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.

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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.

Sermon for Lent 1 Narrative

Matthew 18:15-35

From the mountain of transfiguration last week, we have now descended back to the valley and are back to following Jesus as he begins to move toward Jerusalem on his way to the cross. Between last week and this week, these are the stories in Matthew that we have jumped over: on the way down the mountain, Jesus has taught the three disciples who came with him that Elijah, who was said in the Scriptures to come before the Messiah, had indeed come in the form of John the Baptist. Then, they encounter a man whose son suffered from epilepsy, and whom the disciples could not heal, and Jesus, after first expressing frustration with the people’s lack of faith, heals the boy. Jesus again tells the disciples that he will be killed and on the third day rise again. Next, Jesus teaches Peter about whether it is appropriate to pay the temple tax. Then we come to the first part of chapter 18, where the disciples ask Jesus who the greatest is in the kingdom of heaven, and Jesus puts before them a little child and says that whoever is humble like that little child is the greatest. He further teaches that if anyone puts a stumbling block before “one of these little ones who believe in me” it would be better for that person to have a millstone tied around his neck and to be drowned. Then he tells the parable of the shepherd who leaves the ninety-nine sheep on the mountain and goes after the one who has gone astray. And then, finally, we come to today’s section of the gospel.

And I think that these rules for how to deal with conflict in the church are a good extension of this idea that Jesus does not want any of his people to be lost. The first line says, “If another member of the church sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone.” What an interesting idea: talk to the person who has offended you directly! Don’t go to another person and start gossiping about what the first person did, and don’t extend the gossip so that there’s a whisper campaign going on against that person. Talk to the person and say, “I was hurt when you did this.” I would guess that a great percentage of conflict in our congregations could be resolved fairly quickly if we just followed this first step. But sometimes that doesn’t work, and when that doesn’t work, Jesus gives us next steps to follow, including bringing witnesses along with you when you have the conversation with the person who has given offense. But, here’s another idea: don’t bring with you only people who are favorable to your side of the story, because when that happens, the person is going to feel ganged up on and will just dig in on her position. Instead, bring one witness who is favorable to you and a person who is either neutral or favorable to the other side. And if the procedure keeps going and you are forced to shun the offender, that doesn’t mean that you stop reaching out to the person and trying to bring her back in. And I think Jesus’ next teaching on forgiveness makes this point quite well.

Peter comes to Jesus and asks him how many times he should forgive another member of the church when he sins against him. I think he’s probably questioning this procedure that Jesus has just laid out for resolving conflicts in the church, because, after all, how often should we forgive someone who keeps doing the same thing wrong over and over again? And Jesus says, “Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times.” This could also be translated as seventy times seven. In this time and this culture, seven was regarded as the number of perfection or completeness. So Jesus is not saying that you literally have to count 77 times or even 490 times of forgiving someone. He is saying, rather, that you simply keep on forgiving one another. And then he tells a story to illustrate this point.

It’s a rather disturbing story, too, when we think about it. First of all, remember that Jesus is comparing the kingdom of heaven to what happens in this story. Up until now we’ve had comparisons of the kingdom to things like mustard seeds, and weeds growing among wheat, and yeast in leaven. Those are confusing images that we struggle with, but they are generally benign images from nature and from everyday work. Now we have a king who wished to settle accounts with his slaves. And the particular slave that we hear about owes him ten thousand talents. Let’s think about this for a moment. A talent was worth more than fifteen years’ wages of a laborer. Now multiply that by 10,000, and you get a sum of money that the slave could only pay off by working 150,000 years. It’s an astronomical sum, one that we can’t even imagine. How did the king let his slave get this far into debt? Because if this person is a slave, you can bet that the king knows about this. Did someone loan him the money? And why? Was it some kind of business investment that the slave carried out on behalf of the king, and then it went sour? And if so, why is the king demanding this money back from the slave who he knows will never be able to pay him back? Threatening to sell the slave and his family is something the king can do because he has the power to do so: no matter how valuable the slave and his family are, he’s not going to get ten thousand talents for them. But when the slave begs, the king decides to forgive him the debt.

