Sermon for Easter 5 Narrative

Romans 1:1-17

After only two stories from the book of Acts, we move into Paul’s letter to the Christian communities in Rome, and we will be spending the next few weeks on this letter. The good thing about exploring one of Paul’s letters is that, rather than hearing stories about Paul from a secondhand source, that is, the author of the book of Acts, we are now hearing from Paul himself: what his concerns are as he writes to the Roman Christians and even a few tantalizing details about who he is and what his life is like. The bad thing about going through one of Paul’s letters is that it is a letter, and it is not written directly to us. It was written to a community of Christians living in the first century of the Common Era, and so there are things that both Paul and this community would have understood that we have to struggle with, because we are not living in that time and in that culture. Furthermore, of all of Paul’s letters, Romans is probably the most densely packed with his theology, and it has been formative for the Christian faith, especially for Martin Luther and the other Reformers. So, during these weeks, we’ll try to move through this slowly and see what Paul still has to teach us about Jesus through this letter.

Let’s then start with the background of this letter. If you were to read the book of Acts from beginning to end, you would find that much of it is concerned with stories about Paul. However, Paul was not the only follower of Christ out there telling people about Jesus. Acts gives us stories of Peter, Stephen, and Philip, along with people like Priscilla and Aquila. And, there were many more Christians out there who traveled around spreading the good news. Some of those Christians ended up in Rome, the capital of the Roman Empire, and founded Christian communities there. At the time Paul wrote his letter to the Romans, he had not yet been to Rome and he wanted to go, not only to visit the Christians there and impart some of his teaching, but also to ask for their financial help so he could make a journey to Spain to continue spreading the good news of Jesus Christ. So, if you were going to visit a community you had never before met and ask for their help, what would you do? Today we might send an email or make a phone call. In Paul’s day, they wrote letters. And this is what Romans is: a letter of introduction, telling the Roman Christians who he, Paul, is, what he is teaching about Jesus, giving them some direction based on what he has heard is going on in their communities, and then, at the end of the letter, making his plea for financial aid to go to Spain.

Just as our letters today have a certain form, or order, to them, so did letters that were written in the first century. Paul starts out by saying who he is and establishing his credentials: he tells the Romans what he preaches. Then he says who he is writing the letter to: “To all God’s beloved in Rome, who are called to be saints,” and then he greets them. The next section of our reading today is what is technically called an exordium, in other words, Paul is thanking God for the Roman Christians and complimenting them, saying that their “faith is proclaimed throughout the world”. As we go through this letter, try and remember that, because not only is Paul complimenting them on their faith, he is also putting them on notice that people are watching them. The behavior that other Christians and the rest of the world see in them will reflect how they live out what it means to be followers of Christ. Later in Paul’s letter, he will address some of the behaviors that he has heard about that are happening there.

Here I want to pause and reflect for a moment on Paul’s statement that the faith of the Christians in Rome is proclaimed throughout the world. The word used in Greek could also be translated as “faithfulness”, which gives the word a little different flavor than faith. Faith is not just a head knowledge. That is, faith does not mean only confessing that Jesus Christ is Lord with your mouth. Rather, faith, or faithfulness, also includes how our behavior is transformed by the good news of the gospel. How do our words and actions reflect the power of the Gospel for salvation to everyone? Can those around us see in both our words and our actions that we are Christians? If the apostle Paul were writing to us today, here at Salem and at St. John’s, would he say that our faith is proclaimed throughout the world? While it may not be necessary for someone to commend us for our faithfulness to the Gospel, I think it’s a good question for us to ask ourselves as we take stock of what we have been doing to spread the good news of Jesus Christ to our neighbors and what we might be able to do better.

St. Paul writes to the Romans, “For I am not ashamed of the gospel; it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who has faith, to the Jew first and also to the Greek.” The fact is, we should not be ashamed of the gospel, for it is powerful. If you were here during our Lenten midweek series, you will know that I and the other pastors have been encouraging the four congregations to write out our faith statements. I have followed up on that by sharing my faith statement during a sermon several weeks ago and also by asking individual members of the council to share their faith statements in council meetings as a way of practicing it in a safe space. I have heard a few people share theirs now, and they have moved me as I hear in awesome wonder how God works among us. That is the power of God for salvation among us, here and now.

The idea of salvation is another thing that we church folks need to discuss as we share our faith with others. Salvation is one of those church speak words that doesn’t mean a whole lot to people outside of the church. Those of us inside the church will automatically say that salvation means Jesus has saved us from our sins so that we might go to heaven when we die and live with him forever. That is not wrong and that is a big part of our faith. But we also need to remember that some of the early Christians, Luke especially, believed that salvation happened here and now, in this life, just as much as it does in the next. And the Gospel can effect salvation in the real world, too. As I was studying this week in preparation for this sermon, I ran across a story in one of the commentaries about a woman who came into the office of her religion professor mystified about something. At a low point in her life, she determined that she was going to commit suicide, and just as she was about to jump into the river, a verse of Scripture popped into her mind, “My life is not my own. I have been bought with a price.” What was puzzling her was that she said she was not a Christian and had not attended church. When the professor probed a bit, she remembered that her grandmother had taken her to vacation Bible school, where she remembered memorizing some Bible verses. Her professor smiled and said, “You see, God stored that gospel word in your heart, so that one day it would save you.” In this case, the Gospel had literally saved a woman from death.

Last week, I mentioned in the sermon that people may not have the word “sin” in their vocabulary any longer. So, if salvation happens in the here and now as well as for eternity, what does that salvation look like? Luke tells the story of Zacchaeus, that wee little man who climbed up a sycamore tree to see Jesus. Zacchaeus was a tax collector, and when Jesus went to his house to eat and the people complained, Zacchaeus vowed to give half of his possessions to the poor and to pay back anyone whom he had defrauded. And Jesus said that on that day, salvation had come to Zacchaeus’ house. So perhaps salvation today looks like those who have committed a crime working to restore what they have taken instead of languishing in prison, unable any longer to contribute to society. Or, perhaps if you are poor, salvation looks like having someone pay off all of your medical debt, as one church has done, so that you can climb out of poverty that much sooner. These are the kinds of things people in our society today want to be saved from: sentences in prison that don’t allow them to return to society easily; debts that cannot easily be paid off; illnesses that take a toll. And we have the power of God for salvation to everyone in the gospel of Jesus Christ.

That wonderful, powerful gospel sets us free: free from sin and free from the power of death. When we no longer fear death, we can be bold in the actions that God calls us to in Christ. We can look to the example of Arlington Presbyterian Church in Arlington, Virginia, who, faced with declining attendance and an aging building, decided to sell the property to make room for a multiuse building that will include a new space for worship, 173 units of affordable housing, and a nonprofit organization. Making affordable housing available is one way of proclaiming the gospel to those who are poor. Or, we can do things on a smaller scale: by sharing the good news of Jesus with the children who will come to Vacation Bible School, we may be giving these children what they need to withstand dark times in their lives, whether or not those children ever darken the door of our church on a Sunday morning. Even if our congregations eventually die, we still have the power of God—the gospel—for salvation to everyone, and God will use what we say and do to bring that salvation to all.

And so, I would like to close today with a short prayer written by Rose Tonkin for our evangelism efforts in Steelton, Oberlin, and Highspire. Let us pray:

 

He is Risen!! He is Risen Indeed!!!!

May the Power given to us by the Holy Spirit at our baptism, give us the courage to go into our neighborhoods proclaiming the good news of Jesus Christ. Amen, Let it be so!

 

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Sermon for Easter 4 Narrative

Acts 13:1-3; 14:8-18

Last week, we heard the story about how Peter recognized, through his vision of the clean and unclean animals and his visit with Cornelius, that God poured out the Holy Spirit not only on Jewish people, but also on Gentiles. In chapter 11, Peter got called up on the carpet by the Jewish Christian believers in Jerusalem for eating with the Gentiles, and so he had to explain his actions to them. He described his vision and how the Holy Spirit had fallen upon the Gentiles, and when the believers in Jerusalem heard his story, they were silenced. And then they praised God in wonder and awe, because God had decided to save Gentiles as well as Jews. With this, a wall began to break, and people began telling both Jewish people and Gentile people about Jesus, and more and more people became believers. One city, called Antioch, located in Syria, soon became a center for the early Christians, and the church there grew enough so that, when there was a famine back in Judea, this new congregation sent goods to the believers in Jerusalem to help them out. But things were still not safe for the early Christians. King Herod began to persecute them, and he had James, the brother of John, killed with the sword. Next, Luke tells us, Herod imprisoned Peter, but, in one of the funnier stories in Acts, God sends an angel to break him out of jail. When the guards couldn’t find him the next morning, Herod had them put to death. But Herod got his in the end: read the end of Acts 12 to find out about the gruesome death that he suffered.

