Monday, September 26, 2011

Sermon - Matthew 21:23-32 - Pentecost 15

Matthew 21:23-32
Pentecost 15
September 25th, 2011
“Mind Changing”

Today's Gospel reading from Matthew takes place during Holy Week. It was after the Triumphal Entry on Palm Sunday, when Jesus rode on a donkey and signaled with powerful symbolic action his arrival as the Messiah. It was also after his cleansing of the temple, driving out the money-changers. And while there he also healed some who were blind and lame. By word and deed Jesus was exerting his authority, his rightful authority, as the Son of Man and the Son of God come to His holy city.

Oh, and those of human authority didn't like it too much. The scribes and pharisees tried to trick him, trip him up in his words. Instead they showed themselves to be the fools. Outfoxed by the creator of foxes and pharisees. Jesus has authority to do these things and much more. He even has authority to lay down his life and take it up again, as he soon would. He has authority to forgive sins, and delegates that to his church and her pastors. But he doesn't answer to human blowhards and pompous men who think themselves something when they are nothing. He will not be fooled.

But Jesus still doesn't write them off entirely. He tells them a parable, which, had they ears to hear, would have set them in the right direction: The owner of a vineyard has two sons, and tells them both to go work in the vineyard. The first son says he won't, but changes his mind and goes. The second son says he will go, but never does. Now which of the two did the will of his Father?

The question behind the question isn't about the 2 sons, it's about what it means to be a son in the vineyard. It's about what it means for you to do the will of God, and to be a child of God. It's a comparison between people who think they have their act together, like the pharisees and scribes, and those those who change their minds and actually do God's will.

The pharisees were all talk. If you'd ask them how well they keep God's law, they'd likely tell you about all their good works. They'd tell you how they carefully keep the law and live a holy life. They give what the law requires, do what the law demands, learn it, know it, and follow it. Their self-assured piety and arrogant self-righteousness would hardly know any bounds. And they certainly would have given themselves good marks compared with the tax collectors and prostitutes.

But for all the appearance of goodness and holiness, that's not what was in their hearts. And that's not how God saw them. And that's not what they looked like compared with the perfect standard of his law.

You can see where we're going, cant you? What good church going member of Grace Lutheran wouldn't also tell you all about their credentials? I go to church, I volunteer, I give what I can. I try to be nice to people. I'm not perfect, but I'm better than those perverts and criminals. I don't beat my wife. I pay my bills. I'm a good citizen. And while all those things are nice and fine, they amount to little more than talk, talk. For that perfect standard of God's law leaves us nowhere to hide our sins. The darkness of our hearts isn't dark enough to disguise the evil that lurks within, and often peaks out into out lives. We may do a pretty good job of keeping up appearances, but what sinner doesn't say one thing and do another – when it comes to our own righteousness.

Jesus compares the two sons, and what do we see? the one who says the right thing – who appears to be together – who tells his Father what he wants to hear – but then does his own thing. But then there's that other who says he won't but later changes his mind and does his father's will. Changes his mind. In other words, repents.

That's what repent means – to turn around, do an about face, to change one's mind, indeed, one's whole orientation. It's not about doing penance, or making up for your wrongs. It's a change of attitude or spirit – a turning away from sin and toward Christ in faith. A turning from death to life. A turning from falsehood to truth, from self-righteousness to God-given righteousness.

This is why the tax collectors and prostitutes are better off. Not because of their sin, but because of their repentance. The pharisees had no repentance. John the Baptist made it plain to them – Repent! Still, they didn't think they had sins to repent for. But many big-time sinners who came to faith in Jesus did. They came crawling and crying in humble faith, to the only one who could and would forgive their grievous sins.

So which son did the Father's will? The first. That they got right. But which kind of son will you be?

The one that is talk, talk? The one that claims a righteousness of your own? The one that says, “I keep the commandments” and lives such a lie?

Or will you be honest that you haven't, that you don't, that you can't do God's will? Will you admit your sins, your wicked thoughts and words and deeds, and bring them to where they belong? To the cross of Jesus Christ? Repent. Change your mind. Let go, turn away from those sins, and turn in faith toward Christ who is our only righteousness.

And he will, and he does forgive you! This is his will. This is God's will. That sinners repent and believe in Christ. You want to do the will of God? It's not about the illusion that you can keep his commands. It's about the repentance and faith that comes as a gift from God himself – that he changes us, changes our minds and hearts and spirits – from utterly lost sinners to dearly beloved children. From dead men walking to eternally living.

Oh, and one other thing. Jesus still shares a table with repentant sinners. Come receive his gifts today, child of God, here at his altar. Amen.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Sermon - Matthew 20:1-16 - Pentecost 14

Matthew 20:1-16 
Pentecost 14 
September 18th, 2011 
“It's Not Fair!” 

