Monday, September 29, 2008

Harrison Blogs

Hey, I've noticed that Pastor Matt Harrison has been blogging quite a bit lately. He's definitely worth checking out.

You might also want to stop by Harrison for President and check out more about him.

Another Pastor Confusing Kingdoms

Local story about a pastor clearly endorsing McCain from the puplit.

My response on the newspaper's blog site:

This pastor crossed the fine line between speaking the truth of scripture and making a logical leap which was not his to make.

Clearly, abortion is against scripture. Voting for McCain or Obama is not clearly taught in scripture.

Endorsing specific candidates or even specific plans in the political realm is not the place of Christian pastors. Ours is to teach the principles of the Bible and let parishioners connect the dots themselves in the booth.

Unfortunately, too many pastors on both the right AND the left muddy the waters between these two areas of life.

He should go and learn what this means."Render unto Caesar what is Caesar's, and to God what is God's"

Sermon - Pentecost 20 - Matthew 21:23-27

Matthew 21:23-27
Pentecost 20
“Good and Bad Questions”

The question was this, “by what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?” In other words, “Jesus, who do you think you are? Where do you get off making a mess of our temple, overturning tables and chasing away our merchants? And just what gives you the right to criticize us, the powers that be? We are the chief priests, the elders of the people! Don't you know who we are?” A lot of questions tied up in this question, “By what authority...?”

Now, when Jesus matches wits with the Jewish leaders – it's never a fair fight. Whether they are trying to trap him with a question about taxes, or about marriage in heaven, or some other funny business, these so-called wise men are perpetually rebuked, defeated, and made to look foolish by the simple country preacher.

They can't even answer a simple question about John the Baptist without a huddle and conference, and even then, the answer is, “we don't know”. They really thought they knew the answer. They just didn't want to say. They were afraid of the crowds that followed Jesus, and would simply find another time, when the crowds were gone. They would get this Jesus yet, or so they thought.

But why the challenge in the first place? Why didn't they believe in Jesus? Why didn't they recognize his authority? Why didn't they listen to his preaching and teaching?

And why don't we (at least, not all the time)? These are good questions, aren't they? In our reading from Phillipians today, Paul warns them not to grumble or question. So are all questions bad? How about the rhetorical one's I'm asking now? Today – the question of questions, and questioning. I think we'll all agree, there are good questions and bad questions.

The bad questions are the questions of rebellion and sin. They are the questions that challenge rightful authority – and are really a challenge to God. This is the kind of question the Jews asked of Jesus. “By what authority....?” they asked, but it was less a question and more an attack, an assertion that he doesn't, in fact, have the authority to do what he does. They thought they were the ones in charge, but that had misused their authority. They ignored John's call to repentance, and they had no use for the good news of Jesus. They weren't interested in the truth, as much as in their own power and prestige, their own precious places of honor.

Jesus turns it around on them. He questions them, and thus exerts, rather than explains his authority. “I'll ask the questions, here” he says, and puts a tough one to them.

When it comes to our questioning, there are certainly good and bad questions. There are simple questions of information - “what's for dinner?”. There are questions of life-long importance, “will you marry me?” And then there are the questions of faith. “What must I do to be saved?” “Can God love even me?” “Do you believe this?”

The Jews ask Jesus a question which is really a challenge, a question of rebellion. Jesus asks them a question of faith. Did they believe in John or not? They took it as a political question, and gave a political answer, looking foolish in the process. But what Matthew reveals is their lack of faith in John's authority, and in Jesus' authority.

Do we trust Jesus' authority? Now there's a question. Our sinful nature sure acts like we are our own authority. We decide for ourselves what is right and wrong, according to the convenience of the moment, the pleasures at hand. Then we rationalize away our sins and faults and failings and blame others, blame situations, sometimes even blame God himself. But when the question is posed to us by God's law.... when we hear Jesus saying “Love God with all your heart, soul, mind.... Love your neighbor as yourself”. And when we ask ourselves how we measure up... then we go into a huddle, like the Pharisees. And what will our answer be?

We must answer honestly. We have failed our Lord. We don't love God or man as we ought. We have no good answer for our sin.

