24th Sunday after Pentecost

24th Sunday after Pentecost

November 15, 2020

Matthew 25:14-30

“Living in Our Master’s Joy”

Grace, mercy, and peace be and abide with you all in the name of God our Father and our Good Shepherd Jesus. The basis for the sermon is the Gospel lesson read from Matthew 25.

My Dear Friends in Christ Jesus,

Americans have long struggled with the Parable of the Talents. Early in our country’s history, this parable was used against America. Preachers in England saw the Puritans as unprofitable and wicked servants rejected by the Master, declaring that their emigration to America was God casting them into a land of darkness, where there would be weeping and gnashing of teeth (v. 30). Later, this parable was used for America. Revivalist preachers declared America to be a place of opportunity, where profitable servants would be blessed by the Master. Same text; polar opposite interpretations. Great. I love it when that happens.

And we continue to struggle with this parable today, but our struggle is a bit different. In this parable, Jesus is not talking about America. He’s preaching about the kingdom of heaven. His preaching does, however, challenge our American misconceptions. Jesus does not invite us into a world of earthly wealth, where faith is driven by profit margins, but into a world of divine love, where faith responds in joyful service to the Master.

When the master returns to settle accounts, Jesus wants you to hear, “Well done, my good and faithful servant. Enter into the joy of your master.” And so, we consider today, what does it mean to live in our master’s joy?

First and foremost, living in our Master’s joy means trusting in God as revealed in His Word rather than in the god we may imagine. In the parable of the talents, the cause of the unprofitable servant’s damnation is his own imagination. He chooses to live with a master he has imagined rather the master who has revealed his generous love.

In the parable, Jesus reveals a generous master, one who gives all that he has into the hands of his servants. The Master left one servant with five talents, another was given two, and a third servant was given one. A Talent wasn’t a coin. It was a unit of measure to quantify large quantities of money. 1 silver Talent was equal to 7300 denarii…and the average laborer would earn 1 denarii for one day of work, so 7300 denarii or 1 talent is about 20 years’ worth of wages. So…the servant given 5 Talents would have been given a literal lifetime – 100 years – worth of wages! That’s very generous…very trusting.

The unprofitable servant, however, lives with a different master, not a generous and trusting master, but the master he has imagined. For him, the master is “a hard man, reaping where [he] did not sow, and gathering where [he] scattered no seed” (v 24). This belief causes him great fear. It paralyzes him so that he buries his master’s talent in the ground. When the master returns to settle accounts, he judges the servant according to what he has believed. As the servant believes, so it is done to him. It’s not about money or investment strategies; it’s about trust. Because he did not trust in the loving generosity of his master, the servant is cast out into darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.

Unfortunately, there are many in our country and our world who live with a god they imagine rather than the God Jesus reveals. The god they imagine, however, is not hard and demanding and someone to be feared (like the servant’s imaginary master); a Master to be feared, loved, and trusted. No, the “American” god is all-loving. He is like a kind-hearted grandfather (terrible with Smart phones and remote controls), too weak to do any real harm but strong enough still to love us and pat us on the head when we’ve done wrong. Instead of repentance, this imagined god calls for tolerance. Instead of forgiveness, this imagined god offers acceptance of everyone no matter what. People in our world imagine they can stand before God with all of their sins and be accepted for who they are and tolerated for what they have done. In their imaginary little world, it’s okay to fear a virus but not fear God.

Unfortunately, this god is a figment of the American imagination, and, in the end, this imagined god will save no one. God saves us not by our imagination but by His action. In Jesus Christ, God has entered into our world and acted to save. His love goes beyond our wildest imagination. He saves not by becoming what we want him to be, but by being the one we need him to be, our Savior. Our Savior knows the very real danger of sin and therefore calls us to repent. Our Savior knows the eternal cost of sin and therefore dies under our eternal punishment. But our Savior also knows the eternal joy of salvation and therefore rises again, not to tolerate sin and accept sinners, but to forgive the repentant and invite the faithful to live in eternal joy. Living in the joy of our Master means turning away from America’s imaginary god and trusting God as revealed in Jesus Christ, the Son of God who gave his life for us that we might live in eternal joy.

Living in our Master’s joy also means serving as people differently gifted but equally loved. While one servant fears the master he has imagined, the other servants trust the master they know. Their master is a gracious and generous man. Instead of harshly ruling over them, he graciously rules through them, giving them his great wealth for service in the world. He divides his possessions between them according to their ability (v 15) and sends them forth as servants differently gifted but equally loved: one receives five talents, one two, and to another one. Living in the joy of their master means not questioning the difference in divine giving, but rejoicing in faithful service, differently gifted but equally loved.

It doesn’t matter if God has entrusted you with a lifetime of wages or you live check to check. Instead, living in our Master’s joy means trusting in what God has revealed to us in Jesus Christ—that he loves all of us equally—and faithfully serving in the various places where God has called us, differently gifted but equally loved, and equally saved.

Now…who has a Talent they can loan me? That new car isn’t going to pay for itself…or do they? Maybe my car has that feature. Better yet…who has a talent they can joyfully use in service to the Master until we all hear the words we long to hear…“Well done, good and faithful servant. Enter into the joy of your Master?”

Amen.

23rd Sunday after Pentecost

23rd Sunday after Pentecost

November 8, 2020

Matthew 25:1-13

“Those Who Were Ready”

Grace, mercy, and peace be and abide with you all in the name of God our Father and our Good Shepherd Jesus. The basis for the sermon is the Gospel lesson read from Matthew 25.

