Sunday 12/20/20

The Lord Is with You
(Luke 1:26 - 38)

Years ago our professor for preaching, Mike Rogness, gave a chapel sermon where he said the greeting that we use every Sunday in worship has changed. Now days and for as long as I can remember we have said, “The Lord be with you.” and the response is, “And also with you.” But in the early Christian church there was a time when the worship leaders said, “The Lord IS with you.” The response was the same but that meant, the Lord IS also with you. That makes a lot of sense; we say that the God is omnipresent; that God is everywhere, all around us. And it also makes sense for Advent. This is the season when we remember that God became a human being. Emmanuel means God with us. The savior, Lord and king became a baby, and after his death and resurrection he promised to be with you always. 

But I’m getting ahead of myself. Today’s lesson from Luke has another greeting that’s a bit different, even puzzling and perplexing. We might think it’s the messenger that causes the confusion. Gabriel is an angel who “stands in the presence of God.” And if we doubt his power he did cause Zechariah the priest to lose the ability to talk for nine months. Also generally speaking in the Bible angels cause some awe and fear when they come. But I think in this case, coming to a teenage girl with a message that will change her life Gabriel probably came in disguise. The Bible says that some have met with angles without knowing it, unawares. So I suppose that Gabriel looked like a human being. But it’s what he had to say that caused Mary to stop and think, and to ask some questions. His greeting stops her in her tracks. “Greetings favored one!” Or as the older translation says, “Hail, oh favored one.” This was a greeting for the upper classes of Rome. For Roman citizens who were among the elite. And it’s not just a polite wish, “May the Lord be with you.” Gabriel says, “The Lord IS with you.” He doesn’t say that you have risen to the top, that you are a member of the the upper crust, the elite Roman citizens. It’s the favor of God. That’s in the blessings we use in most services, “The Lord look on you with favor.” In our Gospel lesson this teenage girl hears, you are God’s favorite and he is with you. So our Gospel lesson says this message was troubling to Mary, and she tried to understand it. Older translations say she pondered it. She tried to take it in. Maybe she looked around to see if this visitor was talking to somebody else.You may remember other places where it says Mary, “pondered these things in her heart.” Treasured them. It’s not just a mental process. It’s more like trying to get hold of something that makes no sense. Gabriel knows this, so he says what angels often say when you read the Bible. “Do not be afraid.” " Let me be plain. You have found favor with God.” And then he tells the really startling news to this girl who is engaged to Joseph. “You will conceive and have a baby. A king like your ancestor David.” She is even more troubled, “How can that be?! I’m a virgin.” Gabriel explains, “The power of God will overshadow you and by the Holy Spirit you will conceive, so this baby will be Holy, the Son of God. He will be a great king like David. You will call his name Jesus, and his kingdom will never end.” Well, you or I too would be amazed and shocked and overwhelmed by this message. One commentator points out that in Matthew’s Gospel Mary doesn’t have a word to say, Matthew just reports about her, “She was found to be with child by the Holy Spirit.” It sounds like she stands there amazed with her jaw open. But in Luke we have the details how Gabriel gently appears not in the Holy of Holies like he did with Zechariah, but just coming to her house bringing this news to her. And he closes with this word, a word of truth that puts her doubts and amazement to rest. He says, “For nothing will be impossible for God.” And Mary says, “I am the Lord’s servant; let it happen to me according to your word. “

That message of truth, that word that God is doing great things, even providing a baby for her relative Elizabeth, who is too old to have kids. And more than that, that God is sending a great king, greater than David ever was, that’s enough for Mary. She will rest in that promise. She will trust in what God has said. And we will hear again in the Gospels how Mary pondered these things she heard, storing them up and treasuring them in her heart. Martin Luther had great respect and affection for Mary and especially for her simplicity. He said she was probably doing ordinary things when the angel came to her. She was probably doing work around the house or on the farm. Maybe she was praying. And Luther says that God gives those same blessings of faith and grace to you that he gave to her. Simple faith, trusting that God is at work. That God is with you. In Jesus he becomes as human as you or me. Yet he is also your king and savior.

“The Lord is with you,” Gabriel said. Through his Holy Spirit Jesus works faith to believe in your heart. He overshadows you, protecting you, guarding you in times of doubt and trouble. You are favored as we hear in the blessing,”The Lord look on you with favor.” I like the way the psalm writer puts it in Psalm 5, “Surely Lord you bless us, you cover us with favor as with a shield.” God has shown his favor to you. He sent Jesus, who has promised to be with you so not even death or the devil will get the best of you. And he died to seal that promise. He rose and went back to heaven to work on preparing a place just right for you there. And he comes in this season, but in all seasons, all times whether good or troubling to lead you safely from darkness to light and bring you the grace and mercy of God. 
The Lord is with you.

Sunday 11/8/20

Sufficient Grace
(Matthew 25:1 - 13)

Sometimes you can become so familiar with a passage or story from the Bible that you think you know everything about it. After all we’ve heard and perhaps even studied some of these passages maybe from as far back as Sunday School. So it comes as a pleasant surprise when you have one of those moments when you say, “Wow! That’s something new. I hadn’t noticed that before!”

Today I just want to point out that we’re singing a couple of Advent hymns that have the theme from the passage in Matthew. I’m not one of those people who want to put up Christmas decorations before Halloween. So I didn’t deliberately choose hymns for Advent. But Advent is the season when we prepare for the coming of Christ. We prepare for the “incarnation” of God - God becoming a human being in Jesus. And we also look ahead to Jesus' second coming. This parable that Jesus tells is in some ways about being prepared or not being prepared.

Jesus tells his disciples that this story is about the Kingdom of God. What will it be like when Christ returns and brings his everlasting kingdom with him? So what does he compare it to? A wedding party, a feast! But it’s a party that hasn’t started yet. Why? Because the guest of honor has not yet arrived. Now days we here in western culture would suppose the guest of honor would be the bride. We make a big fuss over the bride at weddings. But in Jesus’ day and culture it was the groom who was the big deal. So the party cannot start without him. He has guests who are eagerly waiting for him. But Jesus says in the parable he “was delayed.” Jesus describes the group of people who are waiting as ten virgins, or maidens. Picture giggly,  single girls excitedly waiting for a party to being. But Jesus makes a distinction between them. Half of them are foolish and half are wise. If there is one thing you DO NOT want to be according to the Bible it’s a fool. Jesus says in Matthew 5: 22 that it’s such a terrible insult  to be called a fool that anyone who calls another person that will be in danger of the fire of hell. Why? Well, being a fool is more than not being very smart. It’s worse than just being stupid. David makes it clear in Psalm 53 when he says, “The fool says in his heart ‘There is no God.’” And he describes fools as being corrupt, and vile. Being foolish is unbelief. It's not believing that there is a God.

To be wise, on the other hand is highly valued according to the Bible. Solomon, Israel’s second greatest king is praised for being wise. In Proverbs One Wisdom is described as a a character crying out and warning of the dangers of foolishness. And Again in Proverbs Eight Wisdom calls out with all kinds of worthy sayings. In Jesus’s parable in today’s passage from Matthew the sign of wisdom is being prepared with enough oil. Five of the ladies waiting for the arrival of the groom have flasks with extra oil in case they have to wait a long time. And according to this parable that is the only thing that distinguished the wise from the foolish. In verse 5 when the groom has still not arrived it says they ALL became drowsy and fell asleep. All ten of them. The wise had no special stamina, or power to keep awake that the foolish didn’t have. They had not brought any strong coffee or green tea with them to keep them awake. So, at midnight when the call comes that the bridegroom is on his way it wakes up all of them. But the foolish ones see that their oil is running out. Their lamps are growing dim. These aren’t big Coleman lanterns that they have, or some like those they  make now days with bright LED lights. They were just very small, clay lamps with a string, or a bit of yarn as a wick. When we sing This Little Light of Mine the emphasis should be on the “little.” But still the floolish maidens don’t even  have enough oil to keep those small lamps burning.