The first will be last, and the last will be first, Jesus often says. God has a way of doing the unexpected, the opposite of what we think should be. He turns things backwards. Or maybe we are the ones who have things backwards.

In the parable of the workers in the vineyard, the workers find it all so unfair. When the master pays them the same as those who haven't worked as long, they whine and complain. They find the master's sense of justice doesn't always line up with their own. And we can relate.

For from an early age we gain a sense of what is far. How many times a day do my children tell me my parental policy or decision is “not fair”?

There's an online bank that runs commercials these days which use humor to show that “even a kid knows it's not fair...” the way some other banks treat their customers.

But when we find ourselves in a place to question divine justice, it's no laughing matter.

Since the days of Job and well before, humans have questioned God's sense of fair play. Today the militant atheists love to engage Christians in debate over how a supposedly good God can allow so much evil in the world. If you ever have a chance to engage such a person, beware – for they come to the battle well-armed. They are skilled at putting God on trial, putting his governance under the microscope, and revel in pronouncing him guilty of malevolent rule, that is, right before they deny he exists.

Even we believers question God from time to time. And often those questions come from suffering – our own, or someone we care about. Why does God let it happen this way? And if there has to be evil in the world, why does it come to my door? Why here, and now? We might be led to the conclusion that we did something particularly wrong or bad – worse than all the rest. But that's not so. We might be led to think that God simply forgets about us, but we know that isn't the case either. So is God just a fickle master? Giving and withholding his blessings here and there, with no rhyme or reason? And face it, don't we all think we would be a better judge of what is fair?

But who are we to turn our human sense of fairness against God? Yet that's what we do. When troubles come. When suffering finds us. When tragedy strikes. “It's not fair God!” we cry. At least in our hearts.

We, too, try to subject the Almighty to our own limited, sinful, self-deluded sense of fair play. But thank God you are not God! Thank God he, in his ultimate wisdom, and in his mysterious judgment, is the one who calls the shots. His ways are above our ways. His thoughts are higher than our thoughts.

The master in the parable scolds the servants who think that he hasn't been fair. After all, it's his money, his right to do with it as he sees fit. And he knows better than those servants do.

Likewise with us. If God were truly just with us, and treated us as we deserve - according to our sins, we would all receive the same for our day's work. We'd get “fired”, and I don't mean Donald Trump style. We would face temporal and eternal punishment. We'd go straight to Hell, do not pass go. That would be fair. For he set the rules up long ago – the soul that sins shall die. And we poor souls do a lot of sinning, and deserve death by the boatload.

But God is not only just, he is merciful. He must punish sin, and hold to his word, there is a price of blood – but the merciful God does not desire the death of sinners. So he provides for our salvation. He sends Jesus to pay the price – the wages of sin – death – the cross. There, Jesus bears the fires of hell. He swallows death whole and spits out the bones. He takes all the bad we deserve, and gives us all the good we don't deserve. Jesus blows fair play to smithereens, at least when it comes to us poor miserable sinners.

God doesn't pay rewards, so much as he bestows gifts – by his grace and mercy, for the sake of Christ. We all deserve the same – nothing, and worse. He gives us all the same – Christ, and all blessings.

And it doesn't really matter how long or hard we work. It doesn't matter how much scripture we've memorized, or whether we've gone to seminary, or whether we've had a conversion experience. It doesn't matter how little you think you sin, or how much you love your neighbor. Whether you volunteer at a soup kitchen, or deliver meals on wheels, or wash feet or wipe noses.. You need to do all those good works because he commands and because, well, you should. But they won't get you your spiritual payday.

Don't let all of that be a distraction from the real denarius – the gift of God's grace in Christ. The wage we didn't really earn. The salary we never ever deserved. God gives us what is right – not according to our sin – but according to his grace in Christ, who earned it all for us. That's his sense of fair play.

Oh, and He doesn't hand it out in the field or vineyard – but he distributes it here in his presence – in the word preached and proclaimed and in the sacrament given and shed for you. Here you line up with the other laborers in your corner of the kingdom. And here you receive the free grace in hand and mouth. Jesus Christ is that reward, and all the blessings that come with him.

So the next time you find yourself questioning God's fairness, do not grow angry or offended at your kind master, but rejoice. Rejoice that he does not treat us as we deserve, but for the sake of Christ, that he gives us good gifts galore. That he forgives our sins, restores our life, and promises us a future hope forever. And life's ups and downs, even the worst sufferings we face, will find meaning and perspective through Christ. We are here in the vineyard but a short time. But the reward is forever. And thank God it's not fair. In Jesus Christ, Amen.