Tuesday, September 22, 2020

Sermon - 16th Sunday after Pentecost - Matthew 20:1-16

"God's Strange Ways"

Matthew 20:1-16

Today we hear God speaks to us through the prophet Isaiah:  My ways and thoughts are higher than yours, as much higher than the heavens are above the earth. 

In a similar way, Paul says in the Epistle that his imprisonment has really served to advance the Gospel.  Well that’s strange.  When is prison ever a good thing?  When does a prisoner ever talk like this?  When his thoughts are shaped by God’s thoughts.  When God’s ways and thoughts are to take something evil and make it good (like Joseph being sold into slavery).

God’s ways and thoughts are to take fishermen and make them apostles.  To take enemies and make them friends.  To take sinners and make them saints.  To take the things that are not, the things that are foolish and despised and make them the things that are, the things that are wise and glorious.

So here, again in our Gospel reading, God’s strange ways are on display.  The kingdom of heaven is like….  Like a master of a house, an owner of a vineyard… who acts in very strange ways.   At least, strange to us, in our limited and fallen human sense of fairness.

The master of the house goes and hires laborers early in the morning.  And that’s not strange at all.  Happens every day.  They agree on a price and he sends them to work.  It’s maybe a little strange that he goes out to hire more and more workers, again and again, throughout the day.  But maybe the labor market is scarce or he realizes he has more work that needs to be done.  We can cut him some slack here.  It’s fairly strange, though, that he would bother to hire workers at the eleventh hour of the day.  I mean, with only one hour of work left, why even bother?  So Jesus sets the table, and we are about to see just how strange are the ways of this master.

You see, while at first pass this parable seems to be about the laborers, it’s really even more about the master himself.  It’s not about the work that they do, or even how much of it they do.  Nowhere does it mention the quality of their work.  But here we say a master acting in strange ways, with thoughts that are not our thoughts.

The master, of course, is the Lord.  The vineyard is his kingdom – the number of all who belong to him in Christ, or, the Church.  They are “hired” by him, in that he calls each and every one of us to faith, individually.  Be it through the word, or in our baptism, he finds us “standing around” in the idleness of our sinful nature – with nothing useful or good to do.  Worthless to anyone and everyone, and nothing but trouble.  But with a word he makes us his own – brings us into his fold.  This is the call to faith.  And faith gets busy doing what faith does – expressing itself in words of witness and works of love for neighbor.  So the hiring is the master’s grace, and the work is our grateful response.

That the master would go again and again to market is also in his character, though beyond our comprehension.  This reminds us of the persistence of God’s call to faith – that it is for all people, at all times in all places.  Yes, some are baptized as infants, born into and raised in the Lutheran faith, Missouri Synod, no less!  Some of us even love to wear it as a badge of honor.  But it is all God’s grace that we are in the vineyard at all.  And even those Johnny-come-lately’s, the new Christians, and the new-therans among us, are of equal place and value to a Christ who shed his blood for all.

Now, of course, this flies in the face of our sense of fairness.  And that, too, is part of Jesus’ point here.  While the master is full of grace and mercy, that’s not what makes us tick, by nature.  Children of Adam, by nature, live in a very different type of market and vineyard.  For us, it’s all quid-pro-quo.  You get what you pay for.  You earn what you deserve.  We are concerned with justice and fairness and making sure everything is done according to the letter of law.  Even from a young age we learn those words, “it’s not fair!” and we never really un-learn them. 

And this assumes we are just and good in our own sense of fairness – when we so often are not!  Don’t you dare slight me!  But if someone else is slighted to my benefit – well, we don’t expect it to ruffle any feathers.  We’ll just enjoy the benefits.  And what if we actually applied the same harsh standards we use for others, the same judgment, the same criticism of their every fault and failing – and scrutinized ourselves by the same standard?  I doubt we would fare so well.  But rather we excuse our own sins, give ourselves a pass, or at least a rationalization for our misdeeds.  And thus we corrupt the fairness we feign to exercise, and bend our sense of justice in our own favor.

Then, sometimes, we even dare apply our human sense of fairness to almighty God.  Like the fool in the parable who balked at the master’s goodness to others. Well, friend, has he got news for you.

Our God does not treat us as we deserve.  And you oughtta be thankful he does not.  He does not mark our iniquities and repay us the wages of sin we deserve.  His ways are not our ways.  His thoughts are not our thoughts.  His way is, rather, to grant us a different reward, unearned share that isn’t based on our works, our labor, or on the debt of sin we owe, but on his grace in Jesus Christ.

Jesus Christ, “hired”, if you will, at the beginning of all days – appointed as the Savior before the forbidden fruit had even turned brown.  A seed of the woman set to crush the serpent’s head. 

Jesus Christ, who labored perfectly, fulfilling all righteousness, and whose righteous work counts for all of us in his field.  See, he has done all things well. 

Jesus Christ, who paid the wages of sin and death by his own blood, at the cross.  As foolish as it seems to us, as strange a way to love his people, is the Master not allowed to do what he wants with what is his?  Does he not give to each sinner according to his great mercy?

But sometimes we do begrudge God’s generosity.  Certainly the Jews in the early church struggled with the idea that God’s grace includes also the Gentiles.  Sometimes churches today become insular and clique-ish, and don’t do such a good job of welcoming the newcomer.  Save us from this, Lord!

I recall a lady at my church in Michigan who once remarked in a Bible Study, we had been discussing the news story about a local serial killer, who, now imprisoned, had professed to become a believer in Christ.  She remarked, “if that murderer goes to heaven, then I don’t want to be there” Friend, the master might say, my dear lady, do you begrudge my generosity?

Maybe it would help us to begrudge the master’s generosity less to see ourselves in the parable not as the most deserving servant, but as the least. As the 11th hour workers.  We are the ones who are late to the party.  We are the ones who bring less deserving work.  Each of us could say with St. Paul, “I am the chief of sinners”.  Oh how our perspective would change!  According to the law, we are like the early workers – out for ourselves, concerned with our own sense of justice.  But according to the Gospel, we are the beneficiaries of a generous and kind master, who lavishes blessings upon us that we in no wise deserve. 