And althoughwhole the mark of the wise in this parable is that they have brought extra oil, generosity does not seem to be one of their characteristics. They won’t do what your parents taught you to do from a young age. When the five foolish ones ask them to share, they say, “There’s not enough to go around!” So off go the foolish girls to buy more oil. But in the meantime the groom shows up, the wise girls go in, the party starts, and the doors are shut. The foolish ones are locked out. They can’t get in even when they call out. In fact from inside the groom says, “I do not know you.” Well, in the end you might expect Jesus to say, “The moral of the story is, ‘Have enough oil.’ Or “Have extra oil.” But instead he says, “Watch! Be alert!” for you know neither the day, nor the hour of the grooms return.

See it seems the parable is more about the delay, the waiting because of the unexpected lateness of the groom’s arrival. “Watch!” sounds very much like what Jesus said to the disciples in the Garden of Gethsemane in the early hours of Good Friday when they all fell asleep. “Watch and pray,” he told them, “so you don’t fall into temptation.” Christ is returning but we just don’t know when. In fact Jesus said he himself did not know when.

As for the oil it could be faith. Sometimes this parable is interpreted that way. But there’s really no way to get more of that. You can nurture your faith, take care of it. “Faith comes by hearing,” it is said. So it’s good to hear God’s word. But you can’t create faith on your own by force of will. 

When I read the parable this time the new thing that struck me was that the groom comes while the foolish one have gone to buy oil. There are those who will try to sell you oil. But faith cannot be bought. Martin Luther said that whatever you substitute for god will become your god. But it will be an idol. It won’t be a god that gives life but one that takes it away from you. And there are many kinds of oil, substitutes for God, that we are tempted to buy. Think of all the temptations and addictions that we fill up on. I’m not just talking about the obvious ones like addiction to drugs. Those are bad enough. But some are more subtle. Recently we hear about our preoccupation with social media or web surfing. Have you ever sat down at the computer, or looked into your smart phone “just for a few minutes” and looked up and three hours have passed? And it can be even more subtle than that. We can make idols out of our feelings and opinions. Recently conservative writer David Brooks talked abut the emotional rush that people get from being outraged. Whatever you are angry or worked up about can give you a high, a rush. Brooks wrote, “Permanent indignation is NOT a healthy emotional state.” But it can feel good even if it is ultimately stressing you out. There’s a recent parable that has been popular lately. It’s attributed to native Americans; you may have heard it. A wise grandfather is talking to his grandson and he says, “In every human being there are two wolves that are fighting. One wolf is love and the other is hate.” And the grandson asks, “Which wolf will win?” And his grandfather says, “That depends on which wolf you feed.” Sometimes we try to fill ourselves up, we feed on all sorts of  things that temporarily make us feel good but cannot finally substitute for the love of God.

I think that oil that the wise girls have in Jesus’ parable is probably related to the oil of blessing of anointing that we hear about in the Bible. The prophets and kings had oil poured on their heads as a sign that God was with them. The early church was told to annoint the sick with oil for healing. And David in Psalm 23 talking about how God was with him, even guiding him through the valley of the shadow of death says, “You spread a table, a feast before me… You anoint my head with oil. My cup runs over." God blesses him so much that the blessings are spilling out of his cup. See, that’s the oil of God’s mercy and grace. You con’t have to run off somewhere to buy it. If we think of it as faith, we might get a little worried. We  might wonder if we have enough. You look around and it looks like other people have more than you do. You might start to wonder, “Am I one of the foolish ones?” But if it’s God’s grace- if even faith is a gift- then there’s more than enough of it. And it’s freely given. At that first Lord’s Supper Jesus said the wine was his blood, “poured out for you for the forgiveness of sins.” There was plenty to go around. Luther described God’s grace and love as being like a tidal wave, or an ocean that swallows up your sins like they were no more than a spark. So as we wait for Jesus to return we can count on God to give us a rich supply of his forgiveness, mercy and grace.

See God is not like those wise girls who refused to  share their oil. When you are running low on hope, on faith, on peace, on joy. When you think surely there cannot be enough grace to cover my sins. When your lamp seems to be bone dry; when you are running on empty, and worn out then you can confidently turn to your savior. You can say, “Jesus, I could really use a refill.” To which your redeemer replies, “Well of course you can have more. Absolutely. There is plenty to go around.” As Paul put it in Romans 5:17 when he compares Adam’s sin to Jesus’ forgiveness,  “…how much more will those who receive God’s abundant grace and the gift of righteousness reign in life, through the one man Jesus Christ.”
Thanks be to God.

Sunday 10/18/20

“…To God the Things that Are God’s.”
(Matthew 22:15 - 22, Isaiah 45:1 - 7, Psalm 96:1 - 13)

This morning we have one of those question which were asked to Jesus, that I mentioned a couple of weeks ago. At that time I said that Jesus’ opponents eventually learned that it wasn’t a good idea to interrogate Jesus, because they were never able to trip him up. They hadn’t figured that out yet when they ask him the question in our Gospel lesson for today.  Over the past few Sundays I’ve said that Jesus just repeatedly hammers his enemies in the parables he tells. He makes them look bad. Well, today we have their counter-attack. They strike back. And so Matthew records that “they plotted to entangle him in his words. They find a question to which there is no good answer. It’s a trap. It’s like asking, “Have you stopped beating your wife?” If you say, “Yes.” it means that you were  beating her. But if you say, “No.” it means that you were AND you still are. You look bad either way. So they hope they can discredit Jesus with this question. Make him look bad in front of the people.  It is worth noticing who goes to him to ask the question. The Pharisees, the upholders of The Law, send their disciples. And the Herodians, those who support King Herod, go with them. Well, under ordinary circumstances, those two groups did not get along at all. And they would have opposite answers to this question, “Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar?” The Pharisees and other very zealous Jews held that Israel’s true ruler was God. So paying taxes to a foreign ruler was like making an offering to an idol. Of course it was NOT lawful to pay taxes to Caesar. The supporters of King Herod, on the other hand, knew that the king got all his power from the Romans, so of course you must pay taxes to Caesar. In fact the only thing that made it possible for these two groups to work together in this case is that they both hated Jesus. They were out to get him. And as to the question, if Jesus said, “No, it’s not lawful to pay taxes to Caesar.” then he’s a dangerous rebel in society against the established order and they can have him locked up. But if he said, “Yes, you should pay taxes.” then he is an idol worshiper who has no respect for the Law of God.

Now when they first come to Jesus they start by really buttering him up. They say, “Teacher we know that you are true and teach the way of God truthfully, and you do not care about anyone’s opinion for you are not swayed by appearances.” You talk about oily. They are really greasing the wheel. If your kids or somebody else comes to you with this kind of flattery you should immediately be suspicious. Be on your guard right away. If my  kids come and say, “Oh Dad, you must be the best father in the whole world. I love you so much. And you are such a great preacher. I could listen to your sermons all day long.” Right away I think, “Okay, what do you wants?” Or, “What did you do?” And verse 39 of this Gospel lesson says, “But Jesus aware of their malice.” He is not being fooled by this. Your may remember how I said in past weeks he often asks his own questions in response to theirs. Here he makes what he thinks very plain. “Why put me to the test, you hypocrites?” He sees right through them. So he says, “Show me a coin.” And he asks a question that any third grader could answer, “Whose likeness and inscription is this?” And they all say, “Caesar’s.” And Jesus responds, “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesars, and to God the things that are Gods.” He slips right through the noose of their trap. He makes a clean escape. It says, “they marvelled.” They are left with their mouths hanging open. How’d he do that? It seems like he did a magic trick that they can’t explain. “And they left him and went away.”

This lesson goes back to that earlier question Jesus’ enemies had for Jesus after he had thrown the money changers out of the temple. They asked him, “By what authority do you do these things, and who gave you this authority?” Here in today’s lesson Jesus says, there is in fact, earthly authority. You do live in a society with rules and regulations and even taxes. When I have taught The Ten Commandments, I’ve told students before God in Heaven your conscience is completely clear. The Law cannot save you. Jesus did that. So why do we need the commandments? And then I ask, “Do you live in Heaven?” No, you live here where it’s important to honour your father and mother, and to remember the Sabbath Day, and to treat your neighbors the way you would like to be treated. God wants there to be civil government. In fact in Luther’s explanation of the Lord’s Prayer he says that’s one of the things we are asking for when we pray “Give us this day our daily bread.” We are praying for the blessing of a good and just government, of authorities, among many other things.