And with that, Luke brings us back to Paul in chapter 13, who is with the believers in Jesus in the Antioch congregation. One day when the group was worshiping, the Holy Spirit told the congregation to set aside Barnabas and Saul—by the way, Saul is the same man as Paul; Saul is the Hebrew name and Paul is the Greek name—for the work that God had called them to. Thus begins Paul’s first missionary journey. Our reading today skips over the first stops on Paul’s journey. He and Barnabas first go to Seleucia, which was the port city closest to Antioch, and they set sail for Cyprus, which is the island south of what is today known as Turkey that is still fought over by Greece and Turkey. They have some adventures on Cyprus as they speak the word of God, including blinding a magician who tried to turn a Roman official aside from believing in Jesus. Then they sail from Cyprus and land in the southern part of Asia Minor, which is today known as Turkey. They continue preaching Jesus, first in the synagogues and then to the Gentiles. Luke includes a sample of their preaching in another Antioch, this one in the region of Pisidia. But they get run off from Antioch by people who don’t believe what they are preaching, and they travel next to Iconium, where the same thing happens. And so, they come to the town of Lystra, where today’s story takes place.

And this is where the story gets really funny. Paul, seeing a man who had been crippled from birth, and seeing that he had faith to be healed, tells the man to stand up on his feet. And the Holy Spirit works through Paul and heals the man. But the crowds in Lystra are largely non-Jewish, and so they have a different response to the healing than Jewish crowds would. Steeped in a culture that worshiped many gods, and that had many stories of those gods coming down to earth to visit human beings, the crowds interpret this healing to mean that the gods had once more come down to earth. They thought that Paul was Hermes, the god of communication—yes, even the crowds back then thought Paul talked a lot!!—and they thought that Barnabas was Zeus. Well, this is a huge problem for Paul and Barnabas—as good Jews, they know better than to claim that they are gods. And so, they tear their clothes as a sign of mourning for the blasphemy of the crowds, and they frantically tell the crowds that they are not gods, but that they bring good news of the living God, the one God who created them all. But even then, they barely keep the crowds from offering sacrifices to them.

The question now is, what are the things that we can learn from this story? It seems as though Paul and Barnabas failed in their missionary work here, as the crowds did not have the proper framework for interpreting what happened to the man who had been crippled from birth. There are two things that I see that we can learn, and these things are tied together in the way that we are called to witness to others about Jesus Christ. One thing is this: we need to learn to communicate to people in ways that they can understand. The other thing is this: we need to be brave and to use words to tell people about Jesus, and not just depend on the nice things that we do.

Let’s talk about communicating with people in ways that they can understand first. When the people of Lystra saw what Paul did in healing the crippled man and interpreted it to mean that Paul and Barnabas were gods, and when Paul and Barnabas saw that the people were about to offer sacrifices to them, Paul talked to them in general terms about the one, living God. He knew that these were not Jewish people, and he knew that he could not refer back to Moses and the prophets to tell them about Jesus, because they would not have heard of Moses and the prophets. All the people knew were those Greek gods that even we, today, had to learn about in school. So Paul says this: “We are mortals just like you, and we bring you good news, that you should turn from these worthless things (that is, the pagan gods) to the living God, who made the heaven and the earth and the sea and all that is in them. In past generations he allowed all the nations to follow their own ways; yet he has not left himself without a witness in doing good—giving you rains from heaven and fruitful seasons, and filling you with food and your hearts with joy.” In other words, Paul chooses the most basic thing that he, a Jew, and this group of Gentiles have in common: God created them both, and not the pagan gods.

When we are witnessing to people outside the church, we need to find the most basic thing that we have in common with them so that we have the best chance of understanding one another. Many people in our society today have not grown up going to church. They are not going to understand what is sometimes called church-y language, or church speak. The word “sin” may not be in their vocabulary, let alone justification by grace through faith. Their question is not going to be, “How do I get to heaven when I die?” but rather it is going to be something along the lines of, “How do I live a good life?” Or, “What is it that makes life worth living?” Therefore, we need to be thinking of answers to those questions that start at the most basic thing we have in common, but that move towards speaking of Jesus and why Jesus is important to us. For example, it could be something like this: “You know, I’ve asked those questions in my life, too. And I find meaning by helping other people, especially when I have things that I can share, like food and clothes. But I do this not because I think I am a good person, but because I believe in Jesus and his love for me. Jesus loved me so much that he died on the cross for me, and so I share his love for me through helping others however I can.” This starts at something basic that I have in common with the other person—I’ve asked those same questions—moves to something that the other person can probably understand—sharing things with those in need—and finally moves on to why I do this—because of Jesus.

And this brings me to the second lesson that we learn from Paul and Barnabas today. There is a quote that is attributed to St. Francis of Assisi that says, “Preach the gospel always. If necessary, use words.” First, St. Francis never said it. I don’t know how or why it was attributed to him, but it isn’t in any of his writings. And second, it’s a bad saying. Don’t ever say it again. Your actions, no matter how good they may be, can always be misinterpreted. Paul did a good thing by healing the crippled man, but it turns out, his actions were misinterpreted, and the people decided they wanted to worship him and Barnabas as gods. And I think the philosophy behind this saying is why our congregations are in the situation that we’re in. Too often, we have worked in our social ministries and helped others, hoping that our actions would prompt people to ask us about Jesus. Well, that didn’t happen. And so now we need to get bold and talk to people about why we are doing the good works we are doing. When people come into our buildings for food and clothes, we can strike up a conversation with them and ask them if we can pray for them. And don’t just say, “I’ll pray for you,” stop and pray with the person, right there, if they are okay with it. Let’s invite people to our worship service, and not just a “Come to church on Sunday,” but rather a specific, “Come and worship with me this Sunday. Do you need a ride? I’ll come and get you. And, I’ll sit with you and help you through the service if you’re confused about what’s going on.” This is how we build relationships with people.

Our reading from Acts today ends with what seems like failure on the part of Paul and Barnabas. But the Holy Spirit never fails. Paul and Barnabas were driven out of the city, and Paul was stoned, but he did not die. He and Barnabas continued on to Derbe and made many disciples there. They then returned to Lystra, and there they found believers in Christ. Some people were obviously affected by the words that Paul spoke, even though he was driven out of the town. Today there are ruins near where Lystra was, and a large part of the site remains unexcavated. But, in the ruins that can be seen, there is a church building. The Holy Spirit works, but often does not work on our timetable. So, keep witnessing to others about Jesus and build relationships. You may not see any results, but you never know if you will be planting a seed that will grow long after your initial encounter with the other person. Do not be discouraged, for the Holy Spirit is with you and is working in you. Amen.

Sermon for Easter 3 Narrative

Acts 10:1-17, 34-48

This week, we move from the Gospel of Matthew into the book of Acts. And that’s a little odd, because the Book of Acts was written by the same person who wrote the Gospel of Luke, as a sequel to that Gospel to show the beginnings of the early church. So even though Acts could still be looked at as a sequel to the Gospel, this author is going to have some different concerns as he tells the story than what Matthew’s Gospel had. And, we’re starting in the middle of the story of Acts, so I’m going to try to fill you in on what’s happened in the book so far.

The Gospel of Luke ends with a brief description of Jesus’ ascension into heaven, and Acts, its sequel, begins with a more detailed story of Jesus’ ascension. Jesus promises that the disciples will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon them, and they will be his witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth. Pay attention to that, because that is how Luke structures his book of Acts: by telling stories of how the disciples witness to others first in Jerusalem, then in Judea and Samaria, and then all the way to Rome. Jesus then ascends into heaven, and an angel comes and tells the disciples to stop standing around and get to work. The disciples first take care of some “administrative business” by choosing Matthias to take the place of Judas, who betrayed Jesus and died. Then, on Pentecost, the Holy Spirit descends on the disciples; we will come back to that story on June 9, which is when we celebrate Pentecost this year. In the next few chapters, Luke recounts stories of Peter and the other disciples preaching to the crowds and healing those who are ill, with many people converting and the Christian community sharing their goods with one another and caring for one another. Luke also tells about how the disciples get brought before the authorities to explain what they’re doing. In chapters 6 and 7 we get the story of Stephen, who is, according to tradition, the first Christian martyr. In chapter 8 the disciples are scattered out from Jerusalem because of persecution, and we get stories of Philip witnessing to others and the Holy Spirit converting people to belief in Jesus through him. Chapter 9 tells us the story of how Paul, who was the great persecutor of the church, came to believe in Jesus and began preaching to others powerfully about Jesus. And then we return to Peter, who has landed in the town of Joppa, and is ministering to the Christian community there.