So come to his table today and receive yet again – not the just desserts for your sins, but the grace desserts of his gifts.  Take joy in the strange ways of our good master – enjoy his generosity – and be fed and strengthened for further service in the vineyard, and in the world. 

Tuesday, September 15, 2020

Sermon - 15th Sunday after Pentecost - Matthew 18:21-35

Matthew 18:21-35

“How Much Forgiveness?”

Last week I mentioned the preaching challenge of tying together a number of seemingly disconnected thoughts in the Gospel reading.  Today, in the same chapter, there is another preaching challenge.  This parable, called the parable of the Unmerciful Servant or the Unforgiving Servant – is a tough one.  And I’d like to take an unusual approach to this reading today and work backward.

It’s tough, partly, because it ends on such a harsh note.  “So also my heavenly Father will do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother from your heart.”  Those are tough words from Jesus.  For several reasons:

It’s a threat of punishment for being unforgiving.  And we saints who are still sinners – don’t always forgive as we should.  This is some harsh law for us.  In the parable, it meant that the wicked servant was thrown into prison until he could pay his debt – which was really a life sentence since his debt was so great.  But for us, the debt of sin would leave us with an eternal sentence.  We can never hope to pay back our sin, our unforgiving-ness.  And so the punishment Jesus threatens is serious indeed.

But not only do we not forgive as often as we should, but he also adds this little qualifier:  “From the heart”.  Stick the knife in deeper, Jesus!  For how many times have you SAID you forgive someone, but you don’t mean it, not truly, fully, from the heart.  It’s an outward act of forgiveness – done out of obligation, or so you don’t look petty before others – but in your heart of hearts you hang on to that hurt.  You nurse the little grudge and keep that sin on your scoresheet.

The point of this parable is that this is not how it should be for us.  It’s a word of law – that Christians ought to forgive.  In fact we must.  Our Lord Jesus Christ is not in the business of idle threats.  His words are true.  But, of course, this isn’t the only word on the matter.

Earlier in the parable we see another picture.  It’s the man who had a great debt and begs for mercy.  The servant himself.  Notably, he begs for time to pay – as if he ever really could – he asks for patience from the master.  But the master doesn’t put him on a payment plan.  He just forgives the debt. All of it.  Every last penny.  He gives far more and far better than servant asked.  And he gives it freely. It is, of course, a picture of how God forgives us in Christ Jesus.

What a picture of forgiveness!  It’s very similar to the example we have from Genesis this morning – where Joseph forgives his brothers.  Joseph, who was sold into slavery by his brothers, who then told his father Jacob he was dead.  Joseph, whom God had blessed nonetheless, even to the point of making him the second most powerful man in Egypt and probably the whole world at that time.  Joseph who now stood in judgment over his brothers, the shoe on the other foot finally, they found themselves literally at his mercy.  He had forgiven them before – but now their father Jacob was dead, and they feared Joseph would feel free to show his true colors, to finally exact the revenge they knew they deserved.  After all, we know how this works.  You were being nice to us for the sake of old Dad, right, Joseph?  But now that he’s gone… will you finally unleash your vengeance?  Will we see the grudge you’ve surely been harboring?

But in a poignant moment of brotherly reconciliation, Joseph shows his faith by again forgiving his brothers.  He comforts and cares for them, speaks kindly to them.

What a picture of Christ!  The brother who loves us, though we have wronged him so deeply.  The one who forgives us our sins freely, comforts and cares for us.  Joseph was as good as dead, but made an amazing comeback with the blessing of Almighty God.  Jesus really did die – horribly so, for the sins of the world, for the sins of those who crucified him.  But even then he was praying for their forgiveness.  And then, Jesus was restored, resurrected, ascended and enthroned on a throne much higher than Joseph’s!  And one day he will come to judge the living and the dead. How will it be when his brothers stand before him?  Will he finally give us what we deserve?  Or will he welcome us, comfort us, and speak kindly to us?

This is one of those passages that is unlocked by the distinction of law and gospel.  According to the law, we must be lost – for we do not “forgive from the heart”.  But according to the Gospel – we must be forgiven, for Jesus Christ is the kind judge, king, master and Lord.  He has paid the debt, canceled it and removed it, blotted out our iniquities and forgiven our transgressions.  Otherwise his cross means nothing.

And so, if we look at ourselves, our lives, our behavior, our heart – we will see only judgment and death.  We will have that threat of punishment ever ringing in our ear.  But if we look to Christ – there is only love, forgiveness, and mercy.  He forgives our every debt each time we fall before him in repentance.  Each time we pray the prayer he gives us – and say – forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.

And working even further backward in the text, we come to what precipitated this whole thing.  Peter’s question about forgiveness. 

Dear Peter.  Always the first to speak and act, but not always to his credit.  Yet his question here is instructive.  Jesus had just been discussing forgiveness of your brother who sins against you… and so Peter asks for clarification. “How many times shall I forgive my brother, seven times?”

Now it’s often been said that Peter thought he was being generous.  How many wouldn’t even give one shot at forgiveness?  Or maybe once, but then they won’t be fooled again.  But this is more.  This is no three-strikes-and-you’re-out standard of forgiveness.  Peter picks seven – forgive the brother once for every day of the week!  But surely there must be some limit, right Jesus?  Isn’t there a line, eventually?

And Jesus’ answer blows Peter out of the water. Not 7 but 70 times 7!  Which is, not to say, literally 490.  But that we should forgive and not keep count.  That’s kind of the whole point of forgiveness – the sin is gone.  It’s off the books.  Erased, blotted out, forgotten.  Forgiveness is exactly the opposite of keeping score, tallying sins.  It’s letting it go, and never looking back.