But we are not just citizens of this country, or of this earth. You are also children of God and citizens of Heaven. So there is an ultimate authority. In our Psalm today the psalm writer points us to that authority. In verse 5 he writes, “As for all the gods of the nations, they are but idols; but it is the Lord who made the heavens.” And in verse 10, “Tell it out among the nations: the Lord is King.” And our Old Testament reading has God through the prophet Isaiah talking to King Cyrus who is going to let God’s people go back from Babylon to their homes in Israel. Remember this is being said to a foreign king. The prophet said, “Thus says the Lord to his anointed, to Cyrus, whose right hand I have grasped.” And he talks about all the ways he will bless Cyrus. But in verse 3 he says, “that you may know that it is I, the Lord God of Israel who call you by your name.” and goes on to say, “I name you though you DO NOT know me. I am the Lord, and there is no other, besides me there is no God;” And he repeats that in verse 8. “I am the Lord, and there is no other.” There is the authority of King Cyrus, and there is the final authority which is God.

This comes up in the New Testament in the trial of Jesus before Pontius Pilate the Roman Governor. Pilate satisfies himself that Jesus is really not a threat to his authority, but he is frustrated that Jesus just doesn’t seem to understand that authority. Finally Plate says, “Don’t you see that I have power to set you free and power to crucify you?” And Jesus replies, “You would have no power over me if it were not given to you from above.” (John 19:11) Yes, Jesus says, you have some power, but there is the ultimate power that comes from God. 

Most of the time in this country we can honour both powers. God has put civil authorities in power and we can support and respect the rules. And we can worship and praise God. As Peter wrote in 1st Peter 2:17, “Love the brotherhood of believers, fear God, honor the king.” But sometimes there are conflicts, as when a governor says you can’t go to worship. Then we have to say, “Whoa! Wait just a minute! You might be over-stepping the limits of your authority.” I think though sometimes we worry too much about the immediate, civil powers over us and forget the ultimate power. Sometimes we can even forget and start to think that we are in charge of everything. We forget that there is a God, a God who loved the world, who loves you so much that he gave his only son to save you. And he sent his Holy Spirit to  remind you of that son and of his saving power. So when it seems that you are walking through the valley where shadows are very, very dark, when it seems like everything is going down the tubes, you too can say, “Wait a minute! I will fear no evil for you are with me.” Or as the famous 14th century Christian mystic, Julian of Norwich put it, “All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well.” because your loving and gracious God is in charge.

And because we have Jesus as our king and the final authority who overcame sin, death and the devil we have hope. Hope even when the future seems uncertain. As Martin Luther put it, “Hope is a soldier. It fights against tribulations, the cross, despondency, despair and waits for better things to come” and hope “looks to the goodness of God.”

Thanks be to God.

Sunday 10/11/20

Clothed in Jesus’ Grace
(Matthew 22:1 - 14)

When I read our Gospel lesson today I was reminded of many years ago when I would go out for job interviews. I’d get dressed up in a suit and tie and take my resume’ to somebody who might want to hire me. And after the interview was over I’d feel like I should do something special. I had gone to all the trouble to put on good clothes, and I kind of regretted that I didn’t have a hot date, or a reservation at great restaurant. Today’s  parable is about having the right outfit for a very important wedding. But it is NOT about going through the closet to find your best clothes. This Gospel lesson from Matthew also continues the theme we’ve seen over the last three weeks. Jesus is just hammering his opponents. It starts right out saying, “Again Jesus spoke to the hight priests and the Pharisees.”And this time he tells a story about a king giving a wedding for his son. He is comparing the kingdom of God to that special occasion. Now you can imagine this would be a very important social event, one that you should not miss. A friend of mine asked, “Who in their right mind would refuse an invitation to the wedding of Prince Harry and Megan Markle, or to the wedding of Charles and Diana if you think back?” Of course you would accept that invitation. And more importantly  in the parable, because it’s the king’s son, and Jesus says this is what the kingdom of God is like, it would be an insult to the king, or to God, to refuse the invitation. And yet that is what some people do. Some say they are just too busy: one goes to his farm and another to his business. They just don’t have the time. Verse 5 says they paid no attention to the invitation. Remember that wedding feasts in Jesus’ time could last as long as along as week or more. That’s one reason the wine ran out at the wedding of Cana. But some people in this story just ignore the invitation. When I chose the hymn Jesus Calls Us O’er the Tumult I got to thinking that perhaps the tumult isn’t the storms of life. It’s not the big upsetting events like the pandemic. Maybe it’s just the noise of our everyday lives. Just our busyness. Maybe sometimes we just take the invitation and toss it on the stack with the junk mail because we’re too busy. But worse yet there are others in this story who grab the servants who bring the invitations and shamefully insult them and kill them. Here Jesus is really driving home the point of last week’s parable. Remember the tenants in the vineyard abused and killed the servants and finally they even killed the vineyard owner’s son. Again here Jesus makes that same point. And like last week he says the king was very angry and sent his troops and destroyed those murderers and burned their city. And in this case Bible scholars agree that Jesus is predicting the destruction of Jerusalem by the Roman army which would happen in the not too distant future.

But now what is the king to do? He says he’s got his wedding feast all prepared, but those who were invited were not worthy. So he tells his servants, “Go out to the main roads and invite all you find both good and bad.” I was reading a commentator who said that by saying the main roads, or the highways and byways, as some translations read, he is saying go to the places where you will find the Gentiles. People like you and me. People who are not Jewish. Gather them all in, both good and bad. It sounds great! Like a wonderful example of God’s mercy and grace.

But we still have the problem of what to wear to such a grand occasion. Well, it turns out to be not a problem after all. Because it was the custom of the day in Jesus’ time for a king to give a wedding outfit to anyone who attended a royal wedding. You didn’t have to worry about what to wear; the appropriate clothing was provided for you. It sounds wonderful.

Yet we are left with this troubling image of this one guy at the end of the parable. The king finds one person who isn’t dressed properly. When I first heard this I thought it seemed unfair. If you round up people, both good and bad, from the highways and byways you’re bound go find some that don’t have good clothes. That was before I learned that the king actually gave each guest good clothing. So what happened in this case is that this person has refused the king’s offer of a fine wedding suit. In a way I can understand that. Back when I was going out on job interviews I would really have preferred to wear jeans and a T-shirt. Suits were uncomfortable and neck ties don’t seem to serve any purpose except to strangle you. But I  knew that you make a better impression if you dress well. And in the parable the king is so insulted that he has the man cast out of the wedding feast into outer darkness where there is wailing and gnashing of teeth. 

So how are we to be dressed appropriately? What are the well dressed men and women wearing in the Kingdom of God? Well, Paul tells us at the end of Galatians chapter 3. Now you probably don’t think of being baptised as getting dressed. I know I think of it more like getting cleaned up, maybe like taking a shower. But Paul says, “…for all of you who were baptised into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek (that’s us), slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” God has leveled the playing field, brought in the good and the bad. And so Paul says you are all heirs, inheritors of God’s kingdom. Sometimes we feel like that guy at the end of Jesus’ parable. Because of sin we look at ourselves and then look around and think, “Uh oh! I’m not really dressed appropriately for the the occasion. Oh no, I forgot my tie! I’m wearing jeans and a T-shirt when I should be in a tuxedo or a formal gown.” At times like that it’s good remember that in baptism you have put on Christ. You have been covered with Jesus. When God looks at you he doesn’t see you and your sins. He sees Jesus who died for you. Just like it says in that great hymn, My Hope Is Built on Nothing Less, “Clothed in His righteousness alone, redeemed to stand before the throne.” It’s not that your clothes are so elegant, but you have been clothed and redeemed in the righteousness of Jesus, in his blood and righteousness. 

A good friend of mine recently shared this passage from Isaiah 61 which was new to me:
“I delight greatly in the Lord; my soul rejoices in my God. For he has clothed me with garments of salvation and arrayed me in a robe of righteousness, as a bridegroom adorns his head like a priest, and as a bride adorns herself with jewels.” So in Jesus you are covered with a robe of salvation. You wear the beautiful jewels of his mercy and grace. No longer are you a beggar at the feast, because of Jesus you are a welcome guest in the Kingdom of God.

Thanks be to God.