Then the slave goes out from there and encounters a fellow slave who owes him a hundred denarii. A denarius was the usual wage a laborer received for one day’s work, so it is much more possible to pay back a hundred denarii in one’s lifetime than it would be to pay back ten thousand talents. But instead of forgiving his fellow slave the debt as his master had forgiven him his debt, this slave had no mercy on his fellow slave and threw him into prison. Why did he do this? A hundred denarii would have been a tiny drop in the bucket towards paying back the debt that he owed his master, and that had been forgiven him. Perhaps he wanted to show his power over someone as the king had showed his power over him. But in this case, he chose the wrong use of his power.

And his fellow slaves noticed this, and they knew all about the large debt that the king had forgiven him, and they went and told the king what had happened. The king was enraged, and he chose to exercise the same power that the slave had exercised, and he threw the slave into prison—to be tortured—until he would pay back the entire debt. Let’s imagine that for a moment. That would be 150,000 years of torture. And then Jesus ends this parable with this sentence: “So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart.”

Wow. I mean really, just wow. I have really struggled with this parable this week, especially after I preached on Ash Wednesday that God is merciful and shows mercy to us both when we humble ourselves and when we are full of ourselves. It caused me to ask myself if I had forgiven everyone in my life who had ever hurt me. Have I forgiven the kids who bullied me when I was in the sixth grade? Have I forgiven my parents for making me go to camp with those same kids when I begged them to let me stay in the classroom and do busy work instead? And what about those situations where it’s not healthy to forgive the person who’s hurt you, like when a husband abuses a wife or when an adult abuses a child? Or those situations where a woman has been raped or trafficked for sex and can’t see any way out other than to kill the person who’s done this to her? I’m not sure that I can handle a kingdom of heaven where, if I fail to forgive someone, then God will not forgive me.

And yet, this is what we pray in the Lord’s Prayer every week. “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.” Do we realize what this means? We are asking God to forgive us our sins in the same manner that we forgive other people. So if there’s something I’m not forgiving, for example, my sixth grade bullies, does that mean that God will choose not to forgive some sin that I have committed? And if so, which one does God not forgive? And what does that mean for me?

So, let’s take a step back for a moment and again look at the context for Jesus telling this parable. The first part of chapter 18 is all about how we are to go in search of those who are lost and how we are to take care not to put stumbling blocks in front of one another. Then, we get Jesus’ teaching on how to resolve conflicts in the church. And then, Peter asks how many times we should forgive one another. I wonder if Jesus is taking Peter’s question to its logical, and somewhat absurd, conclusion by telling this parable. If we put limits on forgiveness, saying that I will only forgive you seven times, then God will do the same thing and put limits on how much God forgives. And that’s ridiculous, because if we say that God is a loving and merciful God, then there is no way that God can put limits on how many times God forgives. And if God does put limits on that, then this parable is what the kingdom of heaven is going to look like.

But yet. The Lord’s Prayer does seem to tie God’s forgiveness to how we forgive others. Perhaps in forgiving others, we experience how much God forgives us. And nowhere in this story does there seem to be a time frame in which we are to forgive one another. Perhaps God knows that sometimes it takes us a while to forgive other people. And perhaps God is patient with us, and urges us every day to forgive one another, but is understanding when it doesn’t happen right away. But as we live together as a community in Christ, in order for us to be healthy, we need to be in a state of willingness to offer that forgiveness. So, I think my conclusion is this: when placed in a situation where we have the opportunity to forgive or not forgive, we should try our best to offer that forgiveness. If we are the one who has offended someone else, and that person forgives us, we should be humble and receive that forgiveness. And if the offense is too great for us to offer forgiveness right away, we should not feel forced to forgive, but to trust that God will work in our hearts to heal us so that we may eventually be able to forgive. Therefore, as we continue through the Lenten season, let us examine ourselves. And if we find that we have not forgiven someone, let us be willing to journey to a place where we can offer that forgiveness, always being aware of how much God has already forgiven us through God’s Son, Jesus Christ. Amen.

Sermon for Ash Wednesday

Sermon preached for a joint 4-church worship at Trinity Lutheran Church, Steelton, PA. We changed up the usual lectionary reading for Ash Wednesday for some variety.