So now I want to take a look at a couple of things that we might otherwise miss in today’s story of Peter and Cornelius. Cornelius was a centurion, a member of the Roman force that was occupying Judea and ruling over them. But, Luke tells us, Cornelius was a “devout” man. This means that, instead of worshiping the Roman gods like his fellow soldiers most likely did, he instead followed the Jewish God. That means that, as again Luke tells us, he gave alms generously to the people and prayed constantly to God. There were people like this among the Romans: those who found the Jewish faith appealing, but who would not convert because of the requirement for men to be circumcised. So, here’s this Roman centurion, doing his best to follow what he knows of the God that the Jewish people worshiped and performing his duties as a soldier, when suddenly he sees a vision of an angel telling him to send for a man named Simon Peter. And so Cornelius sends his men on the 33-mile trip from Caesarea to Joppa.

In the meantime, in Joppa, Peter is also having a vision, but his vision is of a sheet full of animals, both clean and unclean. Peter is an observant Jewish man, and God has laid out in the Torah a list of animals that can be eaten and a list of animals that cannot be eaten. Among those considered unclean are, for example, pigs: so no bacon, ham, or pork products of any kind. Also not acceptable for eating are animals like the eagle, vulture, weasel, mouse, crocodile, gecko, and various other birds, rodents, and reptiles. Peter has had these rules drilled into him since he was a little boy, and so when he sees this sheet full of animals that are both clean and unclean, and hears the voice telling him to kill and eat, he is naturally horrified. Lord, he says, I have followed your law all my life; I will not eat anything unclean. And then God says that what God has made clean, Peter should not call unclean. This happens three times, and then the vision ends. Of course, Peter is puzzled. What does God mean to tell him? That it’s now okay to eat anything? That doesn’t seem right.

It is at this point that the messengers that Cornelius sent to get Peter arrive. Now, we who live so far removed from this time and place don’t always get how frightening this would be. For Jewish people, especially Jewish Christians who knew that they could be persecuted for their faith, this might be the equivalent of having a state trooper arrive at your doorstep. Even if the trooper has come for some reason other than to deliver bad news or to arrest you or someone in your house, your immediate reaction is going to be one of extreme fear. But, when the messengers tell Peter why they’ve arrived, Peter begins to think that God might be revealing what that vision he had was really about, and on the next day, he goes with the messengers to see Cornelius.

And here is where the really important part of the story comes. Peter states that it is unlawful for a Jew to associate with or visit a Gentile, that is, a non-Jewish person. This is an overstatement of the matter: Jewish people did interact with Gentiles on a regular basis, but they did so with care, so that they would not be seen to be worshiping idols or eating prohibited foods. But up to this point, the Christian movement had largely been a Jewish sect, and non-Jewish people had not been included. But as Peter preaches Jesus to Cornelius and the other Romans there, the Holy Spirit falls upon them, and Peter realizes that this is what the vision of the animals was about: God gives the Holy Spirit to everyone, Jewish or not, and Peter realizes that he cannot withhold water for baptizing these new believers in Jesus Christ.

So, what does this mean for us today? Well, I’d like to approach that by telling a story. Last week, when I was visiting friends in upstate New York, I went to church on Sunday with my friend in Utica. We went to Grace Episcopal Church, and this is what I experienced there: Utica has been very open to having refugees resettle in their city, and at Grace Church, I saw many people worshiping there who were Karen. The Karen people are a minority group who originate from Burma and who have been persecuted by the Burmese government. In the church, the Karen people were fully accepted and appreciated in the congregation. They sang a song in their native language during the service, and they participated in the large choir. Grace Church is also very welcoming of LGBTQ people, of whom my friend is one, and at the lunch afterwards I observed people welcoming him, conversing with him, and laughing with him. The fact that he is gay was not an issue for these people who loved him as a fellow Christian, just as there was love and acceptance shown to all the different ethnicities who were present on that day. And, as a guest, I was also welcomed and fully included in the conversation around the table at the luncheon.

This is the kind of community that we should aspire to be. Now, my friend did tell me that, like any congregation, Grace is not perfect, and they still have some work to do. But from what I saw last Sunday, they have done a wonderful job welcoming everyone who comes to worship with them and supporting those in Utica who are not with them on Sundays without regard to race, gender, sexual orientation, and so on. In our communities of Steelton and Oberlin, however, we have a longer road to walk. Right before I left on vacation, it was brought to my attention that there is a refugee family from Syria, living in Steelton, who has been experiencing harassment from people in Steelton. Despite intervention from the school district and the police, and despite a supportive presence to walk alongside the family from volunteers in the community, the harassment has continued, and the family has decided to relocate. Funds are being raised to help the family as the father looks for work and the family decides where they can safely relocate; I will have the information available after worship if you would like to donate to this cause.  We as Christians need to do more to witness to God’s love and to act to show God’s love in our communities, so this kind of thing does not happen again.

On that long ago day in Joppa, Peter and the Jewish believers who had gone with him were very surprised at who God welcomed into the kingdom. I bet that God will surprise us, too, on who God welcomes into the kingdom. We will be astounded when God seats us at the banquet table next to someone who we did not treat well in our lifetime. Our call from God is to love everyone, not just our Christian sisters and brothers who think like we do, but also our Christian brothers and sisters who believe differently from us, and not just our white neighbors, but also our black neighbors, our Karen neighbors, our refugee neighbors, our LGBTQ neighbors, our Jewish neighbors, our Muslim neighbors, and so on and so forth. In short, EVERYONE. Any time we draw a boundary between us, Jesus is there behind us tearing down that boundary. Therefore, let us love our neighbors and welcome them regardless of who they are or where they come from. Amen.

To donate to help the family mentioned in this sermon, please follow these instructions:

Online at the National Resource Center on Domestic Violence webpage (NRCDV is the fiscal sponsor for the Community Responders Network)
  • Go to www.nrcdv.org, Click the Donate Button on the top left
  • Choose either the Donate with PayPal or the Donate with a Debit or Credit Card option
  • Enter the amount of your donation
  • In the “Special Instructions to the seller” section, type in “For the Syrian family”
  • Complete the rest of the section
Checks can also be written to CRN, with “Syrian Family” in the memo line and sent to
CRN
c/o NRCDV
6041 Linglestown Rd.
Harrisburg, PA 17112

 

 

Sermon for Easter 2019

Matthew 28:1-10

Earthquakes don’t scare me. I lived in Taiwan for 2 ½ years, which is an island formed by tectonic plates rubbing up against one another. In other words, earthquakes there were very frequent. Most of the time they consisted of everything shaking and the feeling of being very unsteady on your feet, but they were over before I had time to be afraid. Some of the bigger ones did scare me a little bit, especially the time I was up on the 13th floor of a building tutoring some students in English, and the building started swaying and I ended up with a monstrous headache. The last earthquake I felt was in 2011, when I was at seminary working on my approval essay before my senior year began and there was one with its epicenter in Virginia that was felt up the Appalachians. I looked around as the shaking started and said, “Wow. I think that’s an earthquake.” But again, it was over before I really had time to be afraid. And I don’t feel anything that’s below a 4.0 on the Richter scale anymore.

Somehow, though, I think I might have been afraid of the earthquake that Matthew describes in his account of the resurrection. Mary Magdalene and the other Mary—we’re not sure which Mary Matthew means, here, as there were many women in the New Testament who were named Mary—go to the tomb where Jesus had been buried at the dawn of the first day of the week. And suddenly there was an earthquake, caused, it seemed, by the angel of the Lord descending from heaven as he came and rolled back the stone and sat on it. I kind of imagine the angel sitting there with his arms crossed and one leg over the other and saying, “What you looking at, punk?” And the guards that had been stationed there were so afraid that they passed out. Big, scary, guards from the Roman occupation—passing out from fear at the sight of an angel. But you know who didn’t pass out? The women. These women had been with Jesus when he was crucified. They had seen how the Roman soldiers had tortured him to death. They had watched when Joseph of Arimathea had taken Jesus’ body and placed it in the tomb. And they had returned to the tomb that morning, in spite of the presence of the Roman soldiers, because they were determined to give Jesus the rites of mourning demanded for a dead relative. And nothing, not even Roman soldiers or an angel from heaven, was going to stop them.