Such is God’s forgiveness of us in Christ.  He remembers our sins no more.  He separates them as far from us as the East is from the West.  He does not count men’s sins against them, for if he did, who could stand? 

We would need a number far larger than 490 or 490 million if our sins were marked and charted.  But thanks be to God for the mercy of Christ, who takes them all away.  Now Peter, now Christian, go and do likewise.  Your debt is paid.  Your sins are forgiven.  Why would you hold even one sin against your brother?  If Christ has done so much for you, why wouldn’t you earnestly desire to do the same for your fellow Christian, especially?

Forgiveness is free and unlimited, or it’s not really forgiveness at all.  It’s not just the quantity, either, it’s the quality.  It’s the big sins and the little sins, the few and the many.  It’s the sins of thought, word, and deed.  The sins done and the sins of things left undone.  The sins against God, the sins against neighbor, the sins against self.  All are forgiven in Christ.  Thanks be to God.  Now go and do the same for your neighbor.  Forgive from the heart. 

In Jesus’ name, Amen.

Wednesday, September 09, 2020

Sermon - 14th Sunday after Pentecost - Matthew 18:1-20


“How Serious Is Sin?”

At first it may seem that this section of Matthew’s Gospel is a bit of a patchwork – 20 verses in four paragraphs – touching on different topics that seem to have little to do with each other.  Who’s the greatest?  Temptations to sin.  The Parable of the Lost Sheep.  And what to do if your brother sins against you.  I have to confess that as I studied this text I also grappled with which direction to take things this morning.  What, if anything, connects these thoughts?

And the best I can say is this:  In each section here, Jesus teaches us to take seriously the problem of sin.  

It’s a lesson we need to learn.  We live in a world that thinks about sin less and less.  Let alone the secular world – which by and large doesn’t consider sin to be a major problem.  For that matter we see churches that barely ever mention the word “sin”.  Instead they may talk about “mistakes” or even “poor ways of thinking”.  

Moral relativism has destroyed the once universally held concepts of “right and wrong”, and now we have “what’s right for me, and what’s right for you”.  For many, no external objective standard determines what is sin anymore, as each person must simply be “true to himself”, whatever that means.

And if sin is even acknowledged on some level, is it really even a big deal?  There’s maybe about 2 or three sins left that seem to outrage most everyone – and even those things are becoming more accepted.  Sins that most people only whispered about decades ago are today shouted out and paraded about, as our depravity and decadence seem ever more out of control.

But it’s not just the culture or the prevailing moral philosophies out there today that teach us this.  It’s not just the mushy churches that have sold out to the culture.  Let’s not think that because we go to Messiah Lutheran Church in Keller, that we are somehow above all this, better, smarter, more holy.  We have the same problem with minimizing sin.  It’s rooted in our own sinful nature.  Sure, on paper, Lutherans have a strong teaching about sin – we confess what scripture teaches.  Thought, word and deed, and all that. In theory we say all the right things about sin in our catechism and our confessions.  But in practice we fall far short of it. If you’d look at our lives, our actions don’t seem as if we consider sin to be all that serious.  

Man has been minimizing his own sin since the fall into sin.  He has been blaming others since he pointed the finger at Eve, and she at the serpent.  He has been denying it since he retorted, “am I my brother’s keeper?”  We have been rationalizing sin away, comparing our sins with others who certainly sin more, and sometimes even calling evil good.  And in the hypocrisy of legalism, we imagine that if we follow some set of man-made laws that it makes up for our shattering of God’s law, like little Pharisees on our own self-righteous pedestals.

Jesus knocks this all down in Matthew 18.  He shows us how serious sin really is.

First he teaches humility.  That the greatest in the kingdom is the least.  That we would be like – a child.  Helpless.  Humble.  Lowly.  Someone who comes with nothing to offer, but only has needs.  Greatness in the kingdom consists of such things.  Turn, he says, and become like children.  This is talk of repentance.

And then a warning – sin is so serious that if you lead another into sin, especially one of these little ones, it would be better for you to get the millstone treatment.  A sure and certain death.  Sin is that serious.

Then on to temptations – woe to the world, and to the one by whom temptations to sin come!  Jesus doesn’t speak woes very often, but here the woe is earned.  Sin is such a cancer that the treatment is also severe – cut off whatever causes you to sin, pluck it out – eyes, hands, feet, whatever.  Better to be crippled or maimed than to go with all your members into the hellfire.  Here again the language is strong – but not literal.  As if cutting off sinful parts could make us clean – when even our heart is corrupt.  No, the remedy here is the same – repentance – an entire renewal of our being that only Christ can accomplish.  Death and rebirth, really.

When we humble ourselves in repentance and faith, we become one of the “little ones” the Lord cherishes.  We become the lost sheep that the Lord seeks out.  Sin is so serious, lost-ness is so bad, that he forsakes the 99 to go looking for that one.  He takes extreme measures.  He goes to great lengths.  He humbles himself and becomes obedient even unto death, even death on a cross.

There’s the ditch where he finds the lost sheep.  A ditch so deep it’s really the grave.  Jesus faces death – which is really the wages of sin – physical, spiritual, even eternal death – he takes death, in all of its seriousness and fullness, and takes it all on himself at the cross.  He wears the millstone.  He is cut off.  He suffers the woes we deserve.  He is lost so that we are found.

One of our great Lenten hymns, “Stricken, Smitten and Afflicted” says it well:  

Ye who think of sin but lightly

nor suppose the evil great

here may view its nature rightly,

here its guilt may estimate.

Mark the sacrifice appointed,

see who bears the awful load;

'tis the Word, the Lord's Anointed,

Son of Man and Son of God

Thanks be to God Jesus took sin seriously for us.  Thanks be to God that the Father sent his beloved Son.  Thanks be to God for the Spirit who convicts us of sin and calls us to faith in Christ, that we would not perish, but have eternal life.  

Sin is serious business.  But our Lord Jesus Christ is equal to the challenge, and takes care of business for us.  In him our sin is covered, atoned for, forgiven.