And the questions we ask, lacking faith in God, also are without excuse. Now, mind you, it's not that any question is bad. Certainly God's people have questioned, wondered, and sought answers from God. And when done in faith, such questioning is good and proper. Think of the 12 year old boy, Jesus, who questioned the elders at the temple. And they were amazed with his growing wisdom and stature. Or when we ask questions for learning, “what does this mean?” in our catechism... And even those questions of repentance, “Will you forgive me, O Lord?”. These are all good questions.

But when Paul says not to grumble and question, this is a different thing. This kind of questioning challenges and doubts God. It places our own wisdom above his. This is the questioning of pride, which seeks to make God answer to us, which puts God to the test. We are in no place to judge him, and yet we so often forget our place.

So how does God answer? To the bad questions – sometimes he does not answer. Like Jesus, “neither will I answer you”. Some questions don't deserve an answer, because they are not really questions but challenges. And God is not subject to us. Other bad questions get answers we might not like to hear. Questions of doubt and rebellion might be met with stern rebuke, or harsh words of law.

But those good questions – God answers them with Good News. His word is a treasure trove of answers for questions of faith.

Q: “Who then, can be saved?”
A: “With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible”.

Q: What will happen when I die?
A: Fear not. Christ is risen, and we too shall rise.

Q: Will God hold my sins against me?
A: Your sins are forgiven. Now go and sin no more.

Q: Does God really love me? A: For God so loved the world he sent his only Son.

All good questions, and the answers are good news. For when we come to God through Christ, in repentance and faith, we always find our answer. And that answer is Jesus Christ crucified for sinners like me.

“By what authority do you do these things?” they asked. Bad question. “Jesus, what word do you have for me today?” A good question. Hear today his word of forgiveness and love. And believe it, for his sake. In his name, Amen.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Sermon - Pentecost 19 - Matthew 20:1-16

Matthew 20:1-16
Pentecost 19
“A Very Different Kingdom”

“My kingdom is not of this world” Jesus once said. And if you had any doubt, take a look at the parables he tells about his kingdom.

Here we have another. The parable of the Workers in the Vineyard. As a story it's simple enough. Even the meaning is easy to determine. But fully appreciating the mysterious sense of Divine justice that lies underneath - this is something that takes great faith. For our Lord and Master is generous with us, and in Christ has given us more than what is fair.

The kingdom of this world is a kingdom of rules and laws. We live under them and know them well. You stand in line at the grocery store and get a ticket at the deli counter. First come, first served. When you get to a stop sign, the person there first has the right of way. And when you do your job, you expect every two weeks or so, for that little piece of paper you can take to the bank. It's the way the world works – you earn something, it's yours. Those are the kinds of rules we live by every day.

From the earliest child who utters those words, “hey, no fair!” to the citizen pursuing legal recourse in the courts of law – we have a keen sense of what is fair and what is not – especially when we feel we are bearing the brunt of injustice.

“It's not fair” we say, when a neighbor sins against us, and we are right. But Father always told us, “life isn't fair”. Is Jesus saying the same thing about life in his kingdom? Sometimes life treats us unfairly, people treat us unfairly, we should just toughen up and take it? Stop whining? Is that the point?

Our Heavenly Father is the Master who gives generously. The vineyard is his kingdom, the church, and we are the workers. What's important isn't so much how much or how long we work, but that we are his employees. We belong to him. He pays a wage we could never earn standing around outside his kingdom. It's really not a wage, you see, it's a gift. And while we all think we're the ones that have worked the longest and hardest, we should all see ourselves as the ones coming late and working least.

Scripture tells us what our good works are worth before God – filthy rags. No one is righteous, not one. We can't earn it, deserve it, or have it coming to us. We have incurred a debt of sin, but instead we often act as if God owes us! How foolish and arrogant. How like the sinner.

The only one whose work in the vineyard amounts to anything is the owner's own Son. In another vineyard parable, Jesus tells how the tenants mistreated the messengers and bloodied the servants, but when the owner of the vineyard sent his very son – they murdered him.

Yes the wages for the workers were won at the cross. Jesus' own precious blood, shed there for the world, worth far more than gold or silver or denarius or dollar.... he paid the price for the wages we really deserve- the wages of sin – the penalty of death.