This doesn’t mean, however, that the women were not afraid. In fact, the angel tells them not to be afraid, which is usually the first words out of an angel’s mouth when he encounters human beings. The difference between the women’s fear and that of the men was this: the women were simply not going to let their fear get the better of them. If they could watch their beloved teacher be tortured to death, then an earthquake and an angel would be nothing to them. And because they did not let their fear rule them, these women received the best news, the most incredible news, that anyone could ever receive: Jesus is not here, for he has been raised. You need proof? Come, see the place where he lay—he’s not there anymore. Go quickly and tell his disciples, who, by the way, are letting their fear get the better of them and are hiding out somewhere. The women, those brave women who were not going to give up, did as the angel told them to do. And as they ran with fear, joy, and a budding, trembling, hope within them, Jesus himself met them on the road. I can’t even imagine the joy they must have felt when they saw Jesus. Now, they really have proof: more than an empty tomb, more than the angel’s word, powerful as that angel might be—it is Jesus himself who meets them. And they can do nothing better than to fall at his feet and worship him. And Jesus tells them not to be afraid—it’s a natural reaction when someone you have seen die a horrible death comes to life and stands before you—but he tells the women to tell his brothers—his disciples are now called his brothers—to go to Galilee, for there Jesus will meet them.

Every year, when we celebrate Easter, we hear the majestic music announcing this, Jesus’ victory over death, and we celebrate with great joy. We shout out that Christ is risen, he is risen indeed! We sing those Alleluias that we were forbidden to say for six long weeks with vigor. But by the time Easter is over—and the season lasts for seven Sundays, one week longer than Lent does—we start to get tired of this. Christ is risen, he is risen indeed, is repetitious, and we want nothing more than to move on to the next season of the church year so we don’t have to say it anymore. Life returns to normal. The worries of everyday life take over again. We become fearful for the future of the church once more. Our loved ones still get sick, and they may die. So how do we keep Jesus’ resurrection in our lives when the celebration fades?

I think the Apostle Paul can help us out here with the section that we have today from his first letter to the Corinthians. There were some in the Corinthian church who were saying that there was no resurrection of the dead. I’m not quite sure why they were saying that—the Corinthian church was what in today’s slang is called a hot mess—they had lots of issues that Paul wrote to them about. Paul argues that if the dead are not raised, then Christ has not been raised. And, he says, “If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins. . .. If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied.” We can’t explain the resurrection of Jesus. People have tried over the years, and there is simply no satisfactory explanation. Therefore, we proclaim that it happened, that God has power over death and Jesus has proclaimed victory. And while we do follow Jesus’ teachings in this life, we know that because Jesus has been raised, we, too, have that promise of victory over death and of eternal life. Remembering this promise is how we keep that resurrection joy in front of us always as we live our lives here on earth.

And because we have that promise of resurrection from Jesus himself, it makes a difference in how we live our lives today. We do not need to fear death, because we know that death is not the end: we have been promised eternal life because Jesus has conquered death for us. So, we can be bold in showing God’s love for others in sacrificial ways. We can start by getting out of our comfort zones and talking to other people about Jesus and about his great love for us. With such an amazing God, who loved us so much that God sent Jesus to die on the cross for us, and not only to die, but to live again so that we, too, might live again, how can we not share this news with everyone in our lives? Of course, it doesn’t stop with telling people about Jesus. We also need to walk the talk by living as Jesus has taught us to live: caring for those in need, caring for this earth which God has given us, and serving one another in love. And with this promise of resurrection, we know that, no matter what troubles we face from day to day, this is not the end. God’s love wins. Every day.

So, live with that courage that Mary Magdalene and the other women showed, as they stood by Jesus through his crucifixion and showed up at his tomb on that first day of the week. Have that courage strengthened because you know that death cannot harm you, for you have the promise of resurrection and eternal life through Jesus Christ. Live with joy and joyfully share the good news of Jesus with everyone you encounter from day to day. Live with the love that Christ has given each and every one of us, and serve one another with love for the sake of the love that God has shown us through Jesus Christ, who lives eternally and has promised us that resurrection life. Show everyone through your words and your actions that Christ is risen, and because he lives, you too will live a full and abundant life. Christ is risen! He is risen indeed! Alleluia! Amen.

 

Good Friday Homily

Matthew 27:27-61

Tradition says that Jesus spoke seven words from the cross. That is what our worship service tonight is centered around: those seven last words that Jesus uttered. What we don’t always remember is that those seven last words are taken from four different gospels, written by four different people who, although inspired by God to write Jesus’ story, had different viewpoints about who Jesus was and what he came to earth to do. And so, it is beneficial for us to read the crucifixion account from each Gospel’s point of view, to see the differences in how they interpreted Jesus’ death on the cross. And since we’ve been working our way through the Gospel of Matthew this year, I would like to speak about Matthew’s account of how Jesus died.

According to Matthew, Jesus said only one sentence from the cross, and that sentence was actually a question, ripped out of Jesus’ throat just as the nails ripped through his flesh: “Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?” which means, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” When Jesus uttered that desperate cry, he had already been hanging on the cross for about three hours, and this after a night when he had been tried, beaten, spit on, and then, early in the morning, had seen his people call for his death, had watched the Roman governor wash his hands of him, had been mocked with a purple robe and a crown of thorns, and then been nailed to the cross. There is a difference, I think, between knowing that you are going to die and then experiencing it, especially experiencing the cruelty that human beings can inflict on one another. Is there any wonder that Jesus would think that God had forsaken him in the midst of all of that suffering?

We wonder how Jesus, who was divine and who knew that this was going to happen to him, could still cry out and wonder how God had forsaken him. I don’t know the answer to that question; it is a holy mystery that we are left to ponder. But here we see Jesus in his full humanity, not afraid to cry out in his pain and his agony, to cry out to the God who has been with him his whole life and who now seems to have deserted him, and it is a witness to us as well. If even the Son of God on the cross felt free to cry out and wonder where God is in the midst of suffering, then so can we. When we are in the hospital after a surgery and we are in pain and fear despite the medications that we have received, we can cry out to God. When we who have been healthy our whole lives go to the doctor and discover that we have cancer that cannot be cured, we can rage at God and ask why God has forsaken us. When we are feeling alone and lost, we can cry out to God and ask where God is. If Jesus can do it, then certainly we who follow Jesus can do it as well.

And here is the good news: God hears our cries. It certainly didn’t seem like God was anywhere around on that day when Jesus was crucified. But if we look more closely at Matthew’s account, we will see signs of God’s presence. We look for God in the supernatural events that accompanied Jesus’ death: the ripping of the curtain in the temple from top to bottom; the earthquake and the splitting of the rocks; and the raising of the saints who had died (which only the Gospel of Matthew mentions). But even more than that, God was present in the women who stood by Jesus as he died: Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James and Joseph, and the mother of James and John, as well as other women who were there. God was present in the man Joseph of Arimathea, who boldly went to Pontius Pilate and asked for the body of Jesus so that he might bury it in his own new tomb. God did not forsake Jesus on that day; God was with Jesus and suffered in him and with him.

That is good news for us as well. When we cry out to God and ask why God has forsaken us, the answer comes back that God does not forsake us. God is always with us through those times when we are lost, scared, and hurting. When we cry, God understands what we are feeling, intimately, and God weeps with us. God is with us in the community which surrounds us with love and prayer. God is with us always, and nothing—not even death—can separate us from that love of God, which is found in Jesus Christ, our Lord, who suffered and died for us on that cross.

This week, the cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris was partially burned in a fire that initial investigations have revealed to be connected to renovations that have been going on. It was heartbreaking to see this happen to such an old, old cathedral that is a marvel of architecture and engineering even today. But what was moving to me was to see the picture of the interior of the church, where, amidst all the rubble still on the ground, the cross on the altar still stood as a beacon shining in the dimness. That is what Jesus’ death on the cross means: we have a God who is near to us even when all seems lost. God suffers with us. God is still with us amidst the rubble that happens in our lives. God weeps with us. God loves us. And God gives us hope that this is not the end of the story. Look upon the cross tonight and see there your Savior. Look upon the cross and see how much Jesus loves you. Amen.