Luke 18:9-14

Lent is my favorite season of the church year. It’s not just because the paraments on the altar and the stole that I wear are purple, although I admit purple is one of my favorite colors and I love seeing the church decorated in that color. I do enjoy the quieter and more meditative feel to the worship services, although after a while the hymns that my father poetically calls “German dirges,” start getting to me, and I get tired of having to make sure there are no instances of the forbidden “a-word” in the hymns that get picked during this time. I also enjoy the rituals of this time of year: the ash that we receive on our foreheads tonight being a physical reminder of our real place in this universe, no matter how much we want to delude ourselves otherwise, and the rituals of Holy Week as we tell the story of how our Lord and Savior went to the cross for us. But I think the most important reason that I appreciate the season of Lent is something that tonight’s parable from Jesus reminds us of: in the eyes of God, we are all equal, and no one of us is better than another.

The parable that we heard Jesus tell tonight probably does not mean what you think it means. Parables are metaphors and they are riddles and, since we are separated in time by more than 2000 years from the time Jesus first told them, we don’t always get the impact of those parables. They don’t hit us the same way that they would have hit Jesus’ first audience, because we are not in the same time and culture as Jesus and his disciples were, and because we have had hundreds of years of Christian interpretation that’s been layered over this story. So, before we start thinking that we should always be like the tax collector when we pray, I would like to offer up some thoughts that will hopefully help us to see this parable in a new way.

And the first thought is this: the Pharisee and the tax collector are both Jewish. The Pharisee is the good, pious sort of guy, and, even though the Gospel writers paint the Pharisees in a bad light, since it seemed they were always arguing with Jesus, historical research tells us that the Pharisees were actually well regarded by most of the common people. Most of the time what the Pharisees were trying to do was to help the people have a sense of the holy in their lives. Sometimes they may have gone a bit overboard, making some traditions seem like laws that must be followed even though they might not be found in the Scriptures, but most of the time they were regarded as good and pious Jews. On the other hand, the tax collector was not well regarded and was often looked on with contempt. The tax collector, although Jewish, was regarded as a collaborator with the hated Roman Empire who had control over everyone’s lives. The tax collector had struck a deal that he would not only collect what was owed to the Empire, but that his payment would be whatever else he could convince the people they had to pay. Had we lived at that time, we probably would have hated them more even than we hate having to pay taxes now.

Now that we have a little background on these two men, let’s look at the prayers that they utter. The Pharisee’s prayer at first glance seems a little like the man is too pleased with himself. He thanks God that he’s not like those “others,” those obvious sinners. And we who have been brought up going to church and have been taught that we are all sinners say to ourselves, “How could this man not recognize that he is not perfect and that he is a sinner?” Well, let me challenge you with a question: Have any of you ever said these words, “There but for the grace of God go I?” That’s very similar to what this Pharisee is saying. It’s a well-meaning statement; we want to be thankful for the things that we have, and it also means that we recognize that we have the potential to go down the wrong road. But, if you think more closely about it, it also means that we are denying that God’s grace can follow us into any bad situation. And that, I think, is the real problem with the Pharisee’s prayer: not that he is thanking God for the blessings in his life, but that he is denying that God’s grace can find people who are obvious sinners, including the tax collector.

Now, let’s look at the prayer of the tax collector. He knows that he is a sinner. He is up front and honest about that. He begs for God’s mercy. And Jesus tells us that, after praying that prayer, he went home justified. But, here’s the question: Even though he begs for God to have mercy on him, did he stop being a tax collector? And, if he continued being a tax collector, did he reform his practices, or did he continue extorting people for more money than they owed? Jesus does not give us any clue, and we are left to wrestle with this. Does God give us mercy when we beg for it, even when we don’t change our ways? That’s what Jesus seems to be suggesting in this parable.