My dear friends,

In my ministry I have presided at 40 weddings and to summarize most of my experiences in a word…Yikes! I have seen it all from weird bridal requests to fainting bridesmaids to a bride 25 minutes late to her own wedding! Have you ever planned a wedding? Weddings require a TON of planning; you don’t prepare at the last minute. Can you imagine an engaged couple on their wedding day if there was no preparation: securing the pastor or wedding site, sending out invitations, planning the food, purchasing the clothing, planning a reception or getting the marriage license? What would happen if the day came and no one was ready? I’m guessing you’d see one upset bridezilla! Not too much sympathy from me. A failure to plan on their part does not constitute an emergency on my part. They did it to themselves; they were not ready and there are consequences for their choice.

In these last few weeks of the church year, we now focus on the end of the age. In our Gospel lesson today, Jesus tells a parable about a wedding feast and ten virgins. These ten virgins are like modern bridesmaids…sort of. Not a lot is known of 1st century wedding customs, but we do know a few basics. In the days of Jesus, the couple’s parents would have arranged the marriage. The groom would save money until both he and the bride were of age and he could support himself and a wife, and then it was time for the consummation of the marriage. The groom would inform the bride’s family and the bride would begin her preparations for consummating their marriage at the bride’s house. Afterwards, there would be a procession to the groom’s home for a wedding feast that might go on for days. The processions often took place at night, when torches made for a spectacular display. The ten girls in Jesus’ parable were involved in going out to meet the bridegroom, They would then have had their place in the procession to the bridegroom’s home for the feast. But only 5 were wise in that they were ready…they had extra oil. 5 of them were not. They didn’t have enough oil and had to run off to buy some. By the time they came back, the doors of the feast were shut, and they were not allowed to enter (vv 11–12). So…what does this mean?

These wise virgins are the believers in Jesus Christ. The foolish virgins are unbelievers in this world. They would love to go to the eternal feast on the Last Day. They may even know a little bit about this Jesus. But they love the world and themselves more and will, one day, find themselves greatly unprepared. They had their chance, though.

This parable is about the kingdom of heaven and ten virgins with lamps of oil. The lamps are faith. The lamps of the foolish virgins are filled with the wrong thing: emptiness, space, air, a lack of oil. If faith were an oil container, with what does the world fill it? In what does the world put its faith? What does the world fear and love and trust above all else? The foolish of this world fill their faith with belief in other gods: Allah, Buddha, wealth, self, government, Hollywood, sports heroes, their own idols. This world’s foolish people fill their faith with total spiritual apathy—not knowing what they believe, not caring that they don’t believe in anything, taking a chance that if there is some god out there he’ll let everyone in to whatever this afterlife is. They also will not enter the marriage feast. The doors will be slammed shut, and they will hear its hollow ring of the joy on the other side.

In this parable, Jesus is teaching about the Last Day, the Day of Judgment, when the Bridegroom, Jesus Christ, will return and call His Bride – the Church – the faithful, repentant believers – to the eternal marriage feast. And when he comes, O wise believers, you will have been filled with Christ, which will mean you are prepared. Your lamps are filled with Christ and his Word, which has sustained your faith through life’s trials and temptations and given healing and forgiveness to you in your sinful life. It has strengthened your faith to endure even the days such as these. Your lamps are filled with Christ in his font, where faith in him was created, washing your sins, and where he shields and wards off Satan and his constant deadly attacks against you. Your lamps are filled with Christ at this Table, where Christ enters your body and your soul to forgive your sin, to strengthen your faith in this difficult, fallen world, and where he promises you a place at the greater feast to come. This parable is about the Bridegroom who prepares you for the marriage feast on the Last Day as he fills your lamp of faith with himself—his death and his resurrection—and in him you are ready and prepared to enter the feast . . . no matter when he comes. A failure to be ready by the foolish unbelievers of this world’s part does not constitute an emergency on Christ Jesus’ part.

In 1992, country music artist Billy Ray Cyrus released his first album entitled “Some Gave All.” Neither critics nor Rolling Stone magazine liked it. In 2006, “Some Gave All” ranked at number 33 in Q magazine’s list of “The 50 Worst Albums Ever,” despite the fact it sold more than 20 million copies worldwide. The first release from that album was “Achy Breaky Heart” which became an overnight sensation sparking the popularity of country line dancing and the aptly named “achy breaky shuffle.” Yikes. I prefer the title track from that album. The chorus of “Some Gave All” – a tribute to veterans – goes like this: “all gave some, some gave all. Some stood through for the red white and blue and some had to fall. And if you ever think of me think of all your liberties and recall some gave all.” Wednesday is Veteran’s Day and we give thanks for and remember our brave men and women who have served, sacrificed, and stood tall. When the call to arms came, they were ready.

If Jesus returns today, will you be ready? Will your loved ones be ready? May we do all that we possibly can to ensure that our nation remains the Land of the Free Because of the Brave and that all people will be ready for the coming of Christ because of their saving knowledge of His truth.

Amen.

All Saints’ Day

All Saints’ Day
November 1, 2020
Matthew 5:1-12
“Blessed…Who, Me?”

Grace, mercy, and peace be and abide with you all in the name of God our Father and our Good Shepherd Jesus. The basis for the sermon today on our celebration of All Saints’ Day is today’s well-known Gospel lesson that is the opening verses of the Sermon on the Mount known specifically as “The Beatitudes.”

