Sunday, September 25, 2011

Pentecost 15 (Proper 21), Series A


Sermon on Matthew 21:23-32
For Holy Cross Lutheran Church, Elmwood Park, WI
September 25, 2011 (Proper 21, Series A)

Today’s Gospel lesson takes place on Holy Monday, the day after Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem on Sunday morning, and His cleansing of the Temple on Sunday afternoon. So, when the chief priests come up to Him and ask by what authority He is doing these things, they’ve got reason to ask. They’re not just asking an abstract, academic question here. They’re not just asking about Jesus’ preaching and ministry in general. They’re asking about something He did that affected them personally. They’re asking Him about the fact that He went through and destroyed the profitable little gig they had set up, using the Temple and the people’s faithfulness to their God as a way to make a bit of extra money over and above what was donated by the people out of their own free will.
And so, instead of answering them straightforwardly, Jesus answers them with a question of His own, regarding what John had been doing in the wilderness, baptizing those who came to him for repentance and the forgiveness of sins. And this also isn’t an academic, abstract question. This cuts right to the heart of whether or not these men really believe, teach, and confess the truth about the God they claim to be serving. It’s also a question that gets right to their own pride and willingness (or lack thereof) to repent and believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God. Repentance will not be easy for these men, because it would involve a very public apology to the whole ancient Jewish community who came to the temple from all over the known world to worship, about the most basic doctrine these men were supposed to be teaching. Is Jesus the Messiah, come to bring peace with God through His innocent death and glorious resurrection, or is peace with God something that must be earned and bought with good works which, you know, to really do things right and get really right with God you’ve got to change your money to the temple coins and get your sacrificial animals right here.
And that sort of repentance is just hard. If repentance were simply a matter of making a new year’s resolution to do better at resisting sin and obeying God’s principles for living, well, that’s not so bad. Once you reduce the perfect Law of God down to a few things that you can improve upon in your life, a few principles that you can work on, a few bad habits that you can teach yourself to give up, repentance looks easy. And if some preacher on TV tells you that a certain donation will improve your chances of getting God’s blessings, that’s not so bad either. When the coin in the coffer rings, the soul from purgatory springs, you know? That little slogan from the pope’s fundraisers in Luther’s time is no different from what many so-called “evangelical” preachers are trying to sell you today. Money is relatively easy to give up, even in these tough economic times, compared to giving up pride and admitting you were simply wrong about everything, which is what true repentance requires.
And that’s the problem. True repentance means giving up any claim we have on God’s blessings on the basis of what we do. God doesn’t want right and proper animal sacrifices if they’re being abused as a substitute for true repentance. God was the one who instituted the sacrificial system, but even in the Old Testament several of the prophets are told to tell the people that God hates their sacrifices. God doesn’t want a great big show of being a good and holy person, if the reason is to hide from others, God, and even ourselves that we are really selfish, corrupt enemies of God deep down on the inside. Good works are a stench to Him, something that comes from a den of thieves rather than a house of prayer, if they’re done to promote our own righteousness at the expense of His gifts.
And that’s why Jesus tells the next parable. It’s not the one who, in front of God and everyone else, tells you about his own righteousness that is the true disciple of Christ. It’s not the one who proclaims to the world how much he’s doing for God that is really working in the Father’s vineyard. It’s the one who looks for all the world like a rebellious teenager but who is crushed by the Law, repents, and believes that salvation is his for Christ’s sake alone who is really doing the will of the Father. It’s not about image, it’s about what is really going on in your heart. And what is really going on in the heart of the sinner is a rebellious refusal to do the Father’s will.
But what is the Father’s will? Not outward good works, first and foremost (though those will follow), but repentance and faith. The highest and holiest good work we can do is simply to agree with God in what He says. As the Lutheran Confessions remind us, the highest worship of God is simply to believe in Him, to have faith in Him (which is just another way of saying that we agree with Him and what He says). Sounds easy, right? Well, what God says about you is that you’re a poor, miserable sinner who is completely helpless and hopeless to do anything to restore, let alone improve, your relationship with your God. Agreeing with that is not so easy. In fact, it’s downright impossible by our own reason and strength. And what God says about Himself is that He is the only one who can restore you to a right relationship with Himself. Believing that is no more possible than believing you’re a sinner, because the two go together. The good news that only God can save us, and that He has done so in Jesus Christ, is only good news once we realize just how helpless and lost we are without Him. Otherwise it’s simply offensive to our human pride that thinks we can do it on our own, with some advice and counsel, and a few generous donations, to the chief priests or the traveling fundraiser for the new basilica at Rome in Luther’s day, or the TV preachers today. It’s only when we realize how lost we are that repentance and faith are something that can be worked in us. The son who made a big show of going and working, but never actually got there, is what we are by nature. The one who knew he was a miserable wretch and had his thinking turned around by the Holy Spirit through Law and Gospel and ended up working in the vineyard after all, is what we can (and do!) become by God’s free gift through the Word, the water, and Christ’s body and blood. Amen.
+ Soli Deo Gloria +