And here's the secret of the vineyard, that really is no secret – Jesus does it all! He plants the vineyard, calls the workers, makes the fruit grow, and provides the harvest. He gives us strength for our tasks through his Spirit, wisdom to accomplish them, and a reward at the end we don't even deserve.

To which someone might say, “hey, not fair”. Not fair that he does it all, all the work of fulfilling the law, all the work of dying for sins, all the work of bringing us to faith, even, by his Spirit. In fact, our old sinful nature is always trying to take part of the credit for all this, trying to do the work, at least in part. But that's not the work we are called to do.

We are called to work, though. In this vineyard, there is the work of sowing seeds and tending vines. Teaching, preaching, showing mercy, encouraging, singing, cooking, cleaning, caring for children. What are your talents and abilities? In Christ's church there is always lots for us to do.

And outside of this church building, the church is still at work – we do what we are called to do in everyday life as service to God and neighbor. Fathers and mothers, employees, coaches, students, volunteers, whatever. Whatever God has given us to do, the Christian does in faith, and the work is done for God.

But none of it earns the reward. Not the heavenly reward, anyway. Here's another strange way of God's kingdom – the workers work for free. We do it because we've already been paid well more than we could hope to earn. Such is life in the vineyard, so is the way of his kingdom.

A very different kingdom. Where you don't earn your pay. Where you don't get what you deserve. Where God serves man. Where death brings life. Where the last are first and the first are last. And where sinners are made righteous because the righteous one took all sin. A kingdom not of this world – a kingdom not of fairness, but of grace.

All praise and thanks to the king, the Lord and Master, Jesus Christ, for calling us to faith and service. For his is the kingdom and the power and glory forever and ever. Amen.

Friday, September 19, 2008


Students of scripture have long observed the significance of the number 40 - a time of testing or preparation, a sojourn of sorts, after which something good usually happens. 40 years in the wilderness, 40 days/nights of rain to start the flood, Moses life divided into three segments of 40 years, etc...

My clever wife, thinking like a mom, heard a pastor making the point about the number 40 when she realized - "Pregnancy is 40 weeks! Hey, Jesus was 40 weeks in the womb, too, huh!" Not only did she see that after the 40 "something good" happens, but my lovely Lutheran lady connected it to Christ too. What a fun insight...

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Sermon - Pentecost 18 - Matthew 18:21-35, Genesis 50:15-21

Pentecost 18 – September 14th, 2008
Genesis 50:15-21 (Matthew 18:21-35)
“Forgiving in the Place of God”

If you've ever had anyone hurt you in life, you probably know what a grudge is. When you hang on to that hurt and hold it over that person who hurt you. When you bear anger for them and desire to see them suffer. Our memory is short when it comes to love, but a grudge can last a lifetime...

Joseph's brothers had hurt him. They sinned against him. They sold him as a slave, off to a foreign land, cut off from his family and everything he knew. They might as well have killed him.

But God was good to Joseph, and despite slavery, an unjust imprisonment, and against all odds, Joseph ascended almost to the throne of Egypt – second in power only to Pharaoh. His dreams and wisdom had insured Egypt would be well fed when the drought and famine came. God watched over Joseph, and blessed him beyond imagination.

So when his brothers came begging for food years later, when Egypt had much and Israel had little... Joseph tricked them into bringing the whole family to Egypt, especially his beloved father Jacob.

So far Joseph, a powerful man now, had not sought revenge against his brothers. But now that their father had died, they feared the gloves would come off. Perhaps he was holding his anger out of respect for Dad. But now dad's gone, and he'll give us what we deserve. In great fear, they sent word to Joseph with a mixture of deception about their dying father's wishes, and perhaps even genuine repentance for the wrongs they had done to their brother.
They even fell down before him in humility, asking for forgiveness.

And in a dramatic moment, Genesis concludes with this story of brotherly forgiveness and reconciliation.

Last week we heard from Jesus in Matthew 18, telling us “if your brother sins against you go and tell him...” Today our reading in Matthew continues with a parable about a servant unwilling to forgive, even after he himself is forgiven. That unmerciful servant stands in contrast to Joseph, who shows great mercy to his brothers. If the man in Jesus' parable is the example to avoid, Joseph is the example of forgiveness to follow.