This parable should rightly be making us squirm as we enter the season of Lent, when we turn our eyes to our own sinfulness, and we focus on what Jesus has done for us by dying on the cross. Does Jesus grant us mercy when we are full of our own sense of righteousness, when we thank God for the material blessings we have and we go to church every Sunday, unlike all those other “godless” people out there? Or, does Jesus grant us mercy when we recognize that we are sinful, beat our breasts, and beg for mercy, only to go back to doing the same things that we are begging mercy for? When a Lutheran is presented with an either/or question, the proper response is “yes”. We are all sinners, the Pharisee and the tax collector both. And this is the final challenge of this parable: where our translation says “this man went down to his home justified rather than the other,” the Greek preposition here translated “rather” can also be translated “alongside of”. What if both the Pharisee and the tax collector in this story have received mercy?

Now, to be sure, Jesus ends this with the judgment that all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted. And I believe that to be a true statement. I believe that God prefers it when we humble ourselves and acknowledge that we need God’s grace. But I also believe that all people can receive God’s mercy, whether we’re feeling proud of ourselves one day or very aware of our sins the next. And I believe that God’s mercy towards us is somehow, mysteriously, shown to us in Jesus’ death on the cross. All of us, equally. And I believe that’s also part of the message of this parable: don’t look down on others with contempt, for we all find ourselves in both the role of the Pharisee and the role of the tax collector from one hour to the next. Have mercy towards one another, just as God in Jesus Christ has had mercy on us. Therefore, as we enter Lent and as we meditate on Jesus’ death on the cross, let us keep our eyes on God’s mercy towards us, equally, and let us work on becoming more merciful towards one another. Amen.

 

Sermon for Transfiguration-Narrative

I preached the following sermon at my congregations, Salem Lutheran and St. John’s Lutheran, on Sunday, March 3rd.

Matthew 16:24-17:8

Welcome to the last Sunday of Epiphany, when we celebrate one of the oddest moments in Jesus’ life and ministry, the moment of the Transfiguration. To get here, we’ve jumped over several stories in between Jesus feeding the 5000 and walking on water. After those two stories, Jesus continues his healing ministry, and then he begins teaching, debating with the Pharisees about what constitutes being clean vs. unclean: is it about washing hands or is it about the evil things that come out of the heart and are spoken on our lips? Jesus then encounters a Canaanite woman who begs him to heal her daughter, and although he initially refuses, she overcomes his reluctance. Impressed by her faith, he heals the woman’s daughter. Jesus then continues his healing ministry and performs another feeding miracle: this time feeding four thousand men, plus women and children, with seven loaves and a few small fish. When the Pharisees demand a sign from heaven, Jesus refuses, and he then teaches his disciples to be on their guard against the teaching of the Pharisees and Sadducees. They arrive at Caesarea Philippi, where, in response to Jesus asking the disciples who they say he is, Peter answers that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God. After Jesus blesses Peter for that answer, he tells the disciples that he must go to Jerusalem, be killed and on the third day be raised. Peter, who obviously has a different idea of what it means for Jesus to be the Messiah than Jesus does, takes him aside and rebukes him. But then Jesus, who not long before had blessed Peter, calls Peter Satan and tells him to get behind him, for he is a stumbling block. And then we arrive at today’s portion of the story, where Jesus starts out by telling his followers that if any would become his disciples, they must take up his cross and follow him.

And so, six days after this, Jesus brings Peter and James and John up a high mountain with him, where his face shines like the sun and his clothes become dazzling white. And this is where the weirdness begins. Now, if you’re like me, you’ve heard this story every year right before Lent begins, and you’ve probably never thought twice about it. Jesus glows, disciples don’t get it, God says to listen to Jesus, okay, on to the next story. But we’re going to think about this odd story harder today. First of all, Matthew tells us that the disciples saw Moses and Elijah standing there talking to Jesus. How did they know that it was Moses and Elijah? After all, there were no cameras when Moses and Elijah were alive. No one ever painted pictures of them. Did Moses show up on the mountain holding the Ten Commandments chiseled on stone in his arms? Did Elijah show up in the fiery chariot that took him from this earth when he ascended to heaven? Or, did the disciples just simply know, maybe through the Holy Spirit, that it was Moses and Elijah? Matthew doesn’t tell us, and we are left to guess and to take on faith that it was, indeed, Moses and Elijah talking with Jesus. The second question that I have is, what were Moses and Elijah talking with Jesus about? How the weather was in Palestine? Was Elijah asking Jesus if he was smiting the people who didn’t believe in God, just as he had killed the priests who served Baal when he was on Earth? Was Moses asking Jesus if people were still following the Ten Commandments? Or were they perhaps talking about what was going to happen to Jesus, and giving Jesus strength as he prepared to go to Jerusalem and die for his people? Again, Matthew doesn’t tell us, and we are left to wonder.