My Dear Friends in Christ Jesus,

What do you get if you combine quality cuts of ham, some sugar, salt, a pinch of potato starch, water, and some sodium nitrite? These are the primary ingredients of perhaps the most misunderstood meat product in the world. These are the ingredients of SPAM, a product that has been available to the general public since 1937. However, poor SPAM has gotten a bad rap over the last 83 years. SPAM is a high-quality meat product that people have loved for generations upon generations. But does it ever get served at fancy dinner parties? NO. Can you find it on the menu of fine restaurants…or any restaurants? NO. You know how bad it has gotten? What do people call undesirable, junk e-mail that no one really wants to receive? It’s called — (sigh) — SPAM. It’s just not fair! SPAM…so good, but so misunderstood!

But I guess SPAM is not the only thing or event that has been misunderstood in history. Case in point…today’s Gospel lesson from Matthew chapter 5 has been and continues to be misunderstood today in so many places and in so many contexts. Just as people misunderstand SPAM, so too they also misunderstand the “high quality” passage known as The Beatitudes.

Let’s set the scene. Jesus and His disciples are in the region of Galilee. The traditional location for the Sermon on the Mount is located on the northwest corner of the Sea of Galilee not far from Capernaum – a hill about 1800’ above sea level. Those who followed Jesus and learned from Him were with Him, and upon seeing the large crowds that followed (5:1) He sat down which is the classic position for a teacher to take before a lesson begins. What then follows is one of the most impressive narratives that we have in all of the Holy Bible — the Sermon on the Mount. The followers of Jesus are gathered around Him, He is sitting on a mountainside so that His voice can be heard, and He begins to teach the crowds with words like they had never truly heard before (7:28-29).

The reason that this section of teaching is called The Beatitudes comes from Latin. The name “beatitude” is derived from the Latin noun beatitudo because the first word of each statement in the Latin Vulgate translation of the Bible is “beati,” which is the Latin translation of the Greek verb “makarioi,” hence the name “Beatitudes.” If you misunderstand, it’s okay? That’s not the primary thing that confuses people anyway. What really causes misunderstanding is not Latin vs. Greek, but what Jesus means here when He says that these people are “blessed.” So what does that mean?

In our contemporary culture the connection is made that if you are “blessed” then you have to feel “good” about yourself, having a good self-image, being in control of everything in your life, having a plethora of material things, and being free from illness or injury. There are some in Christendom who believe that God wants you to be healthy, wealthy, and wise and all you have to do is believe more and give more and do more and all this will be given to you; you will be “blessed.” The theological term for this is “bologna” because that’s not how grace works. This is why The Beatitudes can be so greatly misunderstood by people today.

We don’t think of panhandlers as blessed. We don’t think of the elderly isolated in nursing homes as blessed. We don’t think that those who are poor in spirit, those who mourn, or the meek as being “blessed.” Those kinds of people aren’t “blessed,” we rationalize, “they’re miserable! What they need are a few blessings…that’s what they need.” Being “blessed” is more than being happy. To be “blessed” – truly blessed – is to know the distinctive joy of those who share in the salvation of the Kingdom of God.

If you really, REALLY want to understand what Jesus is talking about in the Sermon on the Mount in general and The Beatitudes specifically, you have to realize where all this is taking place. Verse 1 states that Jesus “went up on a mountain.” Now, when things happen on mountains in the Bible you know something really important is going on. The Ten Commandments were given to God’s people on a mountain. The Transfiguration of Jesus takes place on a mountain. God revealed Himself to Elijah on Mount Horeb. Noah’s Ark came to rest on Mount Ararat. In the Scriptures, Jerusalem is associated with “Mount Zion.” But perhaps the most monumental mountain experience will come later in Matthew’s Gospel. Matthew 27:33 remind us that Jesus was led to the place called Golgotha, or what you and I know as Mount Calvary to be crucified. The truth is that the glory of the Sermon on the Mount will soon be replaced by the gore of Mount Calvary. At the cross of Calvary Jesus will suffer death and hell in our place for our eternal salvation. That being the case, today’s Gospel lesson from the Sermon on the Mount is better understood — finally — through the perspective of the crucifixion that also occurs on a mountain. All of the blessings of The Beatitudes and the contents of the Sermon on the Mount are only available to us sinners as facilitated by Jesus’ death on the cross of Mount Calvary. It is the cross of Christ that truly blesses us. It is the resurrection of Christ that truly blesses us. It is the forgiveness of sins that comes though these history-shattering events that truly blesses us.

The blessings of The Beatitudes are not challenges or guidelines for righteous living that we are supposed to try and attain. The Beatitudes are both present and future gifts of God. Yes, we are poor in spirit. Yes, we mourn. Yes, we are meek and hunger and thirst for righteousness. And through faith and discipleship, we become what Jesus promises we become: merciful, pure in heart, peacemakers, and so on. All these things — and then some — are given to us by virtue of our faith in Christ Jesus.

Perhaps you are tempted to look at your own life and think, “blessed — who me? I don’t feel blessed. I feel sick and tired and run down and poor and stressed and addicted and sad.” My dear friends…don’t misunderstand. You may not “feel” blessed or your financial statements may have figures that you don’t think are a “blessing,” but you have something even better. You can, just as Jesus Himself said, “Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven” and this is the same reward that those who have gone before us in faith – the saints – now enjoy all of God’s blessings in their fullest. Blessed…who, me? Yes…you. Now, if you’ll excuse me, there is a sandwich with my name ALL over it!