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Pentecost 14 (Proper 20), Series A


Sermon on Matthew 20:1-16
For Holy Cross Lutheran Church, Elmwood Park, WI
September 18, 2011 (Proper 20, Series A)

Life isn’t fair. Some people who hardly ever do any work get paid more than some others who do very difficult, dangerous, or dirty jobs for a living. And some have money they inherited from their parents and don’t have to work at all. And of course some of those who do a considerable amount of physical labor for the functioning of society don’t get paid for it at all because they’re staying at home, maintaining their own households and raising their children while their spouses are away at work. Even those who own their own businesses get taken advantage of sometimes, so that what was earned by their hard work ends up going to those who don’t work as hard but are sharper businessmen. Sometimes it seems like it’s the evil who don’t do any work but have all the advantages, while the good do all the work and never seem to get ahead. Life just isn’t fair.
It’s tempting, isn’t it, to blame God for this. After all, He is all-powerful, which means more than just that He can do anything. It means that He spoke everything that exists by His Word and that therefore it’s His Word that keeps it all in existence even today. And that means that nothing happens that He isn’t aware of or which He doesn’t have power to control or stop. The fact that the good guys seem to finish last while the lazy and evil do as well or better is something that God could put a stop to. And so it’s tempting to doubt His goodness when we see how unfair life often is.
What needs to be kept in mind, however, is that if life were truly fair, none of us would have made it this far. In fact, if God were to deal with each of us as we deserve, none of us would have been born because our ancestors would have died out long ago. Adam and Eve would have been killed on the spot after they ate the forbidden fruit, rather than dying of old age several hundred years later having been given a promise that there would come a Messiah, a Savior, from their descendants who would crush Satan’s head and rescue us from this old, sin-filled life. There is no one who has done good. Before God we are all just as sinful and corrupt as those whose advantages in this life we sometime resent. There is no one who has truly earned anything that he has. It’s all a gift from God despite our unworthiness. A God who dealt with human beings as they deserve, a God who dealt with human beings “fairly,” in other words, would have dispensed with all of us a long time ago.
In today’s Gospel lesson, the owner of the vineyard doesn’t do anything shady or dishonest by paying the last workers hired the same as those who worked all day. He promised them a denarius, and that’s what he pays them. But it doesn’t seem fair that those who only worked one hour would get paid the same as those who worked most of the day or even all day. After all, someone who has done more work ought to get paid more, right? That’s the way we tend to think of it, and that’s why often large companies will make salary information a confidential matter, to head off these sorts of complaints.
But it isn’t the way God thinks of it. You see, from God’s perspective it’s not about earning wages or food or clothing or anything else, it’s about giving. As far as God is concerned, what we receive in this life, and more importantly what we receive in terms of forgiveness, eternal life, and salvation, are things that He gives us freely, not rewards or wages that we have worked for or earned. Even the things that He gives us by means of our daily work are really gifts from Him and not rewards. And what we do in our daily work is supposed to be done in service to Him and love for the neighbor, not for the motivation of earning money for ourselves.
It’s bad enough when the mentality of earning and rewards affects how we think of the things God gives us in this world. What is worse, however, is when that mentality creeps into our thinking about eternal life. There it is literally deadly. Eternal life is a free gift. And thank goodness it’s a free gift. If we had to earn it we’d be lost. What keeps us out of God’s loving fellowship is our own sinfulness, and that means not just that we’ve done some bad things but that we were born His enemies. Even trying to earn our way back into His favor is offensive to Him because who He is as God is the giver of gifts, and trying to earn His gifts is a denial of His goodness in giving them freely. Many things that people do which are outwardly good and loving, are from God’s perspective the worst blasphemy and sacrilege, because they are done with the idea of taking away God’s identity as gracious giver of all good things.
And so it’s good news that God “isn’t fair.” He’s not supposed to follow our selfish and picky little concept of fairness. He’s bigger than that. What He wants is not to hand out rewards or wages, but to give gifts. And the gifts he has to give are better and more lasting than anything we could possibly earn. What could we possibly do on this earth that would earn us eternal life? What could we possibly accomplish that would be worth the absence of sickness, disease, or hunger? How could we possibly repay Him for the gift of spending eternal life in His presence? We can’t. But we don’t have to.
He gives the same eternal life to the infant who dies only a few days after Baptism, to the old man who only came to faith in the nursing home, as well as to those who have spent their entire lives serving God and their neighbor. Now, He does expect us to serve Him and our neighbor as He gives us opportunity. He does expect us to confess Him to our friends and neighbors, to teach our children the faith, as well as all the things we do to serve our neighbors in terms of physical needs as well. But His gifts to us remain just that: gifts. They don’t become wages just because we’re working. Rather, our work is itself a gift to Him and to each other, a gift that can only happen because He has first given to us. Amen.
+ Soli Deo Gloria +