Maundy Thursday Homily

John 13:1-17; 31b-35

This week it has been St. John’s turn to host Family Promise, and it also happened to be the week of the month when the Harrisburg Area Youth Initiative meets. So, the youth group decided that they would make the meal for the participants in Family Promise, and they also gathered to hear from past participants about what Family Promise was and how it worked in their lives. And I was very happy to hear that they really enjoyed coming to St. John’s, because the volunteers, both at St. John’s and from the other three churches in SOHL, treated them like family; eating with them, our kids playing with their kids, talking with them, and generally making every effort to make sure they were comfortable and taken care of. And one thing that Michael, one of the participants, said stuck with me. He told the youth that if they were going to volunteer with Family Promise, they should make sure they were doing it because they truly wanted to and not because it was some duty that they had to do. The participants in this program, he said, can tell the difference between people who truly care for them and people who are just there out of duty. He said that those who were volunteering out of duty made it clear in their attitudes that they were doing them a favor and would not eat with them, whereas those who showed care for them did what St. John’s has been doing. First of all, I want to say that I am so proud of all of you who have volunteered for this program and showed such love and care for the families who have come through our doors. But second, and most importantly, I think this illustration is a good lead-in to tonight’s Gospel text, where Jesus washes his disciples’ feet.

We’re going to step back in time for a moment to try and understand the cultural context of what Jesus was doing when he was washing his disciples’ feet. And the first thing to note is that a free person would never wash another person’s feet. For a host to offer hospitality to his guests, the proper procedure would be to give them a basin of water and let them wash their own feet. If the host were particularly wealthy, he might have a slave do the duty of washing his guests’ feet. So, when Jesus washes his disciples’ feet, he is doing something that just wasn’t done: he is taking on the role of a slave. Is it any wonder, then, that Peter was so shocked and protested that Jesus should never wash his feet? The only reason that a free person would wash someone else’s feet would be to declare his or her utter love and devotion to that person. Jesus is declaring to Peter and the other disciples his complete love and devotion to them; that passion that would send him to the cross in just a few short hours.

But did you ever notice something about the foot washing scene? Jesus washes the feet of Peter, who he knew would deny knowing him, and of Judas, who he knew would betray him. The example that Jesus is setting for his disciples is this: the love and devotion that Jesus shows for them includes them even when Jesus knows their flaws. Beloved in the Lord, Jesus has the same love and devotion for you and for me. He knows our flaws; he knows the times when we will deny him; he knows the things that we will do that will betray him. And yet, Jesus loves us so much that he reduces himself to the position of a slave in order to wash our feet.

And after this, Jesus tells his disciples, and us many centuries later, “So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you.” Twenty-one centuries later, in a completely different culture where foot washing does not have the significance that it did in 1st century Palestine, we debate what this means. Loving one another does not mean just being helpful to one another and volunteering at different events because we think it is our duty. Loving one another as Jesus loves us starts with something like sitting down for a meal with the participants in the Family Promise program and getting to know them as human beings. Loving one another as Jesus loves us means that, in a long-standing argument where grudges are held, one person humbles himself or herself, admits that they were wrong, and asks for forgiveness from the other. Loving one another means giving of oneself sacrificially so that the other person might be better off. Loving another person means loving that person completely and without anything held back, even when you know that person is going to deny or betray you, and even when you know that person has so many flaws that irritate you or make you angry.

This is the way that Jesus loves us: completely and without holding anything back. This is the message that he was conveying to his disciples when he washed their feet before he went to the cross. And no, washing feet today does not hold quite the same significance as it did then. But I think it can still be a meaningful experience as we try to understand the power of what Jesus has done for us. So tonight, after we sing our hymn, I would like to invite anyone who wishes to come forward and have their feet washed. Come and experience a physical reminder of what Jesus has done for us. Amen.

Sermon for Palm Sunday 2019

Matthew 21:1-17

Today marks a highly anticipated moment in our culture. Today is the day when we start the final leg of the journey to discover who the true king is going to be. We’ve been on this journey for a long time, and we can see that the end is in sight. There’s going to be all sorts of drama and violence coming down the road, but in the end, everything will be revealed, and we will find out who will sit on the throne and rule the kingdom. Yes, today is the first episode of the final season of Game of Thrones on HBO. For those of you here today who are not familiar with this show, it is a TV adaptation of a series of novels written by George R.R. Martin, set in a fantasy world but whose inspiration comes from the Wars of the Roses that took place in medieval England. In Game of Thrones, a king has come to power after dethroning the previous king, who had gone insane. But when this king dies, it sets off a series of conflicts and of violence as different factions in the kingdom of Westeros, plus the daughter of the insane king who is living and ruling in exile, vie to gain control of the Iron Throne and of the country. And it’s not all that different from the world in which Jesus and his disciples lived, in 1st century Palestine.

So, let’s set the scene. The Romans have occupied Judea since the year 63 BCE, when they wrested control of the country from the Maccabees, who had been ruling for about 100 years before that. Now we’re about in the year 30 or so CE. Unlike many countries around the Mediterranean, who welcomed Romans as the bringers of order and civilization, the Jewish people did not appreciate the Romans at all. They remembered with longing the times that they had ruled themselves, and they yearned for someone to save them from the oppression of the Romans. Now we’re approaching the festival of Passover, a holiday which celebrates God’s liberation of God’s people from Egypt, another country who had oppressed them. In Jerusalem, the atmosphere is tense as Rome increases its military power to keep the population under control, and the Roman governor himself, Pontius Pilate, is in residence as an added sign that Rome is not going to tolerate any nonsense from its subjects.

Into this scene comes Jesus. Now, it would be easy to say that the Jewish people were expecting a Messiah who would liberate them from Rome, and given the political situation with the overtones of the Passover holiday, that would seem to help us understand why the people welcomed Jesus on the day he rode into Jerusalem and then were calling for his crucifixion by the end of the week. But, as with many things in history, it’s just not that simple. Some people thought that John the Baptist was the Messiah, and—I actually learned this in an article I read this week—there is still a group of people who believes this today, who are called the Mandaeans. Some were expecting a priestly Messiah, and others were expecting a military figure. Some people thought the archangel Michael was going to be the Messiah. And still others thought the prophet Elijah would usher in a messianic age. Still more thought the Messiah would be a shepherd.

So, what was Jesus doing when he rode into Jerusalem on a donkey that day? Well, according to Matthew, he was fulfilling the prophecy spoken in Zechariah about Israel’s king coming to them humble and riding a donkey. This is important, so let’s stay with this image for a moment. In ancient Israel, horses were only used in warfare. When it came to tasks like plowing or pulling carts, oxen and donkeys were the animals of choice. For Jesus to ride in to Jerusalem on a donkey signifies that yes, he is a king, but he is not a military king. He is a king who will usher in his kingdom in peace. This most likely means that he is not there to forcefully overthrow the Roman occupiers. But if he comes in peace, and his kingdom is one of peace, the question among the crowds is probably going to be: how exactly will he be a king?

Let’s then turn our attention to those crowds who are shouting out, “Hosanna to the Son of David.” We think the word “Hosanna” is a word of praise. We sing it whenever we have our communion liturgy: Hosanna in the highest. The account of Palm Sunday is where we get that from. But “Hosanna” is not a word of praise. “Hosanna” means “save us”. The crowds were shouting to the Son of David, “Save us!” But from what did they want saving? Well, let’s look at all the different expectations of what the Messiah was going to do. I’m sure there were some who wanted Jesus to save them from the Romans and to liberate them from their oppressors, just as Moses had liberated them long ago from the Pharaoh of Egypt. Perhaps there were some who had heard stories of how Jesus had miraculously healed people, and they wanted to be saved from the oppression of their illnesses. That would fit in with the later part of the story, where, after Jesus clears the temple of the money changers and those who were buying and selling, people came to him and he healed them. But it’s really hard to know what was in the minds of the people on that long ago day.