Amen.

Reformation Day

Reformation Day

October 25, 2020

Romans 3:19-28

“A Really Scary Story”

Grace, mercy, and peace be and abide with you all in the name of our Good Shepherd Jesus. The basis for the sermon today is the Epistle lesson previously read from Romans 3.

My dear friends in Christ Jesus,

Today we celebrate Reformation Day, but next weekend is Halloween. Halloween’s origins date back to an ancient Celtic festival involving death and ghosts. By the 800s, the influence of Christianity had spread into Celtic lands and Pope Boniface IV designated November 1st as All Saints’ Day, a time to honor saints and martyrs, and the night before was no longer a pagan festival. It began to be called All-hallows Eve and, eventually, Halloween. Today it is a day associated with costumes and candy ghosts and trick or treating (probably not this year) and scary things. So keeping in that general theme, I have a really scary story to tell.

Once upon a time, there was a young couple named Allan and Eileen. Allan and Eileen were given a free place to live – can you imagine their luck! – a free place to live – an old mansion no less – right in the center of town. The landlord allowed Allan and Eileen to stay there as long as they maintained the place and as long as they followed one simple rule. They were to never, NEVER, go into the mansion’s cellar. It was strictly forbidden to go into the cellar. But you know how people behave…especially people in a scary story who should know better! Anyway, one day curiosity finally got the best of Allan and Eileen and they decided to go into the cellar anyway.

They inched their way to the huge cellar door and turned the door knob. It turned easily since the door was unlocked. The couple pushed open the door and it groaned on ancient hinges. They slid into the dark room. It was so dark they couldn’t see their hands in front of their face. They could see nothing…but they could hear. And what they heard make their hearts pound in terror! All of a sudden they felt something moving around their ankles. By the time Eileen found the light switch it was too late. Giant, mutant cockroaches scurried around the floor and around their legs. When they tried to turn and run both Allan and Eileen were bit.

When Allan and Eileen finally made it to the emergency room and saw a doctor, they were given good news and bad news. The good news was that researchers would be naming a new disease after Allan and Eileen. You can imagine the bad news. Their treatment was horrible; both Allan and Eileen suffered misery as doctors tried to fight off the terrible disease they were infected with. They fought and they fought, but they never were cured and both died. They never set foot in the mansion, or any other place for that matter, again. The end.

Pretty scary story, huh? That’s kind of a Halloween story. But what keeps the story from being REALLY scary is that it lacks any basis in reality. There’s no such thing as giant, mutant bugs. People are not really scared by what they know is not real. For something to be really scary – something truly terrifying – is to have its basis in reality.

Now do you want to hear a REALLY scary story – one that has its basis in reality and impacts each and every one of you? Once upon a time Adam and Eve were given the perfect Garden of Eden and they could stay there rent free! All they had to do was keep it up and follow one, simple rule. They were not to eat of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil (Genesis 2:17). That’s it. Don’t eat fruit from that tree. But you know what? They did, and as a result they got infected with sin and – here’s the scary part – all of us are infected too.

Once sin was unleashed on this world, there was no stopping it and no earthly cure. As a result, Adam and Eve were kicked out of that Garden and they one day died. And we suffer the same fate. Because we are victims of what is called original sin, we now commit daily or actual sins. We sin, that is, we fail to do what God commands and we do what God forbids. Romans 3:19-20 said, “Now we know that whatever the law says, it says to those who are under the law (that’s all of us), so that every mouth may be silenced and the whole world held accountable to God (fairly scary, right?). Therefore no one will be declared righteous in his sight by observing the law; rather, through the law we become conscious of sin.” No one has escaped this sin infection – not a one. Romans 3:23 stated, “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” Because of our sinfulness – our breaking of God’s Laws and commands – we deserve God’s wrath, His punishment, and the eternal death and damnation that is the fate of all sinners. Pretty scary story, huh?

But the story doesn’t end there. God knew humanity’s predicament, and because He is gracious and merciful, He did something about it. Paul went on to explain in chapter 3, “But now a righteousness from God, apart from law, has been made known, to which the Law and the Prophets testify. This righteousness from God comes through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe” (v. 21-22a). The treatment for our sin disease was that someone satisfy God’s demand for breaking His Law, and that is what Jesus did. God’s own Son, Jesus Christ, came into this world for the express purpose of living and dying and rising again to “cure” our sinfulness. Christ is the One who brings forgiveness and salvation and peace and righteousness before God. It doesn’t come from us.

That is a message that Martin Luther realized and proclaimed over and over: “We maintain that a man is justified by faith apart from observing the law” (v. 28). That is a truth that Luther acknowledged and spoke of over and against a church that did its best to oppress both his soul and his pocketbook. For a time, Luther only knew the scary story of his impending judgment from a wrathful God until he discovered and confessed and tasted the sweetness of the Gospel – the forgiveness that is ours by the sacrifice of Christ Jesus on the cross. It was Luther’s teaching that began what we know today as the Reformation.

And maybe that’s what we need today – a modern-day Reformation. There is no doubt…you and I live in scary times. COVID-19 will just not go away and its effects will be felt for at least a generation. People are afraid about the future. We’re scared about our own futures, virus or no virus. These are scary times! Maybe for Halloween this year we skip the scary movies…this whole year has been “A Nightmare Before Christmas.” In reality, though, Halloween isn’t scary and now, because of Jesus, our future isn’t scary either. Your future is with Christ, and there’s nothing scary about that…only joyful! The trick here is on sin, death, and hell, for they were defeated by the cross and empty grave of Christ Jesus, which has become the ultimate treat for us all.

