he has been generous to others and only fair to them. What was fair, a fair days pay for a full day’s work is no longer seen as fair.  They have borne “the heat of the day.”  And so here comes the rebuke, “Friend, I am not being unfair to you”— it is as if he said, “I am not cheating you, defrauding you.  I paid you what we agreed on this morning.”  He’s been a fair employer.  Doesn’t he have the right to do what he wants with his money?  It’s more than a little crazy.  It’s not how we would do it.  In this world the only fair way to treat workers is that the one who works the longest gets the most pay but that’s because the worker has earned the wage.  In the kingdom of God, God’s gifts are given freely, never earned, but God is gracious to give of His gifts.  In the kingdom of God merit and ability are not considered so that we are focused on the pure grace of God.  But God is far more generous than we can ever expect.

We work in God’s vineyard because we have been called to serve.  It is a privilege and labor of love; we don’t do it because we expect to earn a reward.  God’s kingdom is not is not an earthly kingdom.  When we begin to think that God’s kingdom needs or depends on us, we get it completely backward.  We need and depend on it!  God’s kingdom is not a kingdom of earned wages, but gracious gift.  It is only because we have been forgiven and renewed by the Spirit of God that we can be used by God for vital service in His kingdom.  In this way, “the last will be first, and the first last.”

Who’s the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?  It’s not the important people; it’s the little guy.  The greatest in the kingdom of heaven is the weakest, the neediest, the one who turns to God for Him to supply all their needs.  Not bishops.  Not princes.  Not kings or presidents.  Toddlers.  The elderly.  The unborn.  Those who aren’t any good for anything anymore.  It always grieves me when I hear folks say that.  God has made you weak to show His strength in you.  Jesus is very clearly saying God’s grace far surpasses anything that a man or woman could earn.  None of our ideas about the rich and powerful, the great and the VIPs have anything to do with the kingdom Jesus has come to bring.  In chapter 20 now, Jesus is getting closer to Jerusalem where He will prove that the greatest in the kingdom of heaven is the one “who came not to be served but to serve and to give His live as a ransom for many.”

So the last will be first, and the first last.  Amen.

Let us pray.  Keep us ever mindful, Lord, that it is only by your great grace that we have been included in Your kingdom and we are indeed privileged to serve in it. Amen.

The peace of God which passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds through faith in Christ Jesus.  Amen.

 

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Sermon for the Tenth Anniversary of September 11th

September 14, 2011 Leave a comment

Augustana, 2011

Click here for mp3 audio 52 Sermon for 10th Anniv of Sept 11.mp3

Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.  Amen.

The sermon this morning isn’t so much of an exposition on one of the texts as it a homily for today.

I don’t know exactly what happened at Augustana but I’ve looked back on the numbers and I know that attendance was through the roof on Sunday, September 16th, like it was at almost all churches and synagogues throughout the country.  Augustana followed the nationwide trend with high numbers the next week but by the third Sunday, attendance was only slightly elevated, and by the fourth Sunday it was back to normal.  That trend was born out in almost every spiritual meeting place in the country.  For the last ten years people have been trying to figure out what happened and a number of explanations have been put forth.  One explanation I heard very shortly afterwards was mostly a criticism of preachers nationwide.  The criticism was that during this once-in-a-lifetime crisis what was preached was irrelevant.  From the arch-political conservatives who preached against the Islamic conspiracy to take over America to the arch-political liberals who preached against American imperialism to the apolitical messages of pure comfort in the midst of tragedy, it didn’t matter.  We had dropped the ball, all of us.  It’s safe to say, anyone who wasn’t in church before 9/11 wasn’t in church a month later.  The one flaw in that reading of the situation is that it assumes that if the message had been good enough, that is truly Good News, people would have listened to it.  We know from the reactions of the Israelites to their prophets, to the reactions of the crowds to the preaching of John the Baptist, and even Jesus that many people simply reject the truth of God.  Much more recently, I heard an explanation that made a lot more sense to me.  It was simply that by the third week most people had begun to remember why they had stopped going to church in the first place.  That analysis seems to spread the blame a little further than the prophet and onto the hearers themselves.  So now we’re here at the tenth anniversary of a terrible day in our nation’s history.  What is a preacher supposed to preach to a people who increasingly describe themselves as “spiritual but not religious”?  Thankfully, I don’t have to try to answer that question because you’re here.