However, here’s one thing that we can be certain of: Jesus does not fit our expectations of what a king should do. Instead of entering the city of Jerusalem in glory on a magnificent horse, Jesus comes in riding a humble donkey. Instead of kicking the Romans out of the holy city, he clears out the temple to make room for people who are seeking to be healed from their illnesses. Instead of gaining power in the ordinary ways that people gain power, Jesus teaches the people in the Temple, seeking to transform the minds and hearts of the people who hear him. And, finally, instead of a glorious seat for a throne, Jesus will be enthroned on a cross, a gruesome form of Roman execution, and it is there that God’s power is made perfect in weakness, as the apostle Paul wrote in his first letter to the Corinthians. Jesus is a king who gains power not in human ways, but through his love for all of humanity and his apparent weakness as he dies on a cross.

So, what does all of this mean for us today? Well, first, let’s ask ourselves: when we cry out to Jesus, “Hosanna!” what are we asking Jesus to save us from? The standard answer in church is “our sins,” and of course, that is a good answer. But do we really and truly believe that Jesus has set us free from our sins? Because if we do, then we should be shouting out this good news from the rooftops. As I was working on this sermon this week, Jehovah’s Witnesses came to my door to invite me to their Good Friday service, which they called “the annual commemoration of the death of Jesus Christ”. Now, I don’t agree with the theology of the Jehovah’s Witnesses at all. But I do admire them for being brave enough to go door to door and invite people to come. They clearly think that they have something worth sharing with people around them. And guess what? We do, too! We have the good news that Jesus has saved us from our sins. We have experienced the salvation of Jesus Christ first hand. We should be excited to come to our church building on Sunday mornings to worship this one who has answered our cries to save us. We should be smiling, laughing, crying—and those emotions should be bubbling over as we speak to other people about Jesus and invite them to come and experience what it is like to worship a God who loves us enough to go to the cross and die for us.

But even more than that. Jesus came as a king into Jerusalem on that long ago day, but he came as a king of peace. And Jesus introduced his reign in Jerusalem by clearing the money changers out of the temple and making room for people to come in to the temple to be healed of their diseases and to listen to him teach about what God was like and about what the kingdom of heaven was going to be like. In other words, he made room for people to come closer to God—the God who loved them so much that he became flesh in the person of Jesus Christ and died on the cross for them. We, as Jesus’ followers, are also called to go and make disciples, to make room for people to come close to God, to love them, and to teach them; to pray for them and to help them. This is what Jesus calls us, his disciples, to do.

As we turn our attention from Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem and begin to focus on the events of his Passion, it is appropriate for us to remember what kind of king Jesus intends to be. He has come as a king, yes, but as a humble, servant king, one who wins the hearts of his people by making room for them to come close to the God who loves them. As we meditate on Jesus’ passion this week, let us reflect how, as Jesus’ followers, we can tell others about this servant king who loves us so much that he died for us, freeing us from our sins. Let us reflect on how we can make disciples by first making room for them to come closer to God who has already drawn near to us through Jesus Christ. And let us consider how we might sacrificially serve one another as Jesus first served us. Amen.

 

Sermon for Lent 5 Narrative

Note: Last Sunday we had a joint worship with other area Lutheran congregations, and I was not preaching. Thus the jump from Lent 3 to Lent 5.

Matthew 25:31-46

Today we come to the last in the series of parables that Jesus tells of what the kingdom of heaven is going to be like. So, for context, first remember that Jesus tells this parable, along with the parable of the talents that Pastor Mike preached on last week, as well as a parable about 10 bridesmaids, during the days after he has entered Jerusalem triumphantly on a donkey. Jesus is coming closer to the day when he will die on a cross, and he is doing some final teaching before these events begin to happen. But, for more immediate context, we need to return for a moment to chapter 24. And chapter 24 starts out with Jesus’ disciples standing in awe of how large the stones of the temple are, and Jesus’ response being, “Truly I tell you, not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.” The disciples ask him what the sign of his coming will be, and Jesus starts in on the list of wars and rumors of wars; nation rising against nation, etc., and all of this being just the beginning. He continues with more signs of what will happen, and at the end of chapter 24, he tells the disciples to be ready. And then he tells the series of parables about the bridesmaids, the talents, and today’s parable of the sheep and the goats. So, these parables are a continuation of Jesus’ teaching to be watchful and to be ready, “for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.”

So then, let’s focus in on our parable of the separation of the sheep and the goats that we have in front of us today. I remember when I was on internship that my supervisor preached on this passage one Sunday and said that, if those who usually came to the church looking for financial assistance would come during the week when he was preparing to preach on this text, they would find him more receptive to their pleas and more willing to give them money to help out whatever their need was. And indeed, this is my first response to this parable as well: I frantically search my memory and see what I have done in recent days and weeks to feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, welcome the stranger, clothe the naked, care for the sick, and visit those in prison. That person who came to my office looking for help the other day—did I give her enough money to help her out of her financial jam? Should I have given her more? How long has it been since I’ve gone through my closet and donated clothes to a place that takes those donations? Or maybe I should just go out and buy some new clothes to give; after all, how often do people in need get new clothes? Is there anyone in the hospital that I’ve neglected to visit? How are our shut-in members doing? And then, my final frantic question is this: O Lord, how do I know that what I’ve done is enough? Have I done enough to end up on the sheep side rather than the goat side? How will I know?

But here is something that I don’t think we always notice when we talk about this parable. Neither the sheep nor the goats know that what they are doing or not doing, they are doing or not doing to Jesus. Let me say that in another way: when the Son of Man comes in his glory and he says to the sheep, “for I was hungry and you gave me food,” and so on, the response of the sheep is, “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry,” etc. Those who are separated into the sheep category did not realize that what they were doing, they were doing to Jesus. Feeding the hungry, giving drink to the thirsty, welcoming the stranger, visiting the sick, and so on and so forth, was just something that they did. It was an automatic response: you see someone in need, you help them. And that is how our Christian faith is supposed to operate: if we are truly following Jesus and if his teachings are truly becoming a part of who we are, then it is only natural that we help someone in need to the best of our ability.

When we look at the parable in this way, I think it takes off some of the pressure and the frantic need to take stock of what I’m doing or not doing. Jesus knows, after all, that we are human beings and that the problems in the world are greater than any one of us. Jesus also knows that we are sinful and that we will miss opportunities, deliberately or not, to help those who are in need. But in the end, if our faith compels us to help more often than not, and if we trust in Jesus to see us through those times that we mess up, we will be good with God.

Now, let’s look at this parable from another lens. As we have journeyed through the Gospel of Matthew, we have seen many stories that Jesus tells where, in the end, the good will be separated from the bad. But, while we are here on earth, we will not always be able to tell one from the other, and therefore we should leave the judging up to God. It’s the same thing with the sheep and the goats. Depending on the breed, age, and state of wooliness, it can be very difficult to distinguish between sheep and goats. It’s the same thing with human beings. People very often present one image in public and a different image in private. In public, a person could seem to be the kindest human being ever, but then could go home and be abusive towards family members. Or, the reverse: in public, a person could be the most obnoxious, curmudgeonly person we have ever seen, and yet, in private, this person could be bringing food regularly to the homeless person who lives nearby. Therefore, we are not the ones called to judge what is in a person’s heart; only God is, and so, as part of our Christian faith, we are called to leave the judging up to God and simply to live out our walk with Jesus by serving one another.

Finally, here is a third lens that we can see this parable through. In congregations that use the Revised Common Lectionary, which we used to do, this parable is heard on Christ the King Sunday, the end of the church year. Yet, in its context here in Matthew, Jesus tells this parable and then, in the next chapter, the events of his passion begin to happen. So, let’s consider the parable this way: Jesus says that whatever we do to the least of those among us, we do to him. And then we turn the page, and Jesus literally becomes the least among us. He is clothed, and his clothes are taken away from him as he goes to the cross. He starts out full and with his thirst quenched, but then, on the cross, he becomes thirsty and all that is given to him is sour-tasting wine. He starts out in the story as a free man, but he becomes a prisoner, and instead of standing by him and visiting him, his male disciples run away.

The most common mistake that Christians have made through the centuries, when meditating on Jesus’ crucifixion, is to weep and say, “If I had been there, I would have stood up for him. If I had been there, I would have cared for him. If I had been there, I would have stayed by his side.” But that is presuming that, in the moment, we would have known who Jesus was, and that is a pride-filled presumption that we make. We could very well have been part of the crowd that yelled, “Crucify him!” We could have been the Roman soldiers who stripped Jesus, beat him, and nailed him to the cross. We could have been the male disciples who fled the scene for fear that they might be crucified, too. We like to pretend that we are civilized and that we know better, but deep down, we all have the potential to treat our brother and sister human beings as mercilessly as Jesus was treated on that long-ago day.