But it hardly ever works out so neat and clean, does it? Life is messy, forgiveness is messy. We are not immune to grudge-bearing and miserly mercifulness. Too often we are like the unmerciful servant who wants to exact the price from his debtor, rather than Joseph who shows mercy to his brothers. Or we say we forgive but we won't forget – qualifying forgiveness in a way that Christ would never support.

There is the good example of forgiveness which shows us the model. Then there is the bad example which gives us stern warning. But then there is Jesus. And while some would make him into just another example, he is so much more than that.

Jesus, of course, is the fount and source of forgiveness. Without him, we have no forgiveness. With him, we have perfect forgiveness. Without him all we have is our outrageous debt of sin. With him – we have all the riches of God's grace. His cross and tomb and resurrection do not show us the way to act, they are the actions that win God's favor for us. When it comes to forgiveness, it's not so much “what would Jesus do” as “what DID Jesus do?”

For we are all the servant with the great debt. We are all the brothers who have offended the other. We deserve the retribution and the punishment of our Lord and Master. But the Master and Lord is merciful and kind, and he pays the debt himself, by sending his Son to suffer and die. And when we come before his throne, and beg, “have mercy on your humble servants”, he is quick to grant mercy, and more.

This forgiveness changes the heart. So where the sinful nature wants to avenge itself, the new man first seeks forgiveness. Where the Old Adam wants his own warped justice, the New Adam knows grace and acts in mercy. It couldn't be different than night and day. But it's a struggle that goes on within us, isn't it? And so we need forgiveness every day, as we ourselves struggle to trust in the promises of the gospel, and live according to it.

Not only are we the ones to ask for forgiveness, yes, but we the ones to give it on God's behalf! Joseph asks an interesting question: “Am I in the place of God?” The answer of course is no! (and yes!)

No – when it comes to God's judgment, “ vengeance is mine, says the Lord.” We are not the judge of souls or judge of faith. We are not the ones to mete out the punishments for sin, acting on our own accord to determine its consequences.
But yes! When it comes to sharing and declaring the forgiveness of Christ, we are most certainly in the place of God. For Jesus gave us this charge. When he appeared to his disciples on Easter Sunday, breathed on them and said, “receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any they are forgiven”. This is why the pastor forgives, “in the stead and by the command of” Christ. This is why the Christian consoles his brother with the promises of Christ, and forgives trespasses when others trespass against us.

So, more about forgiveness today – and as we learn from the bad example of the unmerciful servant, and the good example of Joseph, we see also the source of all forgiveness and life. Jesus Christ – the Lord and Master, who forgives his servants, and gives us, his servants, the charge to forgive others. For the forgiveness we need, we thank him. And for the hearts to forgive others, we pray his strength and Spirit.

Tuesday, September 09, 2008

Sermon - Pentecost 17 - Matthew 18:1-20

Pentecost 17 – September 7th, 2008
Matthew 18:1-20
“Jesus on Sin”

Today's reading really has four segments, each of which could be a sermon in itself. So as I struggled to choose a direction for our sermon today, I found myself looking for the common thread throughout this reading. And one word seems to stand out here: sin.

Whoever causes a little one to sin – it would be better for him to have a millstone around his neck and be cast into the sea.

If your eye causes you to sin – pluck it out.

The one sheep out of a hundred is lost, because of sin. And the master seeks him out.

And if your brother sins against you, go and tell him.

Sins bound on earth are bound in heaven. Sins loosed on earth are loosed in heaven.

Yes today Jesus is talking about sin. And if one thing is clear from all this, it's that sin is a big deal. It's a big deal for Jesus, and that makes it a big deal for us.

It's a serious matter. One of the things we sinners like to do is minimize the seriousness of sin. It makes us feel better to think that our sins aren't really so bad.

We minimize sin by comparing ourselves with other people, even with famous people. If they can get away with it, why can't we? If they're not so bad, then I'm ok too. Or – I'm not as bad as that person and my sins aren't as bad as her sins. But Jesus says the sinner should be concerned about his own eye, and the log there, rather than the speck in his neighbor's. In fact, if your eye causes you to sin, pluck it out!

Another problem we have is that our culture has changed, and continues to change, in its views about sin. In fact, the word is hardly heard anymore in public discourse. This is just another way of minimizing sin. We hear about people's “mistakes” and “imperfections” and “character flaws” and “foibles”. But don't say the “S-word” or you'll be seen as a bible-thumping fanatic.