A far easier question is, “What is an appropriate churchly response to something like 9/11?”  I dare say what it’s not.  It’s definitely not fire-breathing political commentary either from the political left or right.  I’m certain it’s not waving the flag in the church and confusing the theological kingdom of Israel with the political kingdom of the United States.  Just in case this isn’t clear in our minds, God does not love us more because we’re Americans; that would mean that God loves others less because they live somewhere else.  Only politicians benefit by crossing this line.  So no, none of that is appropriate but what is?  Well, it’s what we’re doing this morning, listening and prayer—hearing God speak to us and earnest prayer to God in the midst of any lingering uncertainty, hearing again from God of the sure and true things, the things we can count on, that the Lord is “gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love,” and calling upon Him while He has drawn near.  This is what we do in the face of tragedy, even national tragedy, listen again to God and pray for His strength and rescue.  It’s the answer to the question but I’m not sure we like it.

We don’t like feeling vulnerable and in times of tragedy, we definitely don’t want to be reminded of our sin, much less, repent of it.  It’s so much easier to put away all talk of repentance and get on with the talk of another god fashioned after our own hearts, one who would fix all this mess and be quick about it.  Many of those folks who came then to hear what the modern prophets had to say rejected outright the God, who through events such as these, calls people to Himself.  They would rather have a god who rips open the heavens and makes everything right, extinguishes the fires with great bursts from the firmament above or maybe just tactical heart attacks in the attackers’ chests just before they started to commit such crimes.  But truly if God were to operate in this way, where would He stop?  Who would be left alive?  In the words of the psalmist, “If you, O Lord, kept a record of sins, O Lord, who could stand?”  I can hear it now, “Well, of course, preacher, but I’m not talking about my sins.  I’m talking those guys, those terrible people who are doing or who are about to do terrible things.  Their sins are worse than mine.”  Maybe, on a purely human scale, they might be worse, maybe not; they certainly are not worse to God.  All sin offends the righteousness of God.  Those who reject this Word from the Lord, reject that the true God has any claim against them.  They do not need God’s righteousness, rather they might need to try a little harder or be a little nicer.  I’ll be very honest with you.  My problem is not that I need to be a little nicer, my problem is that in my heart, by its very nature, all manner of murderous hatred resides in me and I am an offense to God who is holy and just.  No, my problem is that I am damned for my sin.  If we reject this truth about ourselves, St. John says, we make God a liar.  This is a hard truth and we don’t like it but is necessary to see ourselves as much in need of forgiveness from God as any other sinner, perhaps more so because we know our own sins.

But blessed St. John also tells us that Jesus is the propitiation for our sins, and not just our sins but the sins of the whole world.  It is precisely at this point, at the cross of Jesus Christ, at the propitiation for the sins of the whole world that we diverge from Islam.  People who don’t know any better talk of Christianity as a religion of peace.  It’s not.  We Christians have to answer for all manner of evil done in the name of Christ and we had a 600 year head start on Islam.  Christianity is violent not just historically but theologically.  The most terrible violence in all of human history was inflicted on Jesus at the cross, the wrath of God for the sins of the whole world.  Islam misses this point entirely, and thereby misses the most single most important historical and theological event in all human history.  Islam does not teach that God’s wrath was meted out on His own Son and appeased.  This is why the classic Lutheran teachers, including our own Dr. Luther, lumped Mohammedanism, as they called it, with Macrcionism, Nestorianism, Arianism, and all the other anti-Trinitarian heresies of the Early Church.  It’s just the happenstance of history that Islam became the most successful of those ancient heresies.  Jesus is the propitiation, the blood covering for our sins, and not just our sins but the sins of the whole world.

There are many Christian preachers who in their misunderstanding preach Christianity as a religion of peace.  They preach a God who is not wrathful at all but only loving.  A god who loves but is not righteous does not judge; that is a god of man’s own making.  That god would be as H. Richard Niebuhr famously described, “A God without wrath [who] brought men without sin into a Kingdom without judgment through the ministrations of a Christ without a Cross.”  No doubt that god was preached on the Sundays after September 11th but of course that god has no answer to the events of that terrible day or any terrible day.  The only answer that god has is, “Can’t we all just get along?”  That god is the god in the minds of many with their “Coexist” bumper stickers with all the religious symbols.  That god is truly a bumper sticker god, a god of our own devising.  He is not a god who has an answer for anyone after the terrible events of September 11th.  The Lord, the true God, is loving and righteous.  He so loved the world that gave His only-begotten son, not to condemn the world but that the world would be saved through Him.  To preach any other message is to fundamentally misunderstand Christianity.