So, for example, when we hear of someone who is executed for his crimes, instead of feeling pity or praying for his family, who, along with the victims of the crime, are suffering, we say, “He got what he deserved.” Instead of advocating for our government to feed the hungry, we cheer when the government cuts back on those programs and condemn those who are hungry for being lazy and not wanting to work, without even hearing their stories. Instead of welcoming and aiding the stranger, we build walls and tell people to go back where they came from, without realizing that going home would mean their certain deaths and not asking what role our country might have had in creating the circumstances which caused them to flee in the first place. Any time we do any of these things, we are doing this to Jesus, who is found in the vulnerable people of the world.

Maybe we all need to step up our game a bit. Remember in the parable that Jesus told, the sheep did not know that they were sheep and the goats did not know that they were goats. We may think that we are sheep, but in reality, Jesus is saying that we’re leaning more towards the goat side of the spectrum. So, yes, feed the hungry; give drink to the thirsty; clothe the naked; visit the sick; welcome the stranger; visit those in prison; do all of this as you have opportunity in your daily faith life. But also remember, in your devotions, how Jesus became the vulnerable one on the cross, and ask in your prayers if he might be calling you to do something more: to speak to those in power about how we as a larger community treat those who are vulnerable. This is the challenge of discipleship that Jesus gives us. Believing in Jesus does not mean cheap grace. Believing in Jesus means repenting and experiencing a transformation in our lives as we follow him. And we will fail: we will miss opportunities and we will be deliberately sinful, because we are human beings. But Jesus will be there to catch us when we fall, and the Holy Spirit will be with us to urge us onward. Amen.

Sermon for Lent 3 Narrative

Matthew 22:1-14

This morning, we have yet another parable in Matthew as Jesus describes what the kingdom of heaven is going to look like to the people who are listening to him. Last week, we heard him compare the kingdom of heaven to a landowner who paid the workers he hired late in the day the same amount of money as he paid the workers whom he hired first thing in the morning. After Jesus tells that story, he tells his disciples again that they are on their way to Jerusalem, and that he will be handed over to the chief priests and the scribes, where he will be condemned to death, then crucified, and then on the third day he will be raised. We don’t have any record of the disciples’ immediate reaction to this news, but James and John, the sons of Zebedee, must have said something about it to their mother, because Matthew tells us next that the mother of these two disciples comes forward and requests that her sons would sit at Jesus’ left and right hand when he comes into his kingdom. Jesus tells her that she doesn’t know what she’s asking, and that it is not for him to grant that request. The other disciples hear what has happened and they get angry, and Jesus tells them that whoever wishes to be great among them must be their servant, for that is what Jesus has come to do. As the group is leaving Jericho, Jesus heals two blind men. Then, Jesus enters Jerusalem on a donkey with the crowds singing, “Hosanna!” We will return to that story on Palm Sunday in a few weeks. Now Jesus is in Jerusalem, and in these days before he is crucified, he drives the moneychangers out of the temple and then he teaches—a lot. So, for context, it is important to remember that when Jesus speaks today’s parable, he is in Jerusalem in the days immediately before he is taken by the authorities and crucified.

And sisters and brothers, Jesus has told some odd parables up to this point in Matthew, but I have to say that this is probably one of the oddest. We have a king who has invited guests to a wedding banquet given for his son, but when they are called, they refuse to come. And not only that, these guests mistreat the king’s slaves who were serving as messengers and kill them. The king gets angry, and in revenge, sends his army and destroys the ones who killed his slaves. Think for a moment how the wedding couple must feel: on what should be a joyful occasion for them, their guests refuse to come and the king slaughters everyone. If it were me, I don’t know if I would feel very joyful, and the memories of my wedding day would be haunted by this violence. And, to top it all off, the king sends his slaves out into the streets to gather anyone they find to come in to the banquet. So, not even the people who were supposed to be friends of the couple were rejoicing with them, but instead, complete strangers that the slaves just dragged in to the hall. And, finally, there’s a guy who comes in and is not wearing the proper attire. Rather than have him simply escorted out, the king orders this guy to be tied up and thrown into the outer darkness. This is a very strange wedding banquet indeed. And this is somehow supposed to resemble the kingdom of heaven? I think it resembles an episode of The Twilight Zone more than the kingdom of heaven; just substitute Rod Serling for Jesus and there you have it.

So, what is Jesus trying to say with this parable? Well, first, let’s remember that a feast is used several places in our Holy Scriptures as a metaphor for the time when God will come and be with God’s people forever. The verses that we heard read out of Isaiah 25 today describe the feast of rich foods and well-aged wines that the Lord will spread on the mountain for all peoples, and where he will wipe away all tears and death will be no more. If that sounds familiar to you, it should: we have the same imagery in Revelation, and these passages often get read at funerals. Given also that Jesus is speaking this parable after his entrance into Jerusalem, when he knows that he will die in a few short days, it’s probably safe to say that this image of the wedding banquet is an image for that time when God will be with us forever and when all will be well.

So then, why wouldn’t the people want to come to this banquet? And why would they mistreat and kill the messengers who asked them to come? And why would the king be so enraged that he would send his troops out to kill them? This is where I think we need to be careful and to remember the context of this parable. Jesus has just entered Jerusalem. He only has a few more days before he is going to be crucified. And in Matthew’s version of the story of Jesus, Jesus has grown up as a refugee, with a very rigid view of people who are good and people who are bad. So it is very possible that, when Jesus first told this parable in Matthew’s version, he is envisioning those among his people who have not listened to his message. This is one of those parts of Scripture that I don’t think carries over well today. I don’t believe God is calling any of us to go out and destroy people who don’t listen to the invitation to come and hear Jesus, and I don’t believe that God does that either, and so I think we need to leave this part of the parable back with Jesus and his original audience in 1st century Palestine.

It is, instead, the next part of this parable that I would like for us to focus on: “‘Go therefore into the main streets and invite everyone you find to the wedding banquet.’ Those slaves went out into the streets and gathered all whom they found, both good and bad; so the wedding hall was filled with guests.” In the midst of this frightening parable about people who ignore a king’s invitation and kill the messengers, and about a king who destroys those people, we find a message of grace. Everyone, both good and bad, is invited and is gathered in to the wedding feast. And this is the part of the parable that still resonates for us today: we are called to go and invite everyone we find to the wedding banquet. It doesn’t matter who they are: the mayor of the town or the homeless person begging on the street; the woman who seems to have everything together in her life or the man addicted to opioids. We Christians are called to go out into the streets of our neighborhoods and invite all whom we find into the wedding feast.

But here’s the thing: in order for people to want to come in to the wedding feast and to receive that unconditional grace that God gives, we need to give them the message in words they can understand. If you were with us last Wednesday evening, then you heard Pastor Mike speak about what the Gospel is. The Gospel is the good news of Jesus Christ: “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent and believe the good news.” The good news is God’s unconditional love and grace for each person here and every person in the neighborhood, both good and bad. The good news is not this: “Come to church with me on Sunday, because we have lots of nice people that you can get to know and be friends with.” People can get that at Planet Fitness, or the Kiwanis Club, or the Lions Club, or even their local bar. No, this is the good news: “Come to church with me on Sunday and hear about our Lord Jesus. Jesus has given me such grace in my life and such unconditional love, and I want you to know that love, too.”

Again, if you were with us on Wednesday night, Pastor Mike had us start working on our statements of faith. This is the idea where you imagine that you’re in an elevator with someone, and the person says, “I see you’re wearing a cross. Do you actually believe in this Christianity stuff? Why?” And you have 5 minutes or less to give that person an answer before one or both of you leaves the elevator. What do you say to that person about why you believe in Jesus? The answer to that question is your statement of what you believe, and it is also the definition of evangelism: telling other people the good news of Jesus Christ. This is how we invite people in to the banquet hall, and it is how God works through us to fill the banquet hall with guests, both good and bad.

But then, at the end of this parable, we get one more sour note: the expulsion of the person who wasn’t wearing a wedding robe into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. No one quite knows what this part of the story is about. But, here’s the best guess that I’ve heard: Matthew’s Jesus does not believe in cheap grace. Cheap grace is the idea where, even though you’ve received this incredible grace from God, it does not transform your life. You still go about doing the bad things you’ve always done, but you don’t struggle to change your ways; rather, you just say, “Oh, I’ll go to church on Sunday and God will forgive me.” The incredible grace of God, who takes you just as you are, should not leave you unchanged. Rather, that grace and the faith which God gives you should shine forth in everything you do, and that faith is revealed as you allow God to work in you to change your ways. A dramatic example of this would be the Holy Spirit’s conversion of Paul from one who persecuted Christians to one who preached the good news of Jesus Christ. The man without the wedding robe most likely represents someone who has not allowed his life to be changed by the grace he has received from God.