So then there’s this last section of our reading – which is the sort of “so what” of it all.  The implications of all this for life in this Christian community we call the church.  We might put it this way:  take sin seriously when it comes to your fellow Christians.  But be Christlike in your handling of it.

Notice, sin is not ignored between Christian brothers.  It’s not something we pretend doesn’t ever happen.  It’s still very real and present among us – though some may find that surprising.  Jesus forgives sin but he doesn’t eliminate it from our midst.  We still struggle with sin daily, and Christians in community will still sin even against one another.  

But how do we address it?  If your brother sins against you, do you pay him back in kind?  No.  If your brother sins against you, start gathering your forces and make sure you have a mob with you when you go to get your revenge? No. Post about it in a rant on social media? No.  But back to humility.  You seek to win the brother back.  You seek reconciliation.

If your brother sins against you… and it will happen…. Go to him privately.  Sin is serious and it should be addressed – but with care for your brother’s reputation.  Show him his sin, with the hope that he will listen – that is, repent – and you will win back your brother.  

And yes, sin is so serious that if repentance and forgiveness can’t follow, then what is bound on earth is bound in heaven – and the church on earth treats the sinner as one who is no longer in the church – a “Gentile or a tax collector”.  Yes, we still pray for them and encourage them to repent – but we can’t consider someone a Christian who refuses to do so.  Sin is just that serious.  In fact, the whole point of such a drastic step as excommunication - is for the church, the whole church, to show the unrepentant sinner his sin – to intervene, and speak with one voice, and urge him toward repentance, and life.

So how serious is sin?  Deadly.  It’s “amputations and millstones” serious.  It’s maybe even excommunication serious.  But it’s also “let me drop everything and find the lost sheep” serious.  For Jesus, it’s lay-down-his-life on the cross serious.  And for us who are in Christ, we would follow his lead.  May we ever have the courage to reconcile with our brother who has sinned, since Christ has reconciled each of us to the Father by his blood.  

In Jesus Name.  Amen.

Tuesday, September 01, 2020

Sermon - Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost - Matthew 16:21-28

“Taking Up Crosses..."

Crosses hurt.  They are not pleasant.  You know, the Romans designed crucifixion to maximize pain and suffering.  We sometimes forget this.  We see crosses as decorative artwork to hang on the wall.  We might wear them as jewelry.  We have so many around us, perhaps they lose their sting. But it is a reminder of something very bitter. A cross is an instrument of death. 

Jesus knows this, of course.  When Peter makes his great confession, “You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God”, Jesus begins to explain what that means – the Christ is the one who will be dying.  He will suffer many things.  He will be killed. And on the third day he will rise.  Yes, I’m the Christ, Peter, but this is what being the Christ means. It means a cross.

And then Jesus gets to something else unpleasant.  He says, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.”  Following Jesus might not sound so bad if it just means going for a walk.  If it just means trying to follow his example of good deeds and compassion for people.  If that’s all Jesus meant by “follow me”, he could have stopped there.  But he says “deny yourself” and “take up your cross”.  And there’s where the suffering comes.  There’s where the trouble begins. Crosses hurt.

Again we’re often like Peter.  He didn’t want any talk of suffering and death.  He didn’t want any crosses.  Not for Jesus.  Not for himself.  Not for anyone else, mind you.

Even today, for some Christians, talk of the cross is a downer.  It’s too depressing.  It’s not the main thing.  We’d much rather hear about God’s love and mercy.  We want the blessings, not the curses.  Let’s have life and salvation and glory.  Not shame and suffering and death.  There’s enough of that going around already.  Look at the news.  The pandemic.  The riots.  The shootings.  Wars and rumors of wars.  Hurricanes.  Fires.  Abortions.  Injustice.  Corruption.  Families in disarray.  Economic woe.  Stress.  Anxiety.  Depression.  Addiction.  No thank you, Jesus, we have enough troubles without talking about all these crosses you want us to take up.  We’ve reached our quota of corsses already, thank you very much.  Now if you could kindly get back to the puppies and rainbows we’d appreciate it.

But Jesus rebukes Peter.  And he would rebuke us too if we try the same tricks.  He says, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a hindrance to me. For you are not setting your mind on the things of God, but on the things of man.”

Don’t get in the way of Jesus going to the cross.  That’s Satanic.  Don’t think that there’s a Christ without the cross.  That’s having in mind the things of man, not the things of God.

Rather, receive the Christ on his own terms – Christ crucified for sinners like you and me.  A humble, lowly, man of sorrows.  A lamb of God led to the slaughter who opens not his mouth.  A willing and obedient victim, honoring his Father’s will, drinking the cup of wrath down to the dregs.  Stricken for you.  Smitten for you. Afflicted for you.  By his stripes, you are healed.

You need this Jesus of the cross.  For your sin problem runs deep, as deep as mine and anyone else’s.  The ugliness of the cross is the only ugliness ugly enough to match your sin.  And we need to see our sin.  We need to see what it cost Jesus.

Sometimes I think this is why Christians balk at the sight of a crucifix – you know, a cross depicted with the corpus, the body of Christ still on it.  Oh they’ll say it’s “too Catholic”, when really, there’s no truth in that.  Maybe we’re just not used to it from growing up, or it brings up certain associations in our mind, and that’s fair enough.  But I do think some people want their cross bare so they don’t have to be reminded of what that cross really means – that their Savior had to die an excruciating death – and that on account of sin – yours, mine, everyone’s.  For some, it’s maybe just too stark a reminder.

But we preach Christ crucified.  Just as Jesus preached a Christ that would be crucified.  And anything less, anything other, was of the devil.  Anything that got in the way, or offered another way, was the things of man, and not the things of God.

So what does it mean for us to take up our crosses and follow him?  Well, it doesn’t mean that we go out asking for trouble.  We don’t seek suffering, or pursue martyrdom.  Rather we pray for peace and well-being, for protection and provision, indeed as Jesus taught us, for daily bread.  He never taught us to pray for tribulations.  Rather, to pray that we would withstand them when they do come.