This is why when truly terrible things happen, we return to the Lord our God.  We seek Him and call upon Him while He is near.  The wickedness in others brings to mind the wickedness in us and we confess it and allow Jesus blood to be poured out over it and cover it that God in His wrath against evil would not bring us to our rightful end too.  And we pray, even for our enemies, as difficult a task as that may be.  We pray that they would repent and return to the Lord God, the true God, and that their sins might be covered in the holy blood of Jesus poured out for them.  And should they do that, we pray for faith to see them as God does, as fellow repentant sinners and our brothers and sisters in Christ.  And we pray for God to give strength to those who, in their godly vocations in this world, must set their hand to the difficult tasks set before them.  We pray our God would give strength and courage to our paramedics and firefighters and police and all first responders, as well as our military members because what they do is truly dangerous.  We pray our God would give stamina and wisdom to our medical teams and the folks who manage emergency response.  Turn.  Listen.  Repent.  Pray.  Because the Lord is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, and He relents over disaster.  Amen.

The peace of God which passes all understanding, keep your hearts and minds through faith in Christ Jesus.  Amen.

Sermon for Pentecost 12

September 6, 2011 Leave a comment

Mathew 18:1-20

Augustana, 2011

Click here for mp3 Audio 51 Sermon for Pent 12. mp3

Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.  Amen.

Who is greatest in the kingdom of heaven?  Let me give you a hint, it’s probably not who you think.

At that time the disciples came to Jesus, saying, “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” And calling to him a child, he put him in the midst of them and said, “Truly, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.”

Isn’t that sweet?  Little children are the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.  Except that that’s not the point Jesus was making.  We live in a world decidedly different from the world in which Jesus lived and taught.  Almost never in Greco-Roman culture, in the Old Testament, or in Judaism are children the role models for adults in the sense that they have qualities that adults should copy.  Today, it’s the exact opposite.  Children are often held up as examples of childlike faith, innocence, simplicity, and happiness probably even as a result of skewed understanding of Jesus’s teaching.  We are a culture conditioned by Dickens’ Tiny Tim and Oliver and that cute kid in the Home Alone movies.  But we’re not talking about the 10 year-old who bests the adults in an adult world.  We’re talking about toddlers up to about 2nd grade.  And truly Young children are not yet in possession of their ability to think rationally.  If you want to get a sense of their rationality try giving one a 5 dollar bill for 5 ones.  They’ll think you’re stealing from them.  They are physically weak and susceptible to illness.  Even in the OT, children are a blessing from God, but were not positive role models for adults in any aspect of life.

Children are often mentioned in the Bible but not as examples for grown-ups.  Paul starts chapter three in 1 Corinthians by saying, “But I, brothers, could not address you as spiritual people, but as people of the flesh, as infants in Christ.” Later on in chapter 13 he writes, “When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I gave up childish ways.” (v. 11).  The author to the book of Hebrews uses an extended argument to make the same point:

About this we have much to say, and it is hard to explain, since you have become dull of hearing. 12 For though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you again the basic principles of the oracles of God. You need milk, not solid food, 13 for everyone who lives on milk is unskilled in the word of righteousness, since he is a child. 14 But solid food is for the mature, for those who have their powers of discernment trained by constant practice to distinguish good from evil.  (Heb 5:11-14)

The Bible typically portrays children as essentially needy, physically weak, untaught, and unable to provide for themselves.

And so this is the cultural context we need to have running in our head when Jesus declares: “Truly, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.”  Jesus is making a profound point here but it’s not the point we’ve come to think it is.

When Jesus shows the disciples a child and says, “Be like this,” Jesus is urging his disciples to abandon all worldly thoughts about greatness in the kingdom and with them all these delusions of self-sufficiency.  We already know that the blessed ones in the kingdom of heaven are those with no spiritual resources of their own, they are truly the poor in spirit (Mt 5:3).  “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for to them belongs the kingdom of heaven.”  The greatest in the kingdom of heaven are like little toddlers—needy and dependent on God for everything.  Jesus is saying, the only folks who enter the kingdom of heaven are those who realize that they have nothing and that God gives everything.  To become like a little child is to recognize and confess our insignificance and absolute dependence on God.  To become like little children is to repent of our pride, acknowledge our total need for God’s grace and to look to Christ alone for rescue.  Be like a child; live as a child of God completely dependent on God alone.