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Pentecost 13

Sermon on Matthew 18:21-35 For Holy Cross Lutheran Church, Elmwood Park, WI September 11, 2011 (Proper 19, Series A) “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.” What does this mean? “We pray in this petition that our Father in heaven would not look at our sins, or deny our prayer because of them. We are neither worthy of the things for which we pray, nor have we deserved them, but we ask that He would give them all to us by grace, for we daily sin much and surely deserve nothing but punishment. So we too will sincerely forgive and gladly do good to those who sin against us.” Forgiveness is the very center of the Christian religion. The whole reason Christ became man, lived a perfect life, and died an innocent death, was so that we might be forgiven. Forgiveness is what we come here on Sunday mornings to receive. Its what is given to us in Holy Baptism, Holy Absolution, and Holy Communion. The fact that God graciously and freely forgives us our sins is what Christianity is all about. But the fact that God graciously and freely forgives us our sins has implications. We live our lives in this old world, and both we and those around us remain sinners. And so as we go through life we will be offended by others and we will offend others. We will gossip, we will make poor assumptions about what is going on in others’ lives based on flimsy evidence, we will be prideful and boastful and put our wishes in front of everyone else. In other words, forgiveness is something that governs not only our relationship with God, it is something that is to govern our relationship with one another as well. The parable that Jesus tells Peter today illustrates for us what this means. The servant in the parable owed a grand total of ten thousand talents to his master. A talent was a rather large gold coin, and ten thousand of them would be worth millions and millions of dollars. Most of us can’t even imagine having, let alone spending, the amount of money that this man was in debt. But like him, we are deeply in debt to our Lord. We are born sinners. We haven’t just done some things wrong in our lives, we were born oriented against God. We were born with God as our enemy. Even now, there is still that Old Adam in us that is nothing less than a stubborn, unrepentant enemy of God. We cannot truly comprehend how offensive we are by nature to our God, not only because of our actions but because of the corruption that is simply inside of us which we have inherited from our first parents, Adam and Eve. The debt we owe God because of our sinfulness is so huge that we cannot hope to pay it off, just as the servant could not hope to pay off his debt to his master because it was too huge. But God does forgive us. Unlike the master in the text, God doesn’t simply say, “Oh don’t worry about it,” however. Instead, he applies our punishment to His own Son in our place, sending Him to die on the cross. It’s easy to take God’s forgiveness for granted. We hear it every Sunday, when we make the general confession before the service and the pastor says, “In the stead and by the command of my Lord Jesus Christ I forgive you all your sins in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” That declaration is most certainly true, but it’s too easy to forget that our Lord Jesus Himself had to die and rise again in order for that absolution to be true. God is not some tolerant grandfather who sits up in heaven and spoils his children by letting them do whatever they please. And God did not give us His forgiveness so that we can have an excuse to continue doing things that are an offense and a mockery to Him. He gave us His forgiveness so that we can be with Him and be restored to His fellowship, and that includes being willing to fight against our sin, and not to indulge in it, and that includes the sin of not forgiving our fellow sinners. You are forgiven. Your sin was borne by Christ, and so it no longer applies to you. Great. Wonderful. But now let’s think about the implications of that. You are supposed to forgive those around you too, since they have also been forgiven by God just as you were. I know it hurts when someone sins against you, lies about you, says hurtful words or even hurts you physically. I know it hurts when someone you trusted betrays you, cheats you, or otherwise uses you. It hurts when someone else does the very thing I’m talking about, being unforgiving towards your mistakes. But how do you think God feels when you sin against Him? Just like you feel when you are sinned against, except infinitely worse. And, since He has forgiven you, He has given you the ability and the duty of forgiving those who sin against you. The fact of the matter is, the forgiveness that applies to you from God also applies to the person who has sinned against you. If you don’t forgive them, even though God has forgiven them, then you are setting yourself up against God. You are calling God a liar. And if you call God a liar when He says, “I forgive you” to your neighbor, you are also, whether you realize it or not, calling God a liar when he says the same thing to you. After all, what you owe God because of the absolute corruption of your sinfulness is much greater than the small amount that your neighbor has done against you. And because of this, if you do not forgive you are by that action refusing God’s forgiveness, and your debt still applies to you, just as the unmerciful servant was called back into his master’s office and then thrown into prison after he refused to pardon the debt that was owed to him by a fellow servant. That servant was only owed a small amount of money. It was larger than could be paid right away, but it was payable on an installment basis. We might think of a debt of three or four hundred dollars in this connection, which is hardly a drop in the bucket compared to what the first servant owed his master. When I pronounce the absolution upon the congregation, it not only applies to each of you personally, it applies to the guy sitting across from you as well. This is also true of those fellow church members that maybe you haven’t been getting along with. Not only are we forgiven, but our neighbor is forgiven as well, and if God has forgiven them, we dare not do otherwise. To do so is to call God a liar. And the thing of it is, if you call God a liar when He says, “I forgive you” to your neighbor, you’re calling Him a liar when He says it to you, too, since both you and your neighbor are forgiven by the same Word, based on the same once-for-all sacrifice of Christ on the cross. By the way, this is one good reason for greeting those around you with the words, “The peace of the Lord” right after the Absolution. God has declared the war between Himself and us over by forgiving us, and so therefore whatever petty warfare there may be between ourselves and our fellow Christians is now also covered by that peace treaty. Even though we are not worthy of it, God has had mercy on us. Our sins are forgiven. It is precisely through us, then, that God has mercy on those around us, through me as the one who preaches the Word and administers the Sacraments, and through you as you love each other because God has first loved you. His forgiveness is a precious thing. It is literally the difference between eternal life and eternal death for us. And thus we live as those who are forgiven, and therefore we also live as those whose neighbors are also forgiven. Christ died for them at the same time He died for us. We forgive because He has forgiven us. Amen. + Soli Deo Gloria +