And taking up your cross certainly doesn’t mean you get to be the Savior from sin.  Your cross always follows in the wake of his.  Your cross is never bigger than his, more effective, more worthy.  Your crosses are merely an echo of the true cross, a participation in the sufferings of Christ, but only ever a small part.

But taking up one’s cross means accepting the sufferings of this life, and especially those we undergo for the sake of Christ – and still walking in faith.  It means seeing the silver lining of the clouds of life – and knowing that God who worked so much through the sufferings of Christ, will also work for good through your own suffering, just as he promises.  It means holding on to our joy, even in the midst of sufferings, persecutions, and trials.  For we know that all of our sorrows are fleeting, and cannot last forever.  One day we will put down all these crosses, and the final cross of our death will become the gate to eternal life. 

Yes, even the most bitter thing for most people to face – death itself – is redeemed by Christ and used for his good purposes, for his people.  If you are in Christ, you don’t need to fear death.  For you have the promises of Jesus – promises of life, even though you die, if you believe in him.  Promises of a place in the Father’s house which he prepares for you, even now.  And you can trust Jesus to be stronger than death for you, because he conquered the grave himself – that’s the kind of Christ he is.  That’s also what he told Peter and the disciples – that the Christ must suffer, die, and on the third day rise.  And he did. Just. That.

Whoever will save his life will lose it.  Whoever loses his life for the sake of Christ will gain it.  So we take up our crosses with joy, we face death all day long, we are as sheep to the slaughter – because even then, especially then, we know Christ comes with life, abundant, eternal life, for his people.  With Christ we can’t lose, even if we lose our life, we gain it, for eternity.

And finally Jesus promises that some who heard all this would live to see it.  Surely, Peter would.  Though he would deny Christ to the servant girl, and run away for fear his cross would be next.  Though he and the other disciples would scatter like sheep when their shepherd was struck.  Though they locked themselves up and away for fear of the Jews.  Still they would live to see the words of Jesus fulfilled.  The Son of man would suffer and die and rise on the third day.  Coming in his kingdom.  It began at the cross – where he was crowned with thorns and enthroned in his suffering.  Where his glory was revealed in perfecting our salvation.  But it would not stop there.

For the Christ who predicted his suffering, death and resurrection, also promises a return in glory with all his angels – a return to judge the living and the dead.  Then each will be repaid. Then all that is wrong will be made right.  All who have shunned the cross of Christ will be repaid.  We, who are in him, will receive the full measure of our inheritance. 

So take up your cross, Christian, whatever it may be, and follow Jesus.  For he has taken up his cross for you.  But the cross was not the end of him, and your crosses will likewise come to an end.  Remain faithful to him, for he is always faithful to you, and his promises always come true.

In Jesus Christ, Amen.

Tuesday, August 25, 2020

Sermon - 12th Sunday after Pentecost - Matthew 16:13-20


Today we focus on Jesus comments in answer to Peter’s great confession, “You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God.”  Jesus says,

“Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven. And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.  I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.”

There’s so much that could be said based on this short commentary of Jesus.  Here he teaches us about the confession of his name, the building and function of his church.  Today we will consider four lessons:

1.      The Confession of Jesus is never revealed by flesh and blood

2.      The Confession of Jesus is the rock on which Jesus builds his church

3.      The Church storms the gates of hell

4.      The Church and its ministers unlock heaven with the forgiveness of Jesus Christ

The Confession of Jesus is never revealed by flesh and blood

Peter’s great confession that Jesus is the Christ is not something that he concluded on his own.  It didn’t come to him through reason or logic.  It wasn’t something he arrived at after weighing out all the evidence and considering it carefully.  Surely Christians may and even should do all that.  But in the end what Jesus says of Peter here is the ultimate truth, and ultimately true of all Christians.

We don’t come to faith on our own.  We can’t establish ourselves, make Christians out of ourselves, or confess Jesus as Christ of our own devices.  We cannot by our own reason or strength believe in Jesus or come to him.  We are like Peter.  We need a revelation from above.

Jesus says Peter’s confession was revealed by the Father.  We know that our faith is planted by the Holy Spirit.  But there’s no conflict here, since our Triune God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit – is one God with one purpose.  The revelation of Christ – the very Gospel itself – is his desire for all men – to be saved and come to a knowledge of the truth.  To know Christ crucified for sinners, and by faith in him, to be saved.

Thanks be to God for such a revelation, that we, too, confess Christ.  We take no credit for our own.

The Confession of Jesus is the rock on which Jesus builds his church

The second point is really related.  For Just as Peter didn’t confess on his own, but it was revealed to him… so also the Church doesn’t build herself, but she is established and built by Christ alone.  Christ is the divine monergist – the sole doer of the work – to build and raise his church. 

A well-known Lutheran pastor in Germany who opposed Hitler – Dietrich Bonhoeffer – comments on this truth.  He says,

It is not we who build. Christ builds the church. No man builds the church but Christ alone. Whoever is minded to build the church is surely well on the way to destroying it; for he will build a temple to idols wishing or knowing it. We must confess–he builds. We must proclaim-he builds.

We do not know his plan. We cannot see whether he is building or pulling down. It may be that the times which by human standards are times of collapse are for him for him the great times of construction.  It may be that the times which from a human point of view are great times for the church are times when it is pulled down.  We must pray to him–that he may build.

It is a great comfort which Christ gives to his church: you confess, preach, bear witness to me and I alone will build where it pleases meDo not meddle in what is my province. Do what is given to you to do well and have done enough. But do it well. Pay no heed to views and opinions. Don’t ask for judgments. Don’t always be calculating what will happen. Don’t always  be on the lookout for another refuge!

Church, stay a church!!! But church, confess, confess, confess!