For those of you who were not present on Wednesday night, I would like to ask you, when you go home and in your devotions this week, to write out your 5-minute statement of faith, something that you would share with someone in an elevator. In the coming weeks, in upcoming meetings and maybe even in the service on Sunday morning, I am going to start asking people to be ready to share their statement of faith with the congregation. And I will get the ball rolling by sharing with you what I wrote on Wednesday night:

Growing up, my family moved around a lot. But the one constant for me, wherever we went, was going to church on Sundays. Each week I went and I heard how much Jesus loves me; so much that he went to the cross and died for me. As I became an adult and continued moving around, I knew that Jesus was always with me, calling me forward into the next place to serve him, giving me community everywhere I went. His love sustains me and guides me through this life, through both the good and the bad. I know that I am in his hands, no matter where I am, and he loves me. Amen.

Sermon for Lent 2 Narrative

Matthew 20:1-16

Last week, we heard Jesus comparing the kingdom of heaven to a king wanting to settle accounts with his slaves. Today, we hear Jesus comparing the kingdom of heaven to a landowner who hires people to work in his vineyard. In between these two parables, this is what has happened in Matthew’s story: Jesus has taught about when divorce is acceptable, which is not often; preachers today shudder when that section comes up in the lectionary. Then comes the story where the disciples try to prevent the little children from coming to Jesus, and he rebukes the disciples and blesses the children. And then we have the story of the rich young man who comes to Jesus and asks what he must do to have eternal life, and Jesus responds by telling him to go, sell his possessions, give to the poor, and follow him. And the rich young man walks away grieving, for he has many possessions. All of these stories are fascinating in and of themselves, but today we are going to focus on Jesus’ parable of the workers in the vineyard.

And, as with Jesus’ parable last week, this parable also raises many questions in our minds. What is up with this landowner, that he didn’t know from the start of the day how many workers he would need in his vineyard? And what is up with all of these workers that are looking for work still in the middle of the day? Did the landowner not see all of them at the start? Were some of them caring for their families in the first part of the day and only later going out to the marketplace to see if they could earn money? Did they come from a neighboring village and only arrive after the landowner had made his first round or two of the marketplace? And how on earth does this story resemble what happens in the kingdom of heaven?

We have these and probably other questions about this parable as well. And over the years, we Christians have allegorized this parable to mean this: the landowner represents God, or Jesus, and those who have been hired at the start of the day are perhaps those who have been Christians their whole lives, while those who have been hired at the end of the day have only just converted on their deathbeds. And God gives grace to each and every one, no matter when or how they came to believe. It’s not a bad interpretation of this parable, and this interpretation does teach us not to be resentful of those who come to faith late in their lives. But, you know, that’s probably not how Jesus’ original audience heard this story of the landowner and the vineyard. And if we go back and try to reconstruct how Jesus’ first audience might have heard this parable, I believe that there is still much that we can take and use in our lives of faith.

So, let’s start with this landowner who keeps going out and hiring day laborers to work in his vineyard. He goes out first thing in the morning and hires those who are waiting to do the full day’s work, and he agrees with them that he will pay them the usual daily wage, which is a fair bargain. Then he goes to the marketplace again, finds more people standing around, and hires them as well, making an agreement that he will pay them “whatever is right”. And I think this is the key to helping us understand this parable, this phrase, “whatever is right”. In our modern capitalist economy, we would tell the landowner that those who are hired later in the day and work less than the first ones hired should earn less money. After all, the landowner needs to maximize his profits, and we can’t have people thinking they can just come and work for an hour and get a lot of money for it, right? That only promotes the idea of people being lazy. But here’s the rub in this parable: “whatever is right” in the kingdom of heaven has nothing to do with maximizing profits. God is not a capitalist. Instead, Jesus tells us, the kingdom of heaven is concerned that everyone has enough to live on. And so, even though some of the workers in this parable have only worked an hour or two in the vineyard, they, too, get the usual daily wage—which is enough for them to live on; enough for them to go home and feed their families. So these workers are made equal to those who have been working the whole day in the heat of the sun, who also, by the way, have the usual daily wage—enough for them to go home and feed their families.

What if, instead of this being a parable about salvation, it was originally intended as a story showing how we are to love our neighbors in the kingdom of heaven? And what if loving our neighbors means that those employers who follow Jesus should have more of a concern for how their workers are living than they do for their own profits? It seems to me that this is just as much a valid reading of this parable as those readings that treat this as a story about who is saved. And if we believe in God’s grace, then God’s grace should extend into every facet of our lives, the material as well as the spiritual. I think we understand that when we give food and clothes to people in need free of charge. But I don’t think that we American Christians understand that God’s grace and the kingdom of heaven should permeate everything we do, including how we operate within our economic system.

What if our employers today were concerned with not only how much money they were making, but also whether they were treating their employees fairly? We hear stories about the big companies who don’t always do right by their workers. I have friends who I call “Walmart snobs” who won’t shop at Walmart because the employees often aren’t paid enough to live on, and who give me a hard time because I still shop at Walmart. We also hear about the billionaires like Jeff Bezos and others who have made a fortune on companies like Amazon, but whose employees often have to utilize local food pantries because they don’t earn a living wage. In the kingdom of heaven, Jesus is saying with this parable, the employers make sure that everyone who works for them has enough to live on, regardless of who they are or how long they have been working. And the employers will find that any profits they make will be enough for them to live on as well.

But this parable is not just about those big bad employers. It is about the reaction of the employees as well. The workers in the parable who were hired first and who bore the brunt of the work in the hot sun grumble when they don’t get paid more than those who worked for only an hour or two. When we are in the role of the worker, this parable is also calling us to love our neighbor by wanting them also to receive enough to live on. So, for example, did you know that in the United States, women still earn, on average, about 80 cents for every dollar a man makes? For the same work? And the gap is even worse for women of color. This parable of the laborers in the vineyard is calling on us, as workers, to love our neighbor by advocating for them with the employer, calling on the employer to pay the same amount of money for the same work, regardless of gender or race. And also to advocate for laws at the local, state, and federal level that ensure people get paid equally for the same work, regardless of gender or race.

The kingdom of heaven is like a generous landowner who pays the workers in his vineyard the same amount of money regardless of who they are or how long they have worked. The kingdom of heaven is also like workers who do not grumble about how their neighbors are treated equally with them, but who are happy that their neighbors have enough to live on and who advocate for their neighbors when they do not have enough to live on. The kingdom of heaven has, obviously, not yet come in its fullness. But we pray in the Lord’s Prayer for God’s kingdom to come. And Martin Luther writes in his explanation to this petition of the Lord’s Prayer that “God’s kingdom comes on its own without our prayer, but we ask in this prayer that it may also come to us.” In other words, we are not responsible for bringing in God’s kingdom—God is. But, as followers of Jesus, we are called to participate in the coming of that kingdom, however imperfectly we do so. And we are called to look for those opportunities and to be bold in seizing them.

Now I know many of you here today are retired and, therefore, are no longer directly affected by discussions about what a living wage is and how men and women are not always paid equally for the same work. But, as I mentioned before, you can still advocate for those who are in the workplace and who may be struggling to make ends meet. First, pray and ask God how God might be urging you to speak on behalf of others who may be working and yet not earning enough to live on. And then, follow through on how you feel God is urging you to act. And for those of you who are still working, I know that it might not always be safe to speak up in your workplace. But again, pray and ask God how you might be able to act on behalf of your neighbor or even on your own behalf. And if there’s anyone here today who owns a business, now might be a good time to take stock and see how those who are working for you are living, and to do what you can to make sure they have enough.

Following what Jesus calls us to do is not easy. These parables that Jesus tells often make us squirm with discomfort, especially when we realize that we maybe have quite a bit to do in order to improve our walk with Jesus. But the good news is that Jesus is always by our side, forgiving us when we mess up, and encouraging us to try again. As we journey with Jesus to the cross this Lent, may we continue to prayerfully ask what Jesus would have us do to help and to love our neighbor. Amen.