Sunday, September 4, 2011

Pentecost 12 (Proper 18), Series A

Sermon on Matthew 18:1-20
For Holy Cross Lutheran Church, Elmwood Park, WI
September 4, 2011 (Proper 18, Series A)

Well, if I were the President of the United States, I’d do things differently. I’d do them right. If only I had the power to get things done, by golly, I’d do them the way they were supposed to be done. How many of us have said that, at least, inside our own minds? Well, the fact is, you do have a very great power over people, even greater than that of the President. The President can only affect what happens to people in this life. The Church, on the other hand, has the power which can make the difference whether someone spends eternity with God or apart from Him in Hell. The catechism calls this power the “office of the keys.”

Unfortunately, many Christians misuse and abuse this power. The power to forgive the sins of another human being is abused if we see another Christian sin, and we ignore the fact that he did anything wrong, instead of telling him what was wrong with what he did. The fact is, when we see someone commit a sin and then try to hide it, we are already involved, as God points out to St. Ezekiel in today’s Old Testament lesson. By ignoring what this person did, we become accomplices. But that’s not the worst part. When we ignore or gloss over sin, we deprive the sinner of the Good News of Christ’s forgiveness, because it is only sinners for whom Christ died.

Another abuse of this power happens when we go and blab the problem to a third or fourth party, or even to a whole group, maybe even the whole Church, instead of going to the sinning brother privately and keeping it all as low-key as possible. Often we make this mistake if the sinning brother happens to be our “enemy” for one reason or another, or some type of rival for power and influence. The problem here is once again that we cut the person off from Christ, because instead of using our power as Christians to bring someone back to Christ, we are using it to turn other Christians away from him, and that will drive him away from the Church. When we drive someone away from the Church, we drive him away from Christ.