Amen.

20th Sunday after Pentecost

20th Sunday after Pentecost

October 18, 2020

Matthew 22:15-23

“A God Above Labels”

Grace, mercy, and peace be and abide with you all in the name of our Good Shepherd Jesus. The basis for the sermon today is the Gospel lesson previously read from Matthew chapter 22.

My Dear Friends in Christ Jesus,

You know what I am getting sick and tired of? All the “labels” that people attach and wear these days. Sometimes it’s literal. NBA and NFL players have “league approved” social statements on their jerseys or their apparel. More often than not, though, it’s not a literal label, yet BOY do they stick! If you wear the label “Black Lives Matter,” then you are all for “freedom, liberation, and justice” (BLM website), but shouldn’t that apply to everyone regardless of color? People who like President Trump are “Patriots.” People who like Joe Biden are “Progressive.” Why can’t I be a patriotic American who also wants the right changes at the right times for the right reason? Well, today’s sermon is called “A God Above Labels,” because this sermon is about what our loving God had to say to the Pharisees and to all of us, labels or no labels.

Before we look too closely at this text, we must remember the greater context of this event. Back in Matthew chapter 21, Jesus was approached by the Pharisees who were, as we might label them, not “happy campers.” They wanted to know by whose authority Jesus did the things He did and said the things He said (21:23). Jesus then proceeded to tell the Pharisees and those in attendance three parables, and we have heard those parables in previous weeks: the parable of the two sons sent to work in the vineyard, the parable of the wicked tenants, and the parable of the wedding banquet. As I have said before, parables are earthly stories that have heavenly meanings, and the same is most definitely true here for these three parables that were told back-to-back-to-back for a very specific reason.

The labels on our clothes stay hidden…unless a tag sticks up from the collar. Jesus was, in effect, making the labels of the Pharisees visible for all. By the parables Jesus pointed out that the Pharisees hadn’t repented like the tax collectors and prostitutes had done (two sons), they were plotting to kill him (wicked tenants), and they had turned down the invitation to God’s eternal kingdom (wedding banquet). As a result of what Jesus had said, the Pharisees were really angry, and they decided to place a trap for Jesus; it was their effort to label Him either a “traitor” or a “subversive.” This was a “no win” situation for Jesus.

Yet, win He did. The Pharisees teamed up with the Herodians – not exactly a match made in heaven – in order to get Jesus. They start by slapping their own labels on our Lord: “integrity, truthful, steadfast” (v. 16). They didn’t mean it, but they didn’t know how right they were. Next they by posed a no-win, trick question: “is it lawful/right to pay taxes to Caesar or not?” (22:17). The Herodians had their own label – partisans of Rome with a religious orientation. But they were there to be – to use another label – “tattletales.” If Jesus answered it is okay to pay taxes, the Pharisees would tell it to the people and turn them against Jesus; He’s a “traitor” or “Roman sympathizer.” But, if Jesus answered “no, it wasn’t okay to pay taxes,” the Herodians would turn Him in as a “subversive” or “insurgent.” But God is a God who is above labels.

Jesus saw through all their fluffy rhetoric and He gave them an answer that they weren’t planning on: “you hypocrites, why are you trying to trap me?” (22:18). Jesus would not accept their labels. He exposed their hypocrisy and deceit; He showed them to be who they really were. And, as He had done in the past, Jesus answered their question with another question – “show me the coin used for paying taxes,” Jesus said, “Whose likeness and inscription is this?” Of course, it was Caesar’s and Jesus had them where He wanted them.

Those who set a trap fell into a trap themselves! Our Lord replied to their trick question “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and (give) to God what is God’s” (verse 21). The Herodians had their answer. The Pharisees had their answer. They were amazed and left Him and went away (v. 22). Jesus was not about to be labeled by their trick questions…at least not yet…because the Pharisees would be coming back, and they had plenty more labels to slap on and this time Jesus willingly accepted them.

After His celebration of the Last Supper, Jesus was taken away from the Garden of Gethsemane. At that point, Jesus knew the time had come to allow the labels to stick. Accused by false witnesses, Jesus remained silent. The high priest said to him, “I charge you under oath by the living God: Tell us if you are the Christ, the Son of God.” “Yes, it is as you say,” Jesus replied (26:63-64). And with the application of that label, the events were set in motion that led to Calvary’s cross.

This time the Pharisees were right, and they didn’t even know just how right they were! Jesus was and is the Christ, the Son of God. He also received the label of “guilty” for a specific reason. Pilate shouted, “Why (should I crucify him)? What crime has he committed?” But the crown had already labeled Him “criminal,” so they shouted all the louder, “Crucify him!”(27:23). Jesus, the Son of God, allowed the label of “guilty” to be applied to Him. And He bore the penalty and the anguish that the charge of guilty brought. In the ultimate act of labeling, on the cross they placed above Jesus’ head the written charge against Him: THIS IS JESUS, THE KING OF THE JEWS (27:37). Again, they had no idea just how right that label was.