And how does he build this church, except by the preaching of the Gospel?  The proclamation of his birth, life, death, and resurrection for the salvation of the world.  Just as Eve was taken from Adam’s rib, so is the Bride of Christ, the Holy Church, born out of the side of the crucified Christ – by the water and blood of Holy Baptism and Holy Communion.

Thirdly, Jesus teaches us, that the Church storms the gates of hell.

One of the most iconic scenes in military history is the invasion of France that we call “D-Day”.  There, the allies stormed the beaches of Normandy in a heroic and perilous effort to establish our presence on the continent, and begin to bring a world war to an end.  The great sacrifices that were made by so many against such fierce opposition – will hopefully never be forgotten. 

But the church, according to Jesus, does even more.  We storm the gates of hell.  Notice, it’s not that hell is coming at us (though that’s true in a way, too).  But the picture Jesus paints here is of a church on the offensive.  A church knocking on the very gates of hell.  He implies an army ready to do battle – the church militant – assembling with all her forces and preparing to confront the enemy where he lives.  This is no passive defense.  We are on the attack!  We are a conquering force.  And with Jesus our captain in the well-fought fight, we can’t lose.  The gates of hell cannot prevail against Christ and his church.

Here’s a great promise for us.  Not only is the confession of Christ given us.  Not only are we, as his church, built up by him on this confession.  But we also have the promise that not even the gates of hell can withstand the Church.  Here, too, faith is required to see it.  For the church often looks like it’s failing.  Crumbling spires in every land.  Buffeted by the storms of the world – Rationalism, Pietism, Communism, Modernism, Post-modernism, and whatever other isms the devil wears as a cloak.  The gates of hell will not, cannot prevail. 

But just how does the church fight?  Certainly this spiritual war is not fought with the weapons of flesh and blood.  Then we would surely fail.  We’re a different kind of army.  And we fight a different sort of foe.

Really, this last statement of Jesus ties it all up:

The Church and its ministers unlock heaven with the forgiveness of Jesus Christ

The super-weapon that the church brings in its battle with evil is the forgiveness of sins for the sake of Christ.  The Gospel itself, and the forgiveness that flows from it. 

Whatever you loose on earth – Jesus here speaks of the forgiveness of sins.  It’s a charge he gives, not just to Peter as the first pope, but to the apostles as the public ministers of the church.  He will repeat this charge again in John 20, on the evening of Easter. “If you forgive anyone’s sins they are forgiven”.  And it’s just as real on earth as it is in heaven.  It’s just as sure when the pastor absolves you as if Jesus himself was doing it.  That’s why we say, “in the stead and by the command of my Lord Jesus Christ… I forgive you…”  It’s not my own authority – it’s the forgiveness of Christ.

So much is packed into this brief commentary that Jesus gives on Peter’s great confession.  The confession of Jesus is by revelation alone.  The building of the Church is by Christ alone.  The church that he builds cannot fail, even against the forces of hell.  And the greatest power he gives to that church is the forgiveness of sins in his name.

So many promises.  So many gifts.  What a blessing to be a part of it all, like Peter, as we too confess what we are given, and live out the faith in the church that Christ has both established and empowered.  Go in the peace that knows your sins are forgiven, not just on Earth, but even in Heaven.  For Jesus’ sake, and with his promise, amen.

Wednesday, August 19, 2020

Sermon - 11th Sunday after Pentecost - Matthew 15:21-28

"Children and Dogs"

The Word of God is always relevant.  Often times, and maybe you’ve noticed this too, the particular passage chosen and appointed for a given Sunday somehow seems eerily pertinent to the happenings of the day.  I’ve seen this happen with individual Christians – who notice that whatever problems they are facing sometimes are addressed by that passage of the day.  I’ve also seen it happen many times with the broader issues we face in the public square, in the culture wars, or the news headlines of the day. 

Sometimes preachers get blamed for not speaking directly enough to the issues in the national conversation.  And sometimes, preachers seem to find every excuse to shoehorn the word and make it speak to their pet issues according to their own agenda.  But let’s avoid either of these extremes.  Rather, our aim should be to preach the word as it is given.  To apply it where it applies (and of course, it always does).  And to let the chips fall where they may.  Sometimes the connections are right in front of us, easy to make, and we should have the courage to say what God’s word says to our world.

And so today, perhaps you noticed that all three of our readings, somehow or another, touch on the topic of race.  No, it’s not Black and Hispanic and White and Asian.  It’s Jew and Gentile.  The Israelites and the “Goyim”, that is, the “nations”. 

In the reading from Isaiah, we hear that God intends his house to be a “house of prayer for all nations”.  It’s sort of the Old Testament version of the Matthew 28 “Great Commission”, where Jesus sends his disciples to baptize and teach “All Nations”.

In our Epistle, Paul discusses his ministry to the Gentiles, and his sorrow for his own people, the Jews, who as a whole rejected Christ.  But the underlying theme is the desire of God to have mercy on all, and that all would be saved – Jew and Gentile alike.

Then there’s Jesus and the Canaanite woman in our Gospel reading.  And at first, it seems very out of character for Jesus to deny the woman’s request.  Even worse, it seems he’s denying her because she’s of the wrong race!  Not a Jew but a Canaanite.  Not one of the children, but one of the dogs, as the Jews called them – no nicer a smear today than it was then.

Is Jesus here being a racist?  Is he asserting the superiority of his own people over their neighboring tribe?  Is he withholding his blessings from someone who isn’t deserving because of her ethnic origins?  No.

The best understanding is that Jesus is testing her faith, or proving it – by his apparent unwillingness to help.  He knows, of course he knows, that he will help her.  But he gives her faith a chance to shine.  What a good confession she makes.  She traps the Lord Jesus in his own analogy:  “Even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from the table”.  Great is your faith, woman!  Your daughter is healed. And Jesus is anything but a racist.  His compassion knows no such barriers.