You see, the purpose for telling a person he is a sinner is so that he can see that he has a Savior from sin. Christ didn’t die for righteous people; even if there had been any people in the world that were righteous in and of themselves, the fact that these people would have been righteous means that Christ didn’t need to die for them. But Christ died to pay for the sins of sinners, and He rose to show them that their sins are conquered and can no longer trouble them. The reason why we reprove sin, whether privately or, if necessary, publicly, is the same as the reason why I preach the Law in general terms from this pulpit. It is only sinners who have a Savior. It is precisely sinners that Jesus came to save. And the neat part about that is that whenever we remind someone of what Christ has done for them, we remind ourselves at the same time. Not one of us is so well-grounded in the Christian faith that he doesn’t forget from time to time that Christ has paid for his sins already. But when we have the opportunity to remind someone else, this reminds us as well of the wonderful gift Christ has given us in His death and resurrection.

But that still causes us to wonder, why did God give this thing to us sinful human beings? The reason is that if you read the Law or the Gospel in a book, even if that book is a Bible, it probably won’t connect with your life the way it does if someone comes up to you and tells you flat out what’s what. When we sit and read something, we sit in judgment over what we read, even if we don’t mean to. It’s the way we are wired as human beings. It’s why Paul says that faith comes by hearing. If you have been doing something wrong, you can easily skip over those verses in the bible which make you a little uncomfortable. You can’t ignore it when someone tells you that what you’re doing is wrong. Even more importantly, however, when you feel really guilty about our sins, something on the printed page, even the page of a Bible, sounds hollow compared to the comfort you get when someone who knows exactly what sins you have committed tells you that God has forgiven you. In some churches, they don’t believe in this power. Instead of teaching what we teach, namely that the message of forgiveness actually creates the faith in your heart which trusts the promises of Christ’s death and resurrection, they teach that a person has to decide to accept Christ and that the message of forgiveness has no power of the Holy Spirit by itself. The problem is that when a person who believes this falls again into a habitual sin, he thinks his decision wasn’t really good enough, and either resolves to really commit himself to Christ this time, or he falls into despair. We, on the other hand, know that what our brothers and sisters in Christ tell us about ourselves and what Christ did for us is true, because, according to our text, what they say about us on earth, is what God says about us in heaven.

Another reason God gave this power to us sinful human beings is, oddly enough, precisely because we are sinful. If there were perfect people in the world, and they were the ones who went around telling everyone about Christ, who would we be grateful to, assuming we believed? We could just as easily give thanks and praise to them, couldn’t we, because they would be on a level above us. But the fact is, we are sinners, so when we tell someone about their sin and about the forgiveness which is in Christ, we can’t take any of the credit, because we are in the same boat as those we accuse and comfort; the glory all belongs to God. In fact, His glory is even greater, because only a really powerful God can get things done using sinful people as His tools.

There is one final question about this text which may be in some of your minds and I just want to clear it up since there is a lot of discussion about it in the Church at large these days: When Jesus says that whatever we bind or loose on earth is bound or loosed in heaven, is he talking only about the disciples, and therefore about the called ministers of the church, or is he talking about all of us individually as well? After all, Jesus says something similar in John 20, and there the Catechism reminds us that he is talking about the “called ministers of Christ.” Well, again, the answer is, both! The primary and central presentation of the Gospel to all of us is in the Sacraments and in the Word publicly preached. Our Baptism, when we were washed clean of all sin, Holy Communion, where we receive the very body and blood which bought our forgiveness, and Holy Absolution, the direct personal statement by the called minister that your sins are forgiven in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit: these are the center of what Jesus is speaking about here. Whenever two or three are gathered in My name, that is the Christian congregation. That is Holy Cross Lutheran Church. But even though the work of a called Pastor is more central, more regular, and more public than what every Christian can do, when we remind our fellow Christians of their sins and of Christ’s love, what we do then is not any less powerful than what the Pastor does. The Holy Spirit works just as much through the word on our lips out in the community, in the home or in the workplace, as He does through everything which happens in this room. But, since the publicly preached Word and the Sacraments are more regular and public, and, in the case of the Sacraments, more tangible and real to our senses, than our private conversations are, perhaps the best way for us as individuals to counsel and comfort our brothers and sisters is to remind them of what takes place here in worship, to remind them of their Baptism where they died and rose with Christ, and that they have eaten and drunk our Lord’s body and blood which were crucified and shed, died and rose again for our eternal salvation. Not only will this take away their burden of sin, but it will lead them to the place where they can be continually strengthened in that trust in Christ, where they gather with us around the heavenly throne and feast with us on the forgiveness of sins, life, and salvation. Amen.

+ Soli Deo Gloria +