Sunday 10/04/20

The Winner and Still Champion
(Matthew 21:33 - 46)

I think it’s worth pointing out that in all Jesus’ confrontations with his opponents: the scribes,the elders, the Pharisees and the Sadducees, Jesus come out looking good and they look like losers. Even when it seems that they have the Law on their side they still lose. They call jesus severaltimes for healing on the Sabbath, which is part of the Law, but Jesus comes back at them by asking, “Is it right to do good on the Day of Worship, or to do evil?” He is saying it might be wrongaccording to the letter of the Law, but what I am doing is morally right. So his opponents still end up looking bad. The final score is scribes and Pharisees zero, and Jesus however many points heracked up, and there were a lot of them. In fact in Mark’s Gospel 12:32 when one of the respected teachers of the Law praises Jesus it says, “And from then on noone dared ask him any more questions.” I think they were probably also tired of losing. When they finally trap Jesus how do they get him? Because he tells the truth. They ask, “Are you the Christ,the son of the Blessed?” And he says, “I am.” And that’s all they need to get him.

Well you would think that after last weeks Gospel passage when Jesus told his enemies, “Theprostitutes and tax collectors are going into the kingdom of God ahead of you, because they believed.” that might have been the final put down. Jesus has cut them off at the knees and they’refinished. But no. There’s more. When today’s Gospel passage begins Matthew records that Jesus said, Hear another parable.” Now if you were of the chief priests or the elders, after hearing  thatlast parable you might just want to pack up and leave at that point. You’d probably think, “On no. Here we go again.” And you’d be right. Jesus gives them other barrel from the shotgun he fired lastweek.

In my sermons recently I have emphasised that you are not in charge of your eternal salvation. Thereare things that you can do to nurture faith: hearing God’s word, reading the Bible, being active in church, having devotions at home, praying and things like like. But ultimately God, through thesacrifice of Jesus, has taken care of your eternal salvation. But responsibility for some things has been put in your hands. Martin Luther said you have free will over those things that are below, orbeneath you. He talked a lot about our vocations, what God has given us to do, whether it be a paying job, or something like being a good parent, or a student or a friend. Well, in Jesus’ parablesome things have been put into the hands of some tenants. The master in the story has a vineyard. He owns it. But he leases it to tenants. He gives them responsibility to take care of it, for alimited time. When the grapes are ready for harvest he expects some of the profits. Now if you can think back to when you were in high school maybe you can remember reaching the age where yourparents wanted to take of on a trip and they decided you were old enough to stay at home and be left in charge. Now some kids in that situation decided, “Time for a party!” I can remember driving inthe suburbs on the weekends and you might see a house with more cars than usual. Hmmm, Mr. and Mrs. Jones must be out of town. But in my own experience from those days nobody that I ever heard ofever said, “Oh, the house belongs to us now!” Of course not! The kids might have been a little irresponsible but usually they didn’t go overboard.

Well, that’s not what happens in Jesus parable. It says the master has gone into another country. Andthey seem to believe that he’s never coming back. They know that he’s still out there somewhere because he sends servants to them. The first batch they beat one, kill another, and stone another one.But then it says he sends more than he did before, and they treat them the same way. And finally when he sends his son, thinking they will surely respect him, they plot and kill him saying, “We willhave the inheritance if we kill him.” Crazy thinking! Even in the murder mysteries on T. V. you don’t inherit anything unless you’re named in the will! But that is what these tenants do. So Jesusasks his opponents what the master should do to those murderous tenants. And they rightly reply, “He will put them to a miserable death, and give the vineyard to others who will give him the fruitsof the harvest.” And Jesus has got them again. He says, “So the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and be given to a people producing its fruits.” Score one more for Jesus, and against thosewho had been treating God’s Kingdom like their own private, personal domain. They ran the temple and interpreted God’s word, deciding who could get in to the Kingdom of God and who would be leftout. 

Jesus also quotes those great verses from Psalm 118. Those words come right before the verse thatsays, “This is the day the Lord has made, let us rejoice and be glad in it.” Why are we rejoicing? Well Jesus said, “The stone the builders rejected has become the foundation, the chief cornerstone.This was the Lord’s doing and it is marvellous in our eyes.” It’s marvellous, amazing. That stone, rejected by the scribes and Pharisees, was Jesus himself. It is marvellous what God has done insending him to save you. It is amazing, even awesome in the true sense of the word, that God would give up what he loved the most, what one hymn calls “the bright jewel of his crown” to save you andme.

And remember what I said at the beginning of this message: when you look at his confrontations withhis opponents, Jesus always wins. And that applies to his relationship with you too. In the hymn Abide with Me we sing, “O thou who changes not.” He doesn’t lose hold of you at some point. In fact indying on the cross Jesus wins the final victory over sin, death and the devil. Martin Luther in his hymn, A Mighty Fortress spoke of when we were losing the battle. And then a champion came to fightwho holds the field victorious. “You ask who this may be. Christ Jesus it is he. God’s only son adored.” In Psalm 110:4 David wrote the Lord “has sworn and will not change his mind.” And he wasprophesying about Jesus your great high priest. And so Paul in that great passage from Romans 8 practically bursts into song when he talks about Jesus who will not change, who will not let you go. Hetalks about all the things that make us fearful and doubtful, “things present and things to come.” I think these days we worry more about the things to come. “What does the future hold.” But Paulconcludes that nothing in all creation will be able to separate us from the love of God that is ours in Christ Jesus our Lord. As they used to say in the days of boxing championships, “The winner andstill champion is Jesus your saviour.”


Thanks be to God.

Sunday 09/27/20

The Last Shall Be First
(Matthew 21:23 - 32)

You might think that by now the chief priests and the elders would have learned that it’s not wise to get into one of these question exchanges with Jesus. Every time they ask him a question he just asks one right back at them. For instance they think they can trap him when they ask, “Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar?” Rather than saying yes, or no Jesus says, “Whose picture is on the coin?” And when a lawyer tried to test Jesus he asked, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus fired right back at him, “What is written in the Law? How do you read it?” So things tend not to turn out well for the authorities when they question Jesus.

In our Gospel lesson for today I suppose they must ask him some things because Jesus’ behaviour is drawing a lot of public attention. Shortly before this he rode into Jerusalem on what we now call Palm Sunday, and people welcomed him like a king. Then he went to the temple and drove out the money changers and the people who were selling animals for sacrifices. Nobody ever did that before. Jesus is really rocking the boat, or tipping over the apple cart. So the people who should be in charge and who think of themselves as in charge ask him, “By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?” This time Jesus is very clear. He says, “Tell you what. I will ask you a question. And if you answer mine, I will answer yours.” Uh, oh. They probably realise that they are in trouble. And Jesus asks, “Those baptisms that John the Baptist performed, were they from Heaven, or from men?” And they are stumped. They probably remember that they have asked tricky questions like this themselves. That one about paying taxes to Caesar is one good example There is no safe answer. There is no answer that makes them look good to the question Jesus has asked. if they say John’s baptisms were from Heaven he will ask, “So why didn’t you believe him?” But if they say, “From men.” the crowd who did believe John, will turn against them. So they take the easy way out and say, “We don’t know.” And Jesus says, “Well then, I won’t answer your question about my authority either!”

But he’s not done with them yet. He tells them a little story about a man with two sons that he wants to work in his vineyard. When he goes to the first one and says, “Please, go to work.” the boy flatly refuses. “I will not!” He sounds rude and arrogant. Not a nice kid. But afterward he has a chance to think it over. And he thinks, “Gee, I was awfully rude to my dad. I probably hurt his feelings. This isn’t the way I want to treat my father who loves me.” He has a change of heart, and he goes to work. Well, the father who is no doubt stung by his first son’s refusal goes to the other boy and asks him to go to work. This one is a fine upstanding young man. He answers politely, “I go, sir!” He sounds like a nice kid. But he doesn’t go to work. He doesn’t do what he said he would do. And so Jesus asks the authorities who came to question him, “Which of these two sons did the will of his father?” And they all say, “The first!” And then Jesus pulls the rug out from under them. It’s like when the prophet Nathan confronted King David with his sin. He got him all worked up and then shocked him by saying, “You are the man!” Here Jesus says, “You are like that second son, who lied to his father. You sound good and upright but you don’t do your father’s will. So the tax collectors and prostitutes go into the kingdom of Heaven ahead of you!” Jesus chose the worst examples of sinners the authorities could think of to really shock them. He said, “They’re better than you are.” Why? Because when John the Baptist came in the way of righteousness you did not believe him.” He’s not going to let them get away with that non answer, “We don’t know.” Jesus says clearly, “You did not believe. But the tax collectors and prostitutes believe. And even when you saw their faith, the belief of those poor sinners, you did not change your mind, like that first rude son in the parable, who felt bad, who had a change of heart and went to work. to. No, you did not repent and believe him.