Jesus is the same God who proclaimed salvation for all nations in Isaiah 56 and wants disciples of all nations in Matthew 28.  He’s the same Savior who was hailed as king of the Jews, and even named so on his cross.  But he’s also the savior of the nations, who desires all to be saved and come to a knowledge of the truth.  God so loved the world that he sent his only Son, not just some of the world, but all men and women, young and old, rich and poor, all races and peoples and tribes and languages.

So why is this so hard?  Well because of sin, of course.  Sin touches every corner of our experience, every aspect of our humanity – and not just our deeds but also our words and thoughts.  And so sin corrupts how we relate to our neighbors.  Sin will use any excuse to act apart from love – and if your skin color or ethnic origin is a convenient hook – then there the sinner tends to go. 

The ancient Jews certainly had a bad case of ethnic self-assured superiority.  “We have Abraham as our father, after all!  We have Moses and the Prophets!  We have the temple!  We’re not corrupt half-breeds like those Samaritans over there.  And we’re certainly not rank pagans like that woman who begged Jesus on behalf of her daughter.  We’re better than that.  We’re the good people.”  You can almost taste the arrogance. 

Remember when Jonah didn’t want to go to Nineveh?  It wasn’t out of fear of public speaking.  It wasn’t because he didn’t think he had what it takes to be a prophet.  No, Jonah tells God exactly what it was – after he finally preached and the Ninehvites miraculously repented – and God relented from destroying them.  Jonah raged against God for have mercy on those wicked people!  He said “I knew this would happen!  This is why I ran!”  In the end Jonah looks like a fool as God calls him out for his jingoism, or as we would say today probably, his racism.

Now, to what extent racism is a problem for you I will leave you to ponder in your own conscience. Christians need not find an imagined sin under every rock, nor are we above confessing a sin when we truly commit it.  But at the root of the sins related to race is the sin of pride.  The arrogance of thinking oneself something when you are really nothing. 

Imagine if the woman who came to Jesus reacted to him in sinful pride: “Are you calling me a dog!?  Who do you think you are!  We Canaanites were here long before you Israelites came on the scene.  You’ve victimized our people for over a thousand years!”  And then one of the disciples might answer, “Who do you think YOU are!  We’re the Jews!  We’re the chosen people!  Pay some respect, lady!”  And on and on it might have gone.

When we are insulted or mistreated – for our race, or our affiliation, or our beliefs, or any other reason – sin often wants to claim rights and prove our superiority and station and denigrate another to do it.  Who do you think YOU are?  Don’t you know who I am?  Show me some respect!  I deserve that! 

But look what this woman did instead.  She humbled herself.  She admitted, implicitly, that she is indeed a dog, and a beggar.  She counted herself unworthy.  No pride here, just a need of help.  And a looking to the only one who could help, Jesus.  Friends, this is the way of faith.  We should all take note.

We too, are beggars at the Lord’s table, and unworthy of the gifts.  Not because of our ethnic heritage, but because of the corruption that goes much further back in our family tree, back to Adam.  There is the true and sad unity of all races and peoples – in the disobedience of Adam.  All are one – born under the law.  Born subject to death.  Conceived in sin and unable to escape it.  And this common condition of all men and women is far more significant than culture, heritage or what we call “race”.

We need Jesus just as this Canaanite woman did.  You may have a request like she did – for healing or freedom from spiritual oppression.  You may be praying for a fix to your marriage or a job you can depend on.  You may ask God to help your wandering children or to help you manage your stress.  And these and all our needs are good and right to bring before him.  He himself teaches us to pray for daily bread, and promises to provide far more than crumbs from the table.

But we also need Jesus to save us.  To save us from our haughty and arrogant selves.  To save us from the ridiculous pedestals on which we plop ourselves, thinking that we can be like God.  Save us from our sense of superiority – first by a right view of our own ugly nature – and then by the grace and mercy that you so freely give. Save us from the filthy rags of our own good works with the perfect obedience that only Jesus could accomplish.

This is Jesus, the living bread from heaven, who feeds the world with himself.  This is Jesus, the king of the Jews and Lord of All Nations, who by his cross removes the pall of death that covered all people.  This is Jesus, who humbles himself unto death, even death on a cross.  This is Jesus, who calls Jews and Canaanites, Samaritans and Americans and every other people group there may be – the find a new oneness in his body the church.  Here all are clothed with the white robe of Christ’s righteousness that covers our sin.

I don’t have the solution to racism in our world.  I’m not here to opine about public policy or what kind of activism you should undertake.  And I certainly don’t have a slogan for you to put on your bumper sticker.  Scripture does inform the Christian’s view of race relations, but there are many aspects of it that we’ll continue to have to work through.  What we can say for sure is this.  All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God and all are justified freely by his grace.  And the picture of heaven we see in Revelation 7 makes it clear that it consists of believers of all tribes and peoples and languages.  Race as we think of it simply isn’t an issue for God.  He calls all people to faith in Christ.  May we follow in the example of that Canaanite woman, trust in Christ to give us far more from his table than we deserve, and live in and by the same faith.

Tuesday, August 11, 2020

Sermon - 10th Sunday after Pentecost - Matthew 14:22-33


2020 has been a year of fear.  Most of us on some level or another fear this virus that’s turned everything upside down.  Perhaps we fear getting it and even dying from it.  Perhaps we fear giving it to others.  Perhaps we fear the effects – the dominoes that have fallen, the damage to our economy, the loss of work and wealth, the effects on our mental health, the unrest in our nation that may or may not be related.  Maybe you fear the government’s response to all this and the threats to your freedom.  Maybe you fear even to bring any of this up in polite conversation, as people have been so much set at odds.  And maybe you also fear that this will drag on and on, and we’ll never get back to normal.  Yes, fear has loomed large for many of us lately.

When Holy Scripture speaks of fear, though, it’s almost never a good thing.  Except for the command to fear God, I can’t think of any other time we are told to fear.  Rather, the command to “fear not” is common.  Fear not, say the angels when they appear.  The Psalmist writes, “yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil… for thou art with me…”  And of course Jesus himself tells his disciples to “fear not”.  We see it today as a key word (phobos – fear) in the story of when he walked on the water.