But the big question that I want us to look at is this: why does Peter want to put up dwellings for Jesus, Moses, and Elijah? We always look at Peter a little strangely and ask what on earth was he thinking. But, which one of us wouldn’t have done the same thing? Here they are in this ecstatic experience, seeing who Jesus truly is, and not only having Jesus clearly revealed to them, but also seeing the two giants of the Jewish faith: Moses, who led the people of Israel out of Egypt, who brought the law down the mountain from God, who basically founded their culture, and who, when he died, God buried him and did not let anyone know where the burial site was; and Elijah, the wild-haired prophet who fought for God against the wicked king Ahab and Queen Jezebel, who urged the people to stay faithful to the Lord, and who was whisked up to heaven in a chariot when his work on earth was done. Who wouldn’t want to stay on that mountain forever and bask in the radiance of God and learn from these three great men?

But God doesn’t allow the disciples a long time to sit and bask in this glory. There will be no raising of tents here on the mountain for Jesus, Elijah, and Moses. A cloud overshadows them, and God names Jesus as his Son, the Beloved, and tells the disciples to listen to him. The disciples are understandably overcome with fear, but Jesus comes and touches them and tells them not to be afraid. And when they look up, the vision is gone; only Jesus is there with them. And they must go down the mountain and continue with the ministry among the people that Jesus has come to earth to do.

We, too, want to stay on the mountain with Jesus and put up tents to contain the glory that we see. In our case, it is putting up shrines to the past. We remember the days when our church buildings were filled with people, both for worship and for Sunday school. We bask in that remembered glory; we build shrines to it in our minds; and we say, “If only we could go back to that. We don’t know where all the people went. We’re a nice congregation and we don’t know why people don’t want to come and be with us on a Sunday morning.” We don’t realize that Jesus is tapping us on the shoulder, telling us to not be afraid, and to walk with him into the valley, into the everyday mess that life is, and to deal with society as we find it now. In fact, I heard a new interpretation of that painting of Jesus knocking on the door. Jesus is not asking to come inside; rather, he is asking us to come out of our buildings and play with the people outside. I think that is an apt interpretation for the times we find ourselves in now.

Jesus is calling us to leave the past behind and to walk down the mountain into the messy world. And God the Father is telling us that Jesus is the Beloved Son and that we are to listen to him. We listen to Jesus through Scripture and prayer. We hear Jesus’ voice coming through the voices of other people as we struggle to discern which way God is leading us. And maybe, every once in a while, we have a mystical experience like the disciples experienced the Transfiguration on the mountain. You know, that experience that you’ve had of hearing the voice of God speak directly to you; the experience that you don’t tell other people about because they’ll think you’re crazy. Those experiences do happen, and while we should be cautious about them, we should also be thankful to God when they do occur; thankful for that moment of clarity that God gives us when we are struggling to hear God’s voice.

Friends, these are difficult times for the wider church in the United States. I’ve talked with a few of you who are concerned about the Methodist churches in Harrisburg that are closing and being compelled to merge into new worship centers. We don’t have the same governance in the Lutheran church—the bishop cannot come in and force our congregations to merge. As a pastor, I can suggest that we consider it, but again, I cannot force a closure or a merger. And yet, I think that we do need to take stock and consider what is going on, both in society and in our congregations. We have older congregations and older buildings that are expensive to maintain, and our congregations are not growing. There is work being done, but it’s going to take a long time before we see a significant change. And what distresses me is that, while our four Lutheran congregations are working together on certain projects, there is still a tribalism that is going on; an unwillingness on the part of some to come together with the other congregations because of old rivalries that won’t quite die. This comes out most often when we have joint worship services, and some people won’t attend the service if it’s not at “their church”.