I looked but I did not find a good Martin Luther quote for this particular passage. Some of what Luther wrote has not yet been translated in English, but I would bet there are a lot of them out there. Because this story is about repentance. The first son had a change of heart. He felt badly about the way he had treated his father. He’s like The Prodigal Son trudging slowly back home saying to himself, “Father, I have sinned against God and against you.” But this story is also about faith. Jesus told his questioners, “The tax collectors and the prostitutes believed.” Last week we heard that parable of the workers who all received the same pay even though some of them only worked for an hour. And I read that passage from Romans where Paul says the Gentiles have received a righteousness that comes by faith. I was saying, “That’s us! We are the johny-come-latelies to God’s kingdom. Yet through faith Jesus’ grace is sufficient to cover all of us who are late to the party. And that passage from last week concluded, “For the first shall be last and the last shall be first.” Here Jesus make the same point. Those horrible sinners, the tax collectors and the prostitutes, the last ones you’d expect to find in God’s Kingdom, they have been moved to the head of the line. They are getting in first! Why? Because they believe in a forgiving and gracious God. It reminds me of the story that Jesus told of the Pharisee and the tax collector who went to pray at the temple. And the Pharisee stood up front where everyone could see and hear him and loudly thanked God for how good he himself was. And how much better he was than that tax collector standing back in the shadows. But the tax collector couldn’t even look up to God, but simply said, “God have mercy on me, a sinner.” And Jesus concluded, “It was the tax collector who went home forgiven.”

So for you and me too God calls us to  repentance and also to true faith. In fact God does more than just call; he gives you the Holy Spirit, who opens your ears and your hearts so you are able to believe in Jesus and his grace and forgiveness. That parable Jesus told was all about doing the work that the father wanted his children to do. In John’s Gospel some followers of Jesus asked him directly, “What must we do to do the work God requires?” And Jesus answered “The work God requires is this: to believe in the one he has sent.” To believe in Jesus that’s a gift from the Holy Spirit. To have faith even when you feel like you’re in last place. Even when you feel like you’re not doing enough, or that you’re doing the wrong thing. It is that faith in Jesus that believes that God is loving and forgiving. It is faith that gives you confidence to cry out to him. That relies on God’s mercy and grace. That trusts in the savior God has sent. And it is Jesus who carries you into his kingdom. 

Thanks be to God,

Sunday 9/13

God’s Mercy and Forgiveness
(Matthew 18:21 - 35, Genesis 50:15 - 21)

When I read today’s Gospel lesson I could hear my mother’s voice and what she said many times when I was a kid. She was usually talking to me and my sister, or me and one of my cousins. She’d call out any time we got into a quarrel or somebody came complaining about something I or my sister had done. She’d give us an order. She’d say, “Say you’re sorry … and MEAN IT!” That sounds pretty much like what Jesus says at the end of this passage from Matthew. That’s how he concludes this parable, “…forgive your brother from your heart.” But Jesus’ message is even stronger because it ends with the servant being thrown in jail, still facing an overwhelming debt. So Jesus warns his disciples, “So also my heavenly father will do to every one of you, if you do not forgive from your heart.” My mother probably had hopes that if we got into the habit of asking for forgiveness, and meaning it, we’d eventually grow up to be good people. Jesus on the other hand says, “Forgive, or else.” This parable has been called The Unforgiving Servant and The Unmerciful Servant. It’s a parable with a negative example. This is a good example of what you should not do. Do not be like this servant. I think I’d give it a different title. I’d call it The Forgetful Servant or The Servant with a Short Memory.

There’s a reason this it’s paired up with the story of Joseph from Genesis 50 for this Sunday. In that passage Joseph’s brothers look pretty good compared to the servant in Jesus’ story. After their father Jacob dies Joseph’s brothers start to feel guilty. They remember how terribly they treated their little brother all those years ago. How they tossed him down a well, and even talked about murdering him, and then they sold him as a slave. And they were terrible to their father too. They broke Jacob’s heart when they lied and told him Joseph was dead. But now Joseph is the 2nd most powerful man in the great kingdom of Egypt. So they think the wrath of God has caught up with them. They fear that their sins have caught up with them. And they make up a story of how Jacob wanted Joseph to forgive them. When he hears it Joseph feels bad because they are so afraid of him and his vengeance. He asks them, “Am I in the place of God (to execute judgement)? The evil you did God turned to good. Do not fear for yourselves or your families.” And he comforts them. Well, the servant in Jesus’ story has no such qualms of conscience. He also goes before a powerful king. And he goes with a huge debt hanging over his head. It’s an overwhelming amount: ten thousand talents. The only way for the king to get even some of his money back is to sell the servant, his wife and children and all his property. That’s how badly, how deep this man is in debt. As I said two weeks ago Psalm 49 puts it very well, “The ransom for a life is costly, no payment is ever enough.” It made me think of letters I got from the IRS about my parents back taxes which now I owed them. Terrifying. A friend of mine got one of those IRS letters too threatening him years ago. He took it to his accountant who told him, “On they’re just trying to scare you.” My friend said, “Well, it’s working!!” In Jesus parable this man goes to the king with terror in his heart, in fear of prison and losing everything. But he makes a plea to the king, “Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.” Now the king is settling accounts. He knows what is owed to him, and what this servant’s wages are. There is no way, even given a thousand years that the servant can make good on that promise. So Jesus says, “Out of pity for him the master released him.” The king forgave him. The king wiped the slate clean. He let him go, debt free. 

And this where the forgetfulness kicks in. Because that same servant meets one of his fellow servants who owes him money. The debt is relatively small, one hundred denarii. Yet the servant who was set free grabs this other man by the throat and begins to strangle him. And when his victim chokes out his plea it sounds very familiar, “Have patience with me and I will pay you everything.” But the forgetful servant forgets that he spoke those very same words. He forgets the pity, the mercy and kindness of the king, and he throws his debtor into prison. So he has to face the king again, who says, “What have you done? You who received forgiveness, should not you forgive your debtors from the heart?” And indeed we should. We have received the forgiveness of God. We have been set free in Christ. But being the sinners that we are, we don’t always live as forgiving people. I don’t know about you but in my case it’s actually a good thing that I don’t  meet up very often with some people in my life. Jim Nestigen once said in one of his lectures there are some people, sometimes the people closest to you, who can really hurt you; who really know how to push your buttons. There’s a reason we have that expression, “You could just strangle them.” So we ourselves are in need of that mercy and forgiveness again and again. That grace that lets me unclench the fingers I’d like to strangle them with and let those people go free. 

A friend of mine served for many years at churches in Japan. And he spoke those words of the brief order of confession and forgiveness Sunday after Sunday after Sunday in Japanese. And then some years ago he came back here and was attending church. And for the first time in a long, long time he heard the announcement in English, “I therefore declare to you the entire forgiveness of all of your sins for Jesus’ sake.” It went straight to his heart. It brought tears to his eyes. He was free because of Jesus. See we don’t remember the weight of our own sins enough. Joseph’s brothers did better. “Uh oh!” they said when their guilt hit them. “We’re in big trouble.” And we also forget the price Jesus paid. We forget the one who got strangled, got beaten and killed. We forget the one who said, “Father forgive them.” And then he said, “It is finished.” And took your sins once and for all and died. He paid the overwhelming price in blood.