It was late, and it was dark.  That alone sets some people in a fearful mode.  The darkness means we can’t see, or can’t see as well.  And so there is the unknown.  Add to that, the wind and waves were kicking up.  The disciples, experienced fishermen among them, began to grow concerned.  They well knew the danger of the sea. 

But then they had an even greater freak-out.  They saw Jesus.  But they thought he was a ghost.  Well of course normal people don’t appear walking out on the water.  So another explanation sprang to mind – a ghost!  Even these disciples of Christ were under the sway of superstitions.  We sinners seem to know there’s a world of spirits and supernatural forces at work – and that some of those spirits are not our friends.  They fearfully jumped to a conclusion.

Jesus, for his part, calmed their fear.  “Take heart!  It is I!”  Take courage!  Be not afraid!  It’s me!  It’s Jesus!

What a sigh of relief and wonder they must have then shared.  What awe and amazement as once again Jesus does the impossible.  This is Christ – who can heal diseases, cast out demons, turn water into wine and multiply fish and loaves.  This is Jesus, who now shows his mastery over wind and wave, the very forces of nature.

One of the comforting things about having Jesus as Lord and Savior is that he is Yahweh Almighty – and that creation itself is under his command.  The little Greek phrase he uses to say “It is I” is “ego eimi”.  That’s the Greek way of saying Yahweh, which of course in Hebrew means, “I am who I am”.  This isn’t the last time Jesus uses this phrase which alludes to his true identity as Yahweh.

But if he is Yahweh - of course he can walk on water.  Water exists because of him.  Everything exists because of him.  While God the Father created everything by his Word – we know that Word is a Living Word, that in the beginning was with God and was God.  That Living Word by whom all things were made (as we say in the Creed). 

God asks Job (in our OT reading) that great series of rhetorical (and maybe even sarcastic) questions:  Were you there when I laid the foundation of the earth?  Do you know how I made it?  Can you explain these deep mysteries?  The point isn’t to make Job small – but rather to remind him who he is dealing with when he calls upon Yahweh.  This is the Creator of all things!  This is no small or weakling god of limited power.  This is a God in whom you can trust, and trust fully.

So, too, Jesus.  By walking on the water gives the disciples (and us) a glimpse of that divine power over nature.  He’s the creator, after all.  There is no greater friend to have.  There is no one better in whom to trust.  Of all the things that we may or might fear, of all the things that can and do make us afraid – he is over them all.  He is Lord of all.  And he’s in our corner!  Take heart, it’s Jesus!  Truly he is the Son of God. Don’t be afraid.

Sure it’s great for him to walk on water, but wouldn’t it be great if we could, too?  You wonder what exactly was going through Peter’s head (as you Texans like to say, “bless his heart”)  Did he reason that Jesus had given his disciples the power to cast out demons, and so therefore Jesus could and should also give Peter this particular power over nature, too?  Was he divinely inspired to blurt this out, like he was when he made his good confession that Jesus is the Christ?  Or did he simply not know what to say or do, and acted on impulse and without thought?

For better or worse, for whatever reason, Peter asks Jesus to invite him out of the boat, and Jesus obliges!  Peter, too, walks on water!  Another miracle!

Friends this is not the only time that Jesus would bend the laws of nature to bring us to himself.  This is not even the greatest miracle in which Jesus invites us to where he is, over and against all human reason and sense.

He calls us to himself.  He calls us to faith by his Spirit.  He calls us his own in our baptism.  He calls us to the table in his Sacrament.  By word and wondrous sacramental sign, he brings us to where we could never go alone.  To himself.

And even more.  One day he will call us – not out of the boat – but out of the grave.  Where he’s already gone.  The God who made the universe and everything in it, is the man who gave himself into death on a cross.  The Savior, who bore the sins of the world, drank death down to the last bitter drop, and three days later came out on the other side.  Standing tall over death which cannot touch him evermore.  Walking all over death with the same ease he treads the stormy waters – and bringing us along with him too.  His death is our death.  His life is our life.

Peter had no business walking on the water.  But he was with Jesus, and so it was ok.  You and I have no business dreaming of life after death.  But we are with Jesus, and so it will be as he says – “he who lives and believes in me will live even though he dies”. 

Now, of course Peter didn’t stay afloat very long.  And here is a lesson for us as well.  Why did he sink?  It wasn’t because Jesus couldn’t keep him above water.  It wasn’t because Jesus ran out of miracle-juice.  It certainly wasn’t because Jesus forgot about him, or turned his back on him.

He took his eyes off of Jesus.  He stopped trusting, and returned to fear.  He thought of the wind and wave and death creeped in on him again.  But he took his eyes off of Jesus, and so he started to sink. Or as Jesus put it, “you of little faith, why did you doubt?”

This isn’t a “shame on you, Peter”.  It’s not a wagging finger or a calling on the carpet.  It’s a gentle corrective.  A kind reminder.  Why did you doubt?  You don’t have to doubt, when you’re with me.  I’ve got you.  Take heart.  It is I. 

The same Jesus who called Peter to come for a stroll on the lake, is the same Jesus who’s there for him when he falls.  The one who both empowers and forgives, who rescues and restores.  Why did you doubt?  Why should you ever doubt him?  Rather – take heart.  This is Jesus, here!

I suppose some would want a Jesus who never allows the wind and wave to come at all.  Some want a Jesus never to even bother them, but let them row their way through.  Some want a Jesus who never asks us to trust him.  But that’s not the Jesus we have.  Far better to trust that this Jesus, the real one, knows best.

Dear Peter – faithful one minute, fearing the next.  We can sympathize.  Peter is the every-man.  But there is Jesus – with a strong hand to reach out and save.  And Peter’s savior is ours.  Fear not, dear Christian, but take heart.  Don’t doubt, dear Christian, but have faith in Jesus Christ.  Amen.