In today’s lesson Jesus said we are to give to God the things of God. And just what are those things? It is exactly the things that Jesus was pointing to by the three parables. He calls the Pharisees, and us, to repentance, to believe, and to hope for the life of the kingdom yet to come. So often we get caught up in our own “labels” of life that you carry: poor, sick, tired, scared, lonely, regret, desperate, terminal, addict, overworked, worried, hurting, under-employed, unappreciated, angry, and so on. But what is important are the things of God. When we are called to repent and we do, when we are called to believe and we do, then the biggest label of “condemned sinner bound for hell” no longer sticks to us. It slides right off having lost its hold by virtue of the life, death, and resurrection of Christ Jesus, and being freed of life’s labels strengthens you to face and live every single day.

Amen.

 

19th Sunday after Pentecost

19th Sunday after Pentecost

October 11, 2020

Matthew 22:1-14

“The Cure for Global Pandemic”

Grace, mercy, and peace be and abide with you all in the name of our Good Shepherd Jesus. The basis for the sermon today is the Epistle lesson previously read from Philippians chapter 4.

My dear friends,

“Wait…WHAT!” You might be thinking to yourself. “Pastor, I just saw the title for the sermon. You have the cure for COVID-19? YOU have the cure for the Coronavirus? We know you used to work in the pharmaceutical industry and all, but that was years ago! Are you telling us that YOU have the cure for this global pandemic?” Yes…yes I do. Sort of. Let me explain.

I cannot help but think that many, if not all of us in this room, are still somewhat worried about COVID-19, but that’s not your ONLY worry, right? All of us have worried about something or are currently worrying about something. I’m worried…you’re worried…we’re ALL worried about something, right? Call it whatever you want: anxiety, apprehension, being on pins and needles, fretting, being frazzled, or to quote Elvis Presely, you’re “All Shook Up.” Every time we turn around there’s something new to worry about, and it’s not always a global pandemic. St. Paul knew that life is filled with frustrations and anxieties and much worse…MUCH worse. And so Paul writes to the Philippians – and all of us really – to give us realistic, usable 3-step process to overcome problems…any problem…even the worry caused by a global pandemic. So…it’s not really MY cure for a global pandemic. Paul gets most of the credit here.

The apostle Paul knew a little something about worry. Paul never had to endure a viral pandemic (not that we’re aware of). But it’s not like Paul wrote the words “Do not be anxious about anything” from Siesta Key Beach! Betrayed by his countrymen (Acts 24:13), caught up in Roman political machinery for two years (Acts 24:27), shipwrecked on the Island of Malta (Acts 28:11), and then placed under house arrest (Acts 28:16) during which he wrote Philippians. Paul knew a thing or two or twenty about worry.

But what about us? As far as I know, none of us have been shipwrecked. None of us are under house arrest. But worries – and not just COVID 19 – still abound for us in this life. From unpaid bills to medical concerns to troubles in our family to out-and-out fear for the future, anxiety and worry is as normal for us as it was for St. Paul. And Paul’s instructions for overcoming our worries has three steps: pray about everything, give thanks in all things, and think about the right things.

The first part of Paul’s guidance is “pray about everything.” In verse 6 Paul wrote, “Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, present your requests to God.” In the Gospels we are told that Jesus often went off to pray. Frequently we see Jesus engaged with God the Father in prayer. Prayer is our lifeline to God; it is speaking to Him through our words and our thoughts. In our prayers we ask for everything that tends to the glory of God and to our own and our neighbor’s welfare. Praying that you win the lottery is NOT an appropriate prayer. Have you been praying for an end to the Coronavirus? Are you praying for those affected and those actively working for a solution?

In our prayers we also praise and thank God for who He is and what He has done. When we are truly able to do that, to be in constant contact with God, to take ALL our concerns, all our worries, all of our anxiety, and lay them at the foot of the cross and NOT take them back up again, then God takes that burden and He bears it leaving us free to praise and thank Him for what He has already done for us and continues to do by grace.

The second step in Paul’s instructions are to give thanks in all things. Verse 6 reminded us that we are to address everything “with thanksgiving.” Now please note that this is giving thanks in all things, and not for all things. There is a difference. I don’t need to tell you that not all things are good. I think it is fair to say that deadly viruses, looting, rioting, violence, drugs, and crime are things, but not necessarily good things for which we give thanks. We are directed to give thanks not just for our food or our money or for our stuff, but to give thanks IN all things…again, to thank and praise God in any and all situations for what He has done. If you can find a way to truly do this, it does reduce the worry in this lifetime.

The third step in Paul’s instructions are “think about the right things.” Paul wrote, “whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable – if anything is excellent or praiseworthy – think about such things” (verse 8). When I was learning basic computer programming in college, we learned the acronym “GIGO:” “garbage in, garbage out.” If you put garbage into a program, it’s not going to work…ever. So also if we put garbage in our minds, we will surely never overcome any kind of worry. Paul is saying that all the countless concerns of life can be kept minimal if believers, rather than dwelling on worry, will fill their minds with all things good and true and rise up and then put them into practice in this world. We are to produce the fruits of the Spirit and not always circle the drain of despair.

Of course, what we fill our minds with is the knowledge of Christ and Him crucified and risen again for our sins and for our salvation. That gives us hope to dwell on amid the worry. We are enabled to overcome our worries by knowing that God, through His grace, has lovingly extended His salvation to us and nothing, no viral outbreaks, no medical problem or bill, no trouble at work or at home, no noisy neighbor or conflict, can separate us from God’s love and His sacrifice.