Friends, I believe that Jesus is calling us to repent of our old rivalries and divisions and come together more, not only for certain projects, but also for worship services. And Jesus is calling not only the committed group of people who come to SOHL meetings and joint worship services, but those on the edges as well; those who usually don’t participate when things are not happening at “their church”. Because God is bigger than the church building, and God knows that we can have a bigger impact participating in God’s kingdom when we are together rather than when we are apart, hunkered down in our old church buildings.

My question for all of us here today is, are we going to listen to Jesus and follow him, even when it makes us uncomfortable? Are we going to stay on the mountain, desperately trying to cling to the glorious shrines of the past, or are we going to bravely walk away, with Jesus by our side, into the valley? If you would like to make a start at following where Jesus is calling, then I encourage you to come to the 4-church joint worship for Ash Wednesday services at Trinity this week, at 7 p.m. And I encourage you to come to all of the midweek studies during Lent and get to know new people whom you haven’t met before. Our next joint Sunday morning worship is on March 31st at Salem, and I hope you will plan on coming to that as well. It is time for us to do a better job at coming together as one church body, with Christ as our head. And remember: Jesus is right there with us and telling us not to be afraid as he works something new in his church. That is good news indeed. Amen.

Transfiguration Sermon @ St. Paul-Carlisle

I was invited to preach at St. Paul’s Lutheran in Carlisle, PA, on Saturday night, March 2nd. Following is the sermon I preached there.

Transfiguration—Year C

Luke 9:28-43a

Has there ever been a movie that you have loved and watched over and over, and you’ve never thought to question the story line or look for plot holes? And then, someone watches the movie with you who hasn’t seen it before and starts asking questions about it, almost effectively ruining the movie for you? I’m reminded of an episode of The Big Bang Theory where Sheldon introduces Amy to the movie Raiders of the Lost Ark. When Sheldon asks her afterwards what she thought of the movie, expecting her to love it as much as he does, she says that it was cute, except for one glaring plot hole: Indiana Jones is entirely irrelevant to the outcome of the movie. With or without him, the Nazis would find the ark of the covenant, open it up, and all die from gazing on the face of God. Sheldon is astounded that he never noticed this about the movie, and the rest of the episode features him and the rest of the gang trying—and failing—to redeem this movie in their minds.

Well, I think the story of the Transfiguration is kind of like this story that you hear all of your life and never think about the questions that it brings up. It’s a story that I grew up hearing in the church, and as a child and then a young person I always thought it was a pretty story about Jesus glowing and revealing who he was to the disciples and the disciples not understanding. And then we move on to the next story. But when I went to seminary, they taught us to look at these old familiar Bible stories with a more critical eye, especially when we are going to preach on them. So, the big question that always comes up is this: the disciples see two men standing with Jesus in the light, and they recognize them as Moses and Elijah. How do the disciples know these two guys are Moses and Elijah? After all, no one painted pictures of them when they were alive. Was Moses holding two stone tablets in his hand? Did Elijah show up in the fiery chariot that he departed this earth from? Or did the disciples somehow just *know*, maybe through the Holy Spirit, that these two guys talking with Jesus are Moses and Elijah? The next question is this: the Scripture says first that the disciples were weighed down with sleep, and then that they were awake. Which was it? Perhaps they experienced it as a waking dream, and so they did not know how to describe the sensations to the person who wrote the story down. Maybe they felt like they were asleep and awake at the same time? I really don’t know. This whole experience is strange, and it’s not the easiest story to interpret and to talk about.

But here’s one thing I want us to notice. The Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke all have this story of the transfiguration of Jesus. But only in Luke do we hear that Jesus is talking about “his departure, which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem,” with Moses and Elijah. The Greek word used here for departure is “exodus”; Jesus is talking about his exodus with the leader of the original exodus out of Egypt, Moses. And just as the exodus that Moses led freed the people of Israel, Jesus’ exodus, his death on the cross and his resurrection, would free his people from their sins.