Someone tell Jesus about that. Jesus isn't afraid to call sin what it is, and to warn us of its grave consequences. And I mean grave as in, it leads to the grave, and worse.

For who doesn't deserve the millstone treatment? Who shouldn't be plucking out his eyes, cutting off his hands? Which of us isn't, in our sins, a lost sheep straying from the fold? The problem is, we can't swim hard enough to escape the millstone's weight. We can't find our way back to the fold precisely because we are lost. And we could cut off every member of our body involved in sin and we'd have no body left. For sinful man gets his sinful desires from the heart – and how can we live without that?

No, a close and honest and scriptural view of sin and the sinner shows us that we are in big trouble, because sin is a big deal to God, and it should be to us too. It is no small thing, even the smallest of sins disqualifies us from paradise, and earns us the death sentence.

But thanks be to God! He does not leave us in our sins.

Jesus Christ, the Good Shepherd, seeks out the lost sheep. And we are all that one sheep out of 99. He comes not from the mountain but from heaven's high throne to seek and save us.

Jesus Christ is the one who takes our place when it comes to the millstone. He is cast into the depths of God's wrath for our sin, only to rise from deep, dark death on that bright Easter morning.

Jesus Christ is the one who cuts off not hand or plucks out eye, but gives his whole self – broken body and shed blood – as the sacrifice for our sins. And he gives us that same body and blood to sustain our faith so that we are never cut off from God's grace.

Yes, sin is serious business for Jesus, and so much so that he goes to the cross, scorning its shame, bears the punishment of our sins, and defeats death head-on for us.

And yet sin is still with us.

Jesus words about sin are not only about how sin is a problem for us, and how he has come to save us from it. But Jesus wants his forgiven, blood-bought people to know the consequences and take it seriously too. Forgiveness is free, yes, but it is not cheap. He paid a dear cost for our salvation. Sin is to be taken as lightly as the blood of Christ – not lightly at all!

And furthermore, he wants us to forgive each other. He wants us to apply the forgiveness he has given us to our brothers and sisters in the faith. Here we have the opportunity to forgive those who hurt and harm us – reconciling in peace for the sake of Christ. Matthew 18 should not simply be a slogan among us, but the real pattern of how God's people deal with each other's sins.

When your brother sins against you, stop talking to him? No.
When your brother sins against you, put him on your list of enemies? No. Take an ad out in the paper so everyone knows what he did? No. When he sins against you go ahead and get your revenge – do unto others as they have done unto you? Never. When sins happen, Christians seek reconciliation when possible. We seek out the sinner as Christ has sought us out. We win back the brother when possible, for the sake of Christ who has won us back from sin.

And finally, the reminder that sins forgiven (loosed) on earth are truly forgiven in heaven. When a Christian forgives another Christian, that forgiveness is real. And when a pastor forgives the repentant sinner, it's as good as if Jesus did it himself. You can take that forgiveness “to the bank”. Because that's what Jesus promises.

Yes, Jesus speaks of sin today in Matthew's Gospel, but Jesus never leaves sin as the final word. He, in fact, is the final word, the answer to and antidote for sin. He is the savior from sin. And where sin and death go together, so do forgiveness and life. And though we sinners sin daily and sin much, Jesus forgives freely and forever. Sin is a big deal. But Jesus is a bigger deal. Thanks be to God for Jesus Christ, who deals with sin for us, forever. In him your sins are forgiven, now go and sin no more! Amen.

Tuesday, September 02, 2008

Sermon - Pentecost 16 - Matthew 16:21-28

Pentecost 16 – August 31st, 2008
Matthew 16:21-28
“The Christ Must Suffer...”

We've been reading our Gospel Lessons from Matthew for a while now. And now we've reached a turning point in this book. For the first 16 chapters or so, Jesus is busy convincing his disciples, in word and deed, that he is the Christ. Peter puts the exclamation point on it with his great confession we read last week, “You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God!”.

And with the ah-ha moment reached, Jesus transitions his disciples, and us, the the second great truth of the Gospel. The Christ must suffer, die, and rise on the third day. Point 1: Jesus is the Christ. Point 2: The Christ must suffer, die, and rise. Both points important for the disciples' faith, and for ours.