And what, my friends, is the finished product of Paul’s instructions? Praying about everything + giving thanks in all things + thinking about the right things = God’s peace that surpasses everything: our worries, our finances, our world. For with God’s peace and His strength and His forgiveness of our sins, then we truly “can do everything through Him who gives us strength” (verse 13).

So, there you have it. It is and it isn’t really my cure for a global pandemic. If I figure out a REAL cure for COVID-19, believe me, you’ll be the first to know.

Amen.

18th Sunday after Pentecost

18th Sunday after Pentecost

October 4, 2020

Matthew 21:33-46

“So Painfully Obvious”

Grace, mercy, and peace be and abide with you all in the name of our Good Shepherd Jesus. The basis for the sermon today is the Gospel lesson previously read from Matthew chapter 21.

My dear friends,

Well, here we are. More than 275 days into the year 2020. What do you think so far? Yeah…me too. It’s painfully obvious that there has been nothing fun or funny about this year. It is so painfully obvious…the year 2020 has been one of the most difficult and challenging years in modern history. It’s been at least 19 years, since September 11th, 2001, that America has felt and seemed so low and maybe things have not been this anxious since America was attacked by Japan in 1941 and was suddenly and painfully thrust into World War II. It’s painfully obvious…we’re at a significant low point in American history.

The year even started with a crash…literally. America was stunned when legendary NBA star Kobe Bryant was killed along with his daughter and seven others when their helicopter crashed in California on January 26th. About that same time we started hearing about a deadly virus that had emerged in Wuhan, China. In a matter of weeks, the virus spread across the globe to more than 33 million people, resulting in more than 1 million deaths.

In a single day in March, amid Coronavirus fears, the Dow Jones Industrial Average plunged almost 3000 points in the worst drop in 30 years. But we’re Americans…we began to adapt. Then, just about the time we figured out how to live life “virtually” – virtual meetings, graduations, visits, worship services, etc. – that all came to a screeching halt. In May, George Floyd was killed in Minneapolis during an encounter with police that was caught on video. Suddenly, the floodgates were opened. Streets left barren during weeks of Coronavirus lockdowns were filled night after night with thousands of protesters and violent clashes between demonstrators and police. Rioters and looters and violent criminals have been and are tearing up our communities and businesses. Wildfires are burning the West Coast down, with no end in sight. It is so painfully obvious that the year 2020 has been especially difficult to put it mildly.

What is equally, painfully obvious is who and what today’s parable is about. Last week we heard the Parable of the Two Sons in which Jesus took a subtle “swipe” at the religious leaders. This week? Nothing subtle about it; Jesus is in full-on attack mode. When our Lord tells the “Parable of the Wicked Tenants,” it’s painfully obvious that God takes away the kingdom from unfaithful Israel and will be given to another faithful people.

Jesus’ description of the preparation of a vineyard for production conforms to the practices known from that time period. Stone walls were built around vineyards to protect them from thieves and wild animals, and some larger vineyards had their own winepress built on-site and even watchtowers for added security. It was common in ancient Israel for a wealthy landowner to employ a farmer or rent out his vineyard to tenants if need be. So far, so good.

However, the peaceful scene of a vineyard rented out to tenants turns ugly. With the arrival of harvest time, the landowner sends his servants to the tenants to collect the portion of the fruit that belongs to him. Then, the unthinkable occurs: “The tenants took his servants and beat one, killed another, and stoned another.” Absentee landowners were notorious for their harsh treatment of their tenants, but here the scene is reversed, and the landowner’s servants are abused when they come to collect a portion of the harvest. The landowner continues to send servants to collect what is rightfully his, but each servant is treated the same way (22:37). It is so painfully obvious that the treatment of these “servants” calls to mind the same fate that befell God’s prophets throughout Old Testament history.

Finally, the landowner sends his own son to make a collection, saying, “They will respect my son.” Again, this is a painfully obvious allusion to God the Father’s sending his Son, Jesus. Then the narrative turns unthinkably ugly when the tenants say, “This is the heir. Come, let us kill him and have his inheritance” (v. 38). As if it worked that way! It makes no sense, but that’s what they did. They killed the son.

Then Jesus posed the question about what to do with the tenants. The answer was painfully obvious…“He will put those wretches to a miserable death and let out the vineyard to other tenants who will give him the fruits in their seasons” (v. 41). Exactly. Good answer.

It is so painfully obvious what this parable is really all about. The master is God the Father. The richly-appointed vineyard is the equally richly-blessed Israel. The tenants are the phony religious leaders and unbelieving Israelites. The messengers are the prophets of the Old Testament age. And, obviously, the son in the parable is Jesus Himself, the “stone that the builders rejected (that became) the cornerstone” (v. 42). The meaning is painfully obvious. God the Father richly blessed His people and gave them ample and abundant opportunities to produce the fruits of repentance and faith. Instead, they rebelled and killed the prophets continually sent to them (23:37). In an effort to save them all, God sent His Son Jesus to provide the very-best chance at repentance and to provide the fruits of the harvest. Instead, they would kill Him too.

Jesus tells this parable even though it is so painfully obvious that He knows His passion, death, and resurrection are less than a week away. But Jesus endured. He endured the whip, the thorns, the nails, the cross, and the grave. By rising again, He brings what we so obviously need – forgiveness of our sins, the promise of salvation, and the hope of everlasting life.

How do we keep going in these unprecedented time? Isn’t it painfully obvious? Repent. Trust. Pray. Believe. As Paul wrote, “Forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, (we) press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus” (3:13-14). Better days will come. Our sins are still forgiven. We are still the people of God. The sun will still rise tomorrow. Your salvation is complete in and through faith in Christ Jesus. It’s just so painfully obvious, right?