And yet, this departure, this exodus, would not take place immediately. We always shake our heads at Peter for wanting to make tents and to stay on the mountain; it doesn’t help that the Gospel writer tells us that he didn’t know what he was saying. Which one of us, in that experience, would not want to stay on the mountain forever, basking in the glow of Jesus’ glory and actually getting to speak with Moses and Elijah? This was an amazing vision that was happening: a foretaste of the kingdom of heaven, when the world, which is upside down, would be turned right-side up again by Jesus the Messiah, and all would be in harmony. This is the stuff that we all long for, and I think that after many years of hearing this story, I probably would have been right there beside Peter saying, “Yeah, let’s make some tents for everyone and stay up here for eternity!” It’s simply that kind of mystical experience, far from the hurts of this world that we find ourselves in.

But, the kingdom of heaven is not yet fulfilled, and after a word from God that the disciples are to listen to Jesus because he is God’s Son, they find that they are alone on the mountain top with Jesus, and it is time to go back to the world that is hurting and longing for a Messiah. And when they come down the mountain, they realize that they don’t have any time to bask in that remembered glory, for the crowds surround them right away. While Jesus and Peter, John, and James had been up experiencing the glory of Jesus and getting to see Moses and Elijah, back in the valley a man desperate for healing for his son had asked the rest of Jesus’ disciples for help, and these disciples had discovered that they could not help. Jesus’ response of initial anger and frustration is completely understandable and human. How many times have we, in our lives, had an amazing, life-changing experience one moment and then come back to the frustrations of everyday living the next?

So, here’s the thing: it would be easy, and tempting, for us as Christians to give up on this world and focus solely on getting to heaven. There’s so much that’s wrong with the world, after all. Here in Pennsylvania we struggle with high rates of opioid addiction. What may have started out as doctors wanting to relieve their patients from suffering has turned into something worse, where people cannot get by without the high that the drug gives them. And throughout this area and throughout the world, you only have to turn on the news to be saddened and overwhelmed by all of the problems that we have: the realization that we still have a problem with race in this country; problems in communities with drinking water—I just heard recently that Duncannon is having issues, so it’s not just Flint, Michigan; immigration debates; and within the church, who is welcome in our congregations. It would be easy for us to simply give up on all of this and focus on going to heaven.

But that’s not what Jesus came here to earth to do. He did not come to whisk us all up to heaven. He came here to be one of us, to understand what it is to be human, to suffer with us, to experience every human emotion. Jesus became one of us because he loves us so much. If you remember back to the beginning of Luke, when different groups of people came to John for baptism and asked him what they should do to prepare for the coming of the Messiah, John did not tell them to just hang on and wait around for the Messiah to come, but instead, he gave them very practical answers. Share your coat with those who have none. Tax collectors were not to take more than the amount prescribed for them. Soldiers were not to extort money and be satisfied with their wages. And Jesus, as exasperated as he is when he comes down off the mountain, knows that he cannot do anything other than what he has been called to do, and he heals the little boy suffering from illness. Jesus has called us to continue to be in the world, to announce that the kingdom of heaven has come near, and to participate in the coming of that kingdom by being with our sister and brother human beings, helping to heal their hurts, sharing what we have with those around us who are in need, walking alongside of them and suffering with them. Even on those days when we’ve just come down the mountain from an ecstatic experience and then find ourselves exasperated with the same old problems that never seem to go away.

For Luke, the kingdom of God comes not only in the ecstatic experiences up on the mountain, but most especially it comes in the every day events, when a little boy is healed from an unclean spirit, when a tax collector repents and vows to restore what he has taken from the people, and when a thief on the cross repents and asks Jesus to remember him when he comes into his kingdom. For Luke, the kingdom of God is now. Salvation is now. At the end of our lesson today, he writes, “And all were astounded at the greatness of God.” Not only were Peter, James, and John astounded at the greatness of God on the mountain with the light and the three holy figures, but everyone was astounded at the greatness of God when a little boy was healed from an unclean spirit. If we have eyes to see, we can see the greatness of God at work in all the good that happens in the world: every time someone is healed from addiction to drugs; every time a homeless family finds housing; every time a hungry person is fed; every time a person repents and believes in the good news of Jesus Christ. In each of those moments, and many more, the salvation of Jesus Christ has come to that person. Let us pray that our eyes may be opened to see the greatness of God not only in those ecstatic moments, but also in the ordinary. Amen.