We don’t like to hear this because we’re proud.  We don’t like feeling needy.  It contradicts everything we have come to think about religion and about ourselves.  Who do we lift up as examples?  We lift up strong people of faith, maybe our faithful grandparents or parents or a dear friend who seems so strong.  Even in our life with God we presuppose that the relationship is strong because we are faithful in private devotion and prayer.  “In contrast to all this desire for spiritual improvement and self-development, Jesus teaches that we being, continue, and end our spiritual journey with Him as beggars before God the Father, the heavenly King.  We do not, as we follow Jesus, become increasingly self-sufficient.  Rather, we learn, bit by bit, the art of begging from God the Father, until at our death we can do nothing but say finally, “Lord Jesus, have mercy on me!’”[1]  Last month at the council meeting and then the voters’ meeting I read that quote and more from Dr. Kleinig’s book, Grace Upon Grace.  He uses the example of a beggar and I think it struck more than one person as odd that beggars would be our spiritual models.

But this is identical to Jesus is saying that whoever would be great in the kingdom of heaven must become like the little child, completely dependent on God.  Our life in Christ is not based on our performance but solely on our receiving from God.  This seems counterintuitive and hard but in some ways it makes it far easier to live as disciples of Jesus.  We don’t need to worry about what a 15 percent drop in the stock market is going to do to our 401k, or in my case 403b.  We don’t need to worry about the test results.  We are following Jesus.  A little less to retire on might help us to see our daily bread all the clearer.  If it is cancer, Jesus will bring you through it or bring you home.  You win either way.  And so, over the last several weeks, I’ve been trying to shift some understandings, or rather misunderstandings we have about God and life in God’s kingdom.  I may or may have been successful.  To be honest, it’s often hard to tell.  But, I will say this.  I am constantly tempted to run the way of spiritual ambition.  And Christians constantly measure themselves against what others have, or seem to have, even when it comes to our lives in the kingdom of heaven.  And can I just say it this way, “Our church leadership does not often measure greatness the way Jesus does.”?

But Jesus leads us in a different direction entirely.  He points us away from ourselves and back to God the giver of all things needful.  Jesus shows us that the true goal for the exercise of our devotion and piety is to be seen by God, open to his searching and yet gracious scrutiny, known and appreciated by Him.  Our life in Him does not depend on our devotion or spiritual performance but completely on Christ and His performance on the cross in our place.  We can face all our failures because out failures show us how completely dependent we are on Christ.  The burden of trying to be a super-Christian is lifted and we have relief from the intolerable pressure to show how much spiritual progress we have made.

Who’s the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?  Thanks be to God it’s not who you thought.  Jesus has made it so.  Amen.

The peace of God which passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds through faith in Christ Jesus.  Amen.


[1] Kleinig, Grace Upon Grace, 29.

Fresh from the sermon cutting room floor

September 2, 2011 Leave a comment

Not only do we live in a culture that has now almost deified children, (and by the way, when I criticize this aspect of our culture I do not mean to say that children are unimportant or do I mean to support any idea that children should be abused in any way,) but the culture around us has turned everything into a competition, even life itself and it starts in the first years of school.  This point was brought home to me again this week reading a commentary in the most recent Touchstone magazine.  We now have preschool graduation and kindergarten graduations.  Isn’t that cute?  But already the groundwork is being laid not just for achievement but for merely worldly achievements.  It’s certainly manifest at the end of life.  Take a look at the obituaries in the paper on any random day and do this, count up the number of achievements listed and the number of references to the lifelong faith of the deceased.  References to where the funeral service is being held don’t count.  Even for many Christians there is little thought of the obit being a statement of confession of faith.  We have to search to find any references at all to someone’s devotion to God made manifest in his or her love of family and neighbor.  From the looks of obits today, everyone is supposed to do Very Important Things, like acing a standardized test or winning a piano contest or publishing in Harvard Law or serving as president of this group or that one or being elected Speaker of the House for North Carolina.  Rarely is one eulogized for merely loving a spouse and children, and certainly not for bending his knees in prayer.[1]  Life is not a competition.  Jesus doesn’t care if you’re Speaker of the House for North Carolina; he cares that you’re faithful.  Want to know who’s greatest in the kingdom of heaven?  “Truly, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. 4 Whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.”


[1] I am greatly indebted to Anthony Esolen for this thought in his article in Touchstone, “Pupils Delighted.”  The rest of his article can be read at http://www.touchstonemag.com/archives/article.php?id=24-05-021-v

 

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