Amen.

 

17th Sunday after Pentecost

17th Sunday after Pentecost

September 27, 2020

Matthew 21:28-32

“A Tale of Three Sons”

Grace, mercy, and peace be and abide with you all in the name of our Good Shepherd Jesus. The basis for the sermon today is the Gospel lesson previously read from Matthew chapter 21.

My dear friends in Christ Jesus,

It seems like everything I needed to know for life (before Seminary) came from watching old TV shows. If I needed to know how much I can expect to pay for a new car or for furniture, I could watch The Price Is Right. If I needed to know how to outrun the police, I could watch The Dukes of Hazzard. If I needed to know how to escape from a German prison camp, I could watch Hogan’s Heroes. If I needed to know how to make a working centrifuge out of coconuts and radio parts, I could watch Gilligan’s Island. And, of course, if I needed to know how to raise kids as a single parent, I could watch re-runs of My Three Sons.

My Three Sons ran for 12 years from 1960 until 1972. In My Three Sons, widower Steven Douglas was left to bring up three boys all by himself with the aide of his housekeeper “Uncle Charlie.” The series revolved around the trials and tribulations of life’s experiences as a single parent family. The show’s premise, which was one of a kind in 1960, is not uncommon now. Many TV shows have and still do feature single men raising children.

There are lots and lots of TV shows about families and kids, but how many parables are about or involve sons? It is not as many as you think. There is the parable of the Prodigal Son of Luke 15, the parable of the Wicked Tenants in Mark 12, and this “parable” in Matthew 21. And yet this is not so much a parable as it is an illustration of the identity and authority of Jesus.

To understand what Jesus is talking about in this text we must first examine the context of this event. In Matthew 21 Jesus has entered Jerusalem on Palm Sunday and then He brought judgment on those buying and selling in the temple. A bit later Jesus is teaching in the temple, and He is confronted by the chief priests and the elders of the people (21:23). They wanted to know who had given Him authority to do what He had done and to teach. Our Lord then turned the table on them and asked them a question in regards to John the Baptist: “John’s baptism– where did it come from? Was it from heaven, or from men?” (v. 25). After some deliberation, the chief priests couldn’t answer the question, and Jesus tells them, “Well then, I’m not going to tell you by what authority I do these things.” And then we get out text for today, a text commonly called “the Parable of the Two Sons.”

The first son in Jesus’ story told his father “no” to the father’s request to go and work in the vineyard. This might not sound like such a big deal to us in an age when respect for authority is at an all-time low, but to the original hearers, this would have felt like a smack to the face. At that time, you didn’t say “no” to your father…ever. But in this story the first son said “no,” but later changed his mind and did go work in the vineyard.

The point that Jesus was trying to make was that the first son was like the tax collectors and prostitutes of their age. These people – the lowest of lows in the minds and hearts of the public – had said “no” to God by their behavior. But once they heard the message of John the Baptist – the message of “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near” (Matthew 3:2) – they did just that. They repented, they turned, and they began to do God’s will. This reminds us of the words from our Old Testament lesson for today from Ezekiel chapter 18: “If a wicked man turns away from the wickedness he has committed and does what is just and right, he will save his life” (v. 27).

Of course, this is just the opposite of the chief priests and elders of the people. Their behavior and attitude reflect what happened with the second son. In Jesus’ story, He compares their behavior with the son who said “yes” to his father, but turned from that promise and did not go and work in the vineyard. The same was true with the chief priests and elders. In their piety and self-righteousness they gave off the appearance that they were saying “yes” to God, but in reality they had turned from God and turned from doing God’s will.

So far we have discussed the two sons of the parable, but in keeping with the illustration of “My Three Sons,” there is another Son yet to be discussed. The first son of the parable said the wrong thing. The second son in the parable did the wrong thing. But there was a Son who did say “yes,” a Son who then also made good on that Word and went. Jesus, the only begotten Son of God the Father, said “yes” to coming to this world and to being born as a man. He said “yes” to perfectly keeping God’s will. He also said “yes” to taking on the sin of the world and the mistreatment and the blame and the beatings and the nails that came with. He said “yes” to the cross. And by doing so, Jesus’ death and resurrection brings us forgiveness for when we say the wrong things and when we do the wrong things; when we speak harshly or fail to keep our word or when we disobey God our Father.

The ideal response to God’s will is to say yes AND to do God’s will – to repent and to live in the knowledge that the Kingdom of God is near. The behavior and sacrifice of the third Son – Jesus Christ – enables us to both say “yes” to God and to do His will. Just what is the will of God for us to do? Well, it is found in the message of John the Baptist – “repent!” The tax collectors and prostitutes heard that message and they did. The chief priests and elders heard the message and they did not. As a result, Jesus pointed out that “sinners” were entering heaven ahead of the pious leaders which, again, was a harsh smack in the face!

The Kingdom of God is not about status or measuring up to certain standards. Maybe there are times when you’ve felt that way. “I’m not good enough for church,” or “I’m not good enough or smart enough to do this job,” or “I’m doing a lousy job or raising my kids,” or “my health just isn’t what it should be.” My friends, never forget the third Son, Jesus the Christ, like John the Baptist, amid life’s trials and tribulations calls us to repent and turn not to our works or our status or our piety, but to turn to Him for salvation and for the hope of life everlasting.

Amen.