Martin Luther was commenting about Zechariah chapter 3 verse 9 where God says, “And I will remove the sin of this land in a single day.” Luther wrote:
“God wanted to provide complete forgiveness in one day. Christ’s suffering would be enough satisfying everything. The author of Hebrews sums it up
beautifully, ‘By one sacrifice he has made perfect forever those who are being made holy.’” (Hebrews 10:14)

So you are set free. Because you are forgiven you are free from holding a grudge. You are free from needing to strangle somebody. You can breathe a sigh of relief and let go. Years ago in confirmation I found a great illustration about sin and revenge. It was a baboon trap that people use in Africa. They take a stick and poke a little tunnel into one of the huge termite mounds you find in Africa. Baboons love to eat termites. So a baboon will come to get some and he reaches in and grabs a handful. But because his paw is now a fist he can’t get it out. He’s stuck and he pulls and pull but he can’t get free. He’s stuck until the bushmen come and capture him. That’s how we get caught: holding on to our own sin, our self righteousness, our revenge. Until Jesus came to set you free. He opened his hands and gave you mercy and grace.

I like the way the psalmist writes in Psalm 124, “We have escaped like a bird out of the fowler’s snare; the trap has been broken and we have escaped.”
We have escaped all that held us captive. it’s amazing. Hard to believe. Even a bit scary.
Instead of getting what we deserved we are comforted and claimed by God. 

Psalm 130 puts it very well.
If you, oh Lord, kept a record of sins,
O Lord, who could stand?
But with you there is forgiveness , therefore you are feared.

In Jesus is your forgiveness. So the slate is wiped clean. In Jesus is your new life and freedom. In him is awesome and steadfast love and mercy.
Thanks be to God.

Sunday 9/5

Who Is the Greatest
(Matthew 18:1 -20)

I mentioned the first verse of our Gospel lesson for this morning last Sunday. I said that the disciples probably had the same hopes and expectations for Jesus that everyone else had: that he would be a great world leader and bring in a new, golden age for the Jewish people, ruling over them from Jerusalem. And even though Jesus told them that he was going to die on the cross they still ask the question we have this morning. “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” Well, this time Jesus gives them a concrete example. He takes a child and stands him right in the middle of the disciples and says, “Unless you turn and become like this child, like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” And he goes on to explain, “Whoever humbles himself, like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.” Turn! Humble yourself! Become like children! Those are words that we don’t usually associate with greatness. In this world greatness is a matter of achievement. Things that you do; tasks that you accomplish; prizes and honors that you win, that’s what we think of as making people great. If you train hard and develop your athletic skills you might stand on the top step and get the gold medal at the Olympics, or win the Superbowl or the World Series. Or if you write and edit and slave away over your word processor your book might make the best-seller list. Or if you refine your recipe and do lots of trial and error baking maybe your pie will get the blue ribbon at the State Fair. It’s all a matter of what you, or you and your team, your group, are able to achieve through your efforts.

And there are some things that can be accomplished by effort and hard work. Last week I told how Martin Luther said you can achieve a lot in daily life by doing those tasks that you have been give to do. It’s even a big help to the people around you when you do them. So Luther said we have “free will” over those things that are below us. Things like building barns or herding sheep, or even some higher callings. In our second reading Paul talks about the “governing authorities.” For some people that is their calling in life. Luther even said when we pray in The Lord’s Prayer, “Give us this day our daily bread.” we are asking for all of God’s blessings in daily life, including good government. But even government is a power that is carried out here on earth. You remember that Jesus told Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor, “You would have no power at all except it has been given to you by my father in heaven.” Government is a temporary power here on earth. But it won’t get you into heaven.

In our Gospel less Jesus tells his disciples, turn and become like children. Adjust your thinking. Turn away from your thoughts of achievement when it comes to entering the kingdom of heaven.That is a power that is above you. It’s not in your hands. Become like children, Jesus said. Well, children really have no power. They are dependent on grown-ups, parents and other adults, for everything. They can’t achieve much. Unless your children are especially talented when they come and show you a picture they drew you’re probably not sure what they have achieved. So, you say something like, “Oh, very nice. Is that a cow?” And they say, “No, it’s a cat.” We praise our kids and encourage them because we want them to achieve things in life, but when they’re young the achievements usually aren’t very big.

And Jesus said, “Humble yourself like this child.” Martin Luther said as we grow older we  become “puffed up.” What he meant was we become proud.  Because we do achieve some things in life, the danger is that we become proud and think we did it all. You probably remember a song that was made famous by Frank Sinatra call MY WAY. The character in the song is saying no matter what life threw at him he overcame it, and as the refrain goes, “I did it my way!” Well, the song does sound really great if you hear Sinatra sing it. So he got a lot of requests for it. But it turns out he hated that song. He said it sounded like the most self-centered, egotistical thing he had ever heard. Even Sinatra, who had a pretty big ego, would admit, “I owe my success to a lot of people.” Well, here Jesus says be humble, like this child. Know that you depend on God, and on other people here in this life. And you certainly depend on God for eternal life. If you want to enter into the courts of the heavenly kingdom you must depend on Jesus. You must put your trust in him.

I got an e-mail the other day that was touching. Somebody was worrying about me. They said, “You take care of your family, and you take care of your congregation. But who takes care of you?” Well, after feeling all warm that they were thinking about me, I thought for a minute and then wrote back. I said, “Well… God.” Isn’t that what Jesus tells us? “The Father himself loves you.” And he told people, “Ask, seek and knock. You will be answered. You will find. Doors will open.” So we are to be humble, depending on God, and trusting in his mercy and grace.

There’s one other thing I want to point out about todays’ Gospel lesson. Jesus literally had the disciples look at a child in this passage. And he went on to talk about real children. But also remember that Jesus used the word “children” as a affectionate term for his followers. When he appeared to them after the resurrection on the shore of the Sea of Galilee he called out, “Children have you any fish?” That’s just one example. But here in today’s Gospel he is talking to you and to me too. We also are children of God.

This passage is pretty long, but I have to tell you originally it was even longer. If you have an older Bible you may find one verse that has become a footnote in modern Bibles. I always think it’s important to include it. Right after Jesus tells about little ones whose angels in heaven always see their father’s face, in what was verse 11 Jesus says, “For the Son of Man came to save the lost.” And then he goes on to tell about that shepherd who goes looking for his lost sheep. Jesus went looking for you. He came here as a human being to find you. He seeks you again when you go astray. He gave his body and his blood for you. He died on the cross to save you. So he rejoices over you. He did what you could not do. He accomplished what you could not accomplish. He brings you home to his kingdom in heaven.

Thanks be to God.

Sunday 8/30

The Price that Is Paid
(Matthew 16:21 - 28)

I’m sure you would react the same way that Peter did on hearing what Jesus told him in today’s Gospel. If your child or your grandchild, or your best friend or husband of wife came to you and said, “I am making a trip to St. Paul and there I will be beat up by the authorities, and dragged before the court, and I will die by lethal injection.” you would say, “No! What are you saying? Don’t even talk that way! Why would you even think something like that?! God forbid that this should ever happen to you!” It would shock you and scare you, just like it did the disciples. Matthew makes a point of saying that this is a change, a shift from Jesus’ public ministry. He continues to preach and heal and forgive sins, but now to his 12 disciples he explains what will finally happen to him in Jerusalem.

The Bible doesn’t tell us exactly what the disciples expected Jesus to do as the Messiah. Many people thought he would start a new age, a golden age for the Jewish people where he would rule in Jerusalem as a king greater than David or Solomon. It’s likely that the disciples believed that too. Jesus overheard them talking about which of them would be the greatest in his kingdom. And the mother of James and John asked Jesus to assign the right and left hand seats right next to his throne to her two boys. And even after his death and resurrection, the first chapter of Acts tells us, when they are gathered in Jerusalem before Pentecost Jesus’ followers ask him, “Lord are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?” So it seems that they also had the expectation that Jesus would rule as a wonderful king here on earth in Jerusalem in a peaceful and golden age. But what he tells them in Matthew 16 is completely different. To suffer and die! That’s terrible, and depressing.