For like Peter, we are tempted to miss the point, either point one or more often, point two. And what a contrast for Peter. He had just made his great confession, that Jesus is the Christ. Jesus commends him, but doesn't really give him the credit. This revelation came from the Father himself. But as soon as Jesus starts with the suffering and dying talk, Peter balks. “No way, Lord, not you, never”. And Jesus harshly rebukes Peter, even calling him Satan. For such anti-Christian thoughts come from Satan, and from sinful man, but not from God.

Yes, the idea that Jesus shouldn't suffer is from Satan. He tried it before, the devil did, tried to convince Jesus not to suffer. “Just throw yourself down from the pinnacle of the temple.... you won't get hurt. The angels will protect you.” And the implication then is that all would see and recognize him as the Messiah – the easy way. No pain, no fuss. We can only wonder how many times and how many ways Satan tried to tempt Jesus to forsake the way of the cross. But even using his own disciple.... now that's low.

But Jesus knows better. He gets away from that temptation – harshly and immediately. He rebukes Peter for such a suggestion. There is no easy button for Jesus. He knows the way of God is the way of suffering, of death, and only then of life. The way of the cross and of the resurrection. “The Christ must suffer, die, and rise on the third day”.

And we follow him. Not only in life, but also in death. Not only in death, but also in resurrection. And clearly, the way of the cross means that we follow him in self-denial, and yes, even suffering. There is no other way, for the Christian. Anything else is the thoughts of man, not the thoughts of God. Suffering goes with the program. There's a cross for each of us.

“If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me” Deny himself. Ah but when the going got tough, Peter denied Christ, so save himself. Not a shining moment either. We have our own moments. We're not always so great at carrying our crosses, and denying ourselves. But Jesus did it perfectly, of course. And though we stumble, turn back, shirk our burden and even deny him at times, he is merciful, patient, and forgiving.

Cross bearing doesn't always mean painful, torturous suffering, though it may. Ask the martyrs what it means to give up your life for your confession of faith. But most of us here will never face such a harsh reality. Still, we are called to self-denial. And this is a cross to bear. To give up our selves, that is, our old selves. To turn away from our sins, to order our lives with Christ as the head and focus. It may mean the pain of turning away from the worldly pleasures of sin. It may mean the sorrow of swallowing your pride and admitting your sins. Saying those hard words – “I was wrong”. Deny yourself. Follow him. Take up your cross.

But carrying one's cross after Jesus is also, in a sense, a burden that is light, a yoke that is easy. That's because Jesus has done the heavy-lifting. His own cross was the hardest. And it is finished.

For we do not follow a Christ who is all about glory and power and majesty and might (though he has all that). But we know the Christ who is about suffering and shame and lowly service and foot-washing and touching dead people and holding children on his lap.
A Christ who is not so distant that he can barely hear us, but a Christ who is so personal and so close to us that he becomes one of us, and remains one of us, and so stands for all of us before God. A Christ who eats with sinners and dies for sinners, and rises for sinners and feeds sinners with his body and blood – all for their blessing.

When we deny the Christ who suffered and died for us, and suppose that either we can save ourselves (like, through our good works), or that he will save us any other way other than the cross.... we might as well be Peter denying we know him. We should be rebuked for such satanic thoughts of man. Jesus is always our suffering servant, first in the kingdom because he made himself last, yes, servant of all.
He came not to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.

But when we deny ourselves, trust in and follow the original cross-bearer, and keep our eyes on him ahead of us.... Then we know the joy of giving up life to gain it, losing life to find it.

For the path he trod ahead of us also meant losing his life, only to find it again. And as we follow him, we too, even though we die, yet shall we live. Suffering and death are not the end for the people of Christ. We know that crosses lead to empty tombs – not just for Jesus, but one day for us too. And this is our hope in suffering. This is our peace in persecution. This is our joy in self-denial. This is the theology of the cross. That God's power is made perfect in weakness, suffering, even death. But that's not the end of Christ, or of us.

And so the Christ must suffer and die and rise. And so the Christian must follow – in self-denial, cross-bearing, suffering, death, and life. We follow Jesus, who has carried our burdens and gives us all good things. For he is the Christ, the son of the living God! Amen.