I imagine they were all stunned. You would be too. They were shocked speechless. But Peter spoke up and rebuked Jesus. I think probably felt he had the right to do that. Remember last week Jesus told Peter, that God in heaven had revealed to Peter that Jesus was the Son of the living God. So Peter thinks, “Hey, I have special insight from God! I am the rock! Well, I’ve got to get Jesus back on track. This suffering and dying that’s NOT the plan!” “Never Lord! This shall never happen to you!” But Jesus immediately shuts Peter down hard. He uses the same words that he spoke to rebuke the devil when he was tempted in the wilderness. “Get behind me Satan!” You are a rock? You are a stone in my path that is trying to trip me up. You do not know God’s plan but you are making your won plans. Martin Luther once said he had often made plans that seemed good and reasonable to him and in keeping with God’s will. But they failed. Luther wrote that God must have said, “I really don’t need your help, Martin, thank you very much. I have my own plan and it’s probably not what you expect. My own ways and my own thoughts. Or as he said through the prophet Jeremiah, “I know the the plans I have for you.”

It’s not that God is against planning and preparation. Paul put some planning into his mission travels but it was still clearly God’s work and planning that took him to Rome. And for you and me God’s plan was to save us. So when Jesus turns from Peter to all the disciples he says, “If anyone would come after me let them take up their cross and follow me. If you want to save your life, lose it in following me. Then he asks them, “What good will it be, what profit can you get if you gain the whole world but lose your soul? For what can you give in exchange for your soul?” Forgiveness of sins and the grace and mercy of God are not for sale. And they cannot be bargained for. There is nothing that you have to trade. You know when we have a potluck here people being to think of what they should cook. Or if you’re invited over to some friends house you ask, “What can I bring?” My cousins had a cook out while we were staying with them. While Lynette and I were out shopping we wondered, “They’ll probably have plenty of meat. What should we buy? What can we contribute?” Here Jesus says, when it comes to forgiveness and eternal life, you cannot contribute anything. You cannot save your soul. The cost is too great, and your pockets are empty. We have no rights, no claim or merit to say we deserve the right and left hand seats next to Jesus, or to any place in his kingdom at all. The other day I cam across the words of Psam 49. In verses 7 and 8 the psalmist writes:

“No man can redeem the life of another
or give to God a ransom for him-
the ransom for a life is costly,
no payment is ever enough-
that he should live on forever
and not see decay.” 

And he goes on to talk in detail about the certainty of death. Riches cannot buy a way out. But then in verse 15 he says, “But God will redeem my life from the grave; he will surely take me to himself.”

Our plans are limited. Luther said they’re good for building barns, or herding cattle, or helping out your neighbours or your family (although he said even that might not work out the way you planned). He wasn’t opposed to planning until  you start telling God, “Okay, this is the plan and with a little bit of help from you I’ll get into Heaven.” As that psalm writer said, “…the ransom for a life is costly, no payment is ever enough.”

Jesus’ disciples were shocked by what he said. It’s shocking to us too. I think hearing about Jesus’ suffering and death is so terrifying and sad that the disciples, and we too, stop listening. We miss the last part. We go deaf before we hear the good news. He will suffer and die… AND on the third day rise. When the news gets so bad we sink down into it. We get locked up in our own doubts and fears. And we can’t pay the jailer to let us out into the light. But then Jesus says, “You cannot ransom your life, so I have done it for you.” He suffered and died and rose again. You were bought not with gold or silver but with the precious blood of Jesus and his innocent suffering and death. So you are set free. You walk out into the light because that is God’s plan for you now, and that you may live forever in Jesus’ eternal kingdom. You can join in that great feast given by Jesus even though you didn’t bring anything. I suppose he’ll say to you, “Friend why are sitting in the corner there. Come up closer. It’s good to see you.” Now we cling simply to the cross of Jesus and his saving grace. And you follow as he leads you day by day and onward to his kingdom and life that has no end.

Thanks be to God.

Sunday 8/22/20

The Answer
(Matthew 16:13 - 20, Romans 11:33-12:8)

It’s a good feeling to be able to give the right answer. I don’t know if you were one of those kids in high school or jr. high who always raised your hand. “Call me! Me! Me! I know!” Maybe you knew the answers. I was not one of those kids. I was thinking the other day, “What exactly did I learn in high school?” I don’t remember too many times when I had the answer. I did better in college and at seminary. But this doesn’t just apply to school. Maybe you can listen to an air conditioner that’s breaking down, or look under the hood of a car that is stalled and say, “Oh, there’s the problem right there. That’s easy to fix.” Or your like my kids who can tap the right keys on my computer and get it to do what I want. And then there was the third doctor I consulted in Japan about my knee who said, “Sure I know why you’re having pain. Here’s your problem and this is what we can do about it.” It gives you confidence and hope to talk to those people. It feels good when there are questions and you can say, “Oh, I know this!” If your kids or grandkids need help it feels good to be able to speak from experience and say, “Don’t panic. I think I can help. Did you try this?”

In this morning’s Gospel lesson Jesus questions his disciples. You read in the four Gospels that Jesus is a Rabbi, or teacher. He is even called “the good teacher.” And the Bible tells us that he was teaching the disciples. But today’s passage from Matthew isn’t so much about education. It sounds more like Jesus is checking public opinion, or conducting a poll. I suppose we’ll see lots of those as the election gets closer. Jesus asks the disciples what people are saying about him as he travels around teaching and healing and proclaiming the Kingdom of God. He asks, “Who do people say the Son of Man is?” And the disciples have heard the opinions of all kinds of people. So they answer, “Some say John the Baptist.” Remember King Herod thought that John had come back from the dead. “And others say Elijah. Others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” The return of the Old Testament prophets would have been a sign to the people that Jesus was the Messiah, that Christ had come. You may remember that both the Samaritan woman at the well, and the blind man that Jesus healed thought that Jesus was a prophet. After talking with Jesus that woman went back into town amazed, and told the people there, “Could this man be the Messiah?” And many townspeople came out to meet Jesus and they believed he was the one God had sent. So Jesus has been slowly revealing himself to the people. They still had their own opinions on how the Messiah should act and what he would do for them, but they were beginning to believe in him. 

So Jesus asks his 12 disciples, “But who do you say that I am?” If you remember those kids in high school whose hands shot up into the air when the teacher called you can probably imagine Peter (always enthusiastic, sometimes too much for his own good). He calls right out, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” Peter is the first to say this but I thought it’s possible that he just got ahead of the rest. If you remember a couple of weeks ago, the passage in Matthew 14 when Jesus walked on the water and made the storm and the wind stop blowing it says the disciples all worshipped Jesus and said, “Truly you are the Son of God.” (Matthew 14:33) Peter gives words to what they believe here. He puts their faith in words. “You are the Christ (Messiah) the Son of the living God.” And Jesus doesn’t respond. “You are the best student, Peter.” “You are my star pupil.” Instead he says, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! Flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in Heaven.” The living God has inspired you with this answer.

And then Jesus has this little play on words, “You are Peter,” which means a little rock. You are a pebble. But I will build my church on this rock, a boulder, on this foundation of stone so not even death and the devil will overcome it. At first it seems that Jesus will use Peter himself as the foundation of the church. But that idea gets cancelled out by Paul who wrote to the believers in Corinth. In his letter 1st Corinthians Paul says, “For no one can lay any foundation other than the on already laid, which is Jesus Christ.” So we have a faith like Peter’s but it is faith in Jesus. And we have a witness and confession like Peter’s that says that Jesus is the Son of the living God. And if fact God’s energy. God’s will and God’s purpose is at work to build up his people and give them faith in Jesus. I read that out of the four Gospels it is only in Matthew that Jesus mentions the church. He wasn’t talking about a building. The people of that time worshipped in different places: in the temple, in synagogues and in homes. We read in Acts that on Pentecost when the birth of the church took place they were gathered together in a house. I recently talked to a pastor friend of mine who is out in California. He’s really excited because he and his family are coming to Minnesota next month. For awhile now he’s been leading worship on-line using a live feed, or recording it (and that’s one way the church can worship). But now the people he will serve here have got permission to use a school’s football field so they can meet safely outside. He’s looking forward to preaching and seeing that church. It’s not a building but the people gathering to hear the word. It’s the church of “living stones.” As peter writes in his first letter, “You also, like living stones are being built into a spiritual house.” How? Through the Holy Spirit and hearing God’s word of grace and forgiveness that brings you new life. Paul writes about it in our second reading this morning, in his letter to the believers in Rome. There he gives the picture of the church we as the living body of Christ. And he tells the people to consider their place it “with sober judgement… each according to the measure of faith God has assigned.” He talks about us  like were cells or parts: eyes ears, hands - members of the body. “We though man are one body in Christ… having gifts that differ according to the grace given to us.” And he talks about some of the gifts, teaching, leading, contributing.

So like Peter and those first disciples you know the answer to Jesus’ question. You know who he is, and what he has done for you. Not because we are the smartest kids in class. Not because we always have the answers to all of life’s questions. But because the Holy Spirit creates faith you. Because you have come to believe in the steadfast love and grace of Jesus. By his Spirit and through hearing his word he builds you up. He brings you together or sends his word out to you so your faith and hope are grounded on the sure foundation of Jesus your saviour.

Thanks be to God.

Sunday 8/9/20

Faith While the Waves Roll
(Matthew 14:22 - 33, Job 38:4 - 18)

What do you do when things go from bad to worse? If you say, “Pray!” that’s a good answer. I do that too. But sometimes it seems like things get worse, and it seems doubtful that they will get better. Things go from bad to worse. 
That is certainly what Job experienced. If you have read that Old Testament book lately you know it’s all about suffering. These days it’s probably one we can relate to: disease has turned our daily lives upside down, and now as
we inch our way back to normal we hear that a spike it coming. It will probably get worse. I think Job could relate to this. Bit by bit his happy home crumbles. When his servants come rushing in it’s always to deliver more bad news.
And when his three friends show up they don’t console or comfort him. They are there to judge him and force a confession out of him. The passage we have in our Old Testament reading this morning happens while Job is still sitting on the 
junk heap, the broken brick pile of what used to be his home, where his family once lived. Now he’s alone, sick and he’s been arguing with his accusers. What’s the saying, “When things go bad you find out who your friends are.”? Or you
find out who is supportive and who IS NOT. Things sometimes go from bad to worse. And Job has been crying out to God. “Why did this happen? Is it ever going to get better? Did we do something to deserve this? Is God even listening?”

I suppose the disciples in our Gospel lesson thought the same thing. They had just experienced that great miracle: the feeding of a huge crowd of more than 5,000 people. So they were riding high. But then Matthew’s Gospel says Jesus made
them, or commanded them to go off across the Sea of Galilee. I read one commentator who said that John’s Gospel explains that the crowds wanted to make Jesus a king. And the disciples thought this was a good idea too. But Jesus breaks up
this bunch. He sends the crowds home and the disciples off in a boat across the sea. You recall from last week that this happens after Jesus’ relative John the Baptist was killed. Now Jesus goes off by himself to pray and to mourn for his friend. 

But the disciples are in a bad way. Half way across the in-land sea a storm blows up. It wasn’t that Jesus intentionally sends them into the storm. In fact earlier in Matthew’s Gospel we read that Jesus did give his disciples authority and send them out
ahead of him. He sent them out to tell about the Kingdom of God and cast out evil spirits in all those towns that he would eventually come to himself. And sudden storms often took people by surprise on the Sea of Galilee. Here Jesus is coming, following the disciples. In fact he’s taking the same route. He’s just got another means to get there. But the storm has brought the disciples’ boat to a stop. Our Gospel lesson says they are a long way from land, beaten by the waves and the wind
is against them. Remember in those days some 2,000 years ago wind power, a boat with sails, was the fastest way to travel. But now they are stuck. Stalled and bailing water like crazy.

And then they see something coming, walking slowly along the water. Well things just got worse. They yell out to each other, “It’s a ghost!” and they scream with fear. It seems like it’s all over.  There’s no hope. Things were bad, and then they got worse. Except jesus isn’t there to terrify them. Over the roar of the wind and the crashing of the waves they hear a voice they know. A voice calls out, “Take heart! It is I. Do not be afraid!” They’ve heard that voice before. But they can’t believe what they’re seeing. Nobody ever heard of anybody walking on water. So Peter, who is always sticking his neck out calls, “If it’s you Lord command me, and I’ll come to you.” And Jesus says, “Come.” So Peter stepped out and came to Jesus. See my thought is, that faith is easy is if you’re walking on the water. You can be all about peace and love and courage if you’re Jesus walking on the waves. Or if you’ve got Peter’s energy and courage, and Jesus even called you to come out; then faith seems unshakeable. I like how Jim Nestigen describes the scene: Peter looking around and saying, “Hey, look at me! I’m Peter, walkin’ on the water!” But then suddenly a big blast of wind hits, the kind you have to lean into to keep from falling over. And 
Peter is afraid. They are in the middle of very deep water and Peter isn’t in the boat. “What was he thinking?!” And he starts to sink down. So he cries out, “Lord save me!” And Jesus doesn’t waste a second. He reaches down and yanks Peter up.
I mean they are both in the same storm so I can see Jesus shaking his wet head, saying, “Why did you doubt?”

Well, we doubt for all kinds of reasons. Things don’t work out the way we hoped. Our plans do not prosper, or people we know meet with disaster. Now days the news you hear is generally bad, and it seems like we’re stuck. And the really frightening doubts come, “What if it gets worse?” Well, I’m sure you’ve heard in devotions or sermons that Jesus is always ahead of you, meaning that he knows the road you’re on and nothing takes him by surprise. But I like today’s Gospel lesson: when the disciples are stuck and beat up by the waves Jesus comes walking up from behind them. It took him a little longer to get there but he was on his way. Job cried out, and argued with his accusers, that’s most of the book of Job, but in our Old Testament lesson God shows up. Jesus came walking to where the disciples were stuck going nowhere. When Peter wants some proof Jesus calls him out of the boat. And when Peter is sinking down Jesus plucks him up, saves him from drowning. And when Jesus gets into the boat with them the wind stops. They were stuck in that boat. Far from land. Far from any kind of help, and then Jesus came walking on the water. Not to terrify them with judgement but to save them. In the  end they worship him.
“Truly you are the Son of God.” they say. That’s what we say too in our confession of faith.

I don’t think shouting, “It’s a ghost!” and yelling in fear sounds like much of a prayer. But God does hear us. I was reading our adult forum Bible passages from Exodus when God sent Moses to his his people who were trapped in Egypt. God says, “Tell ‘em I heard them. I heard their cries for help. I will bring them out of slavery.” Jesus heard the disciples yelling in fear. He called out, “I’m coming. Do not be afraid!” When you cry  out in the depths of your heart, “Lord save me.” It’s Jesus who answers, “That’s what I came to do.” Sometimes it seems like we are stuck in the storm with the wind roaring and no way to go, no path to follow. There’s no help in sight and things go from bad to worse. But I read Psalm 77. The psalm writer Asaph said even though he was fainting. Even though he felt hopeless, he would remember what God had been able to do in the past. Even though he couldn’t find a way to go, he ends Psalm 77 by saying “God’s way was through the sea, your path through the great waters, yet your footprints were unseen.” And he decides God was leading just as God leads you and me.

We are not lost with no hope and no particular destination. You are on your way to meet Jesus. Your saviour is coming to gather you up. Take heart! Even through the dark valleys, even in the presence of your enemies Christ hears you. He has saved you. He is your comfort and your guide, so you too can worship and say, “Jesus, you truly are the Son of God.”

Thanks be to God.

Sunday 8/2/20

Jesus Has Compassion on Us
(Matthew 14: 13 - 21, Psalm 145:14 - 16, Malachi 3:10-12)

“I believe that Jesus Christ -true God, Son of the Bather from eternity, and true man, born of the virgin Mary - is my Lord.”
I was reminded of those words when I read our Gospel lesson for this morning. Matthew records that Jesus was truly human and truly God in telling of the miracle of how Jesus fed this great crowd of people. And I discovered that this is the only miracle that is also reported in Mark, Luke and John. So in all four of the accounts of Jesus’ life you have all four Gospel writers make sure to give us this  one. As much as I love the Gospel of John he does not record The Last Supper. But he makes sure to include this incident where he tells how Jeus took the loaves of bread and looked up to heaven blessing them and then breaking them to give to the people. 

Here in Matthew’s Gospel we see first the human face of Jesus - his heart and mind. That he felt sadness just like you and I do. He hears about the death of John the Baptist from John’s disciples. Remember he didn’t hear simply that John had died, but John was executed, killed as an act of revenge. So the “voice that cried out in the wilderness” has been silenced. The hands that baptised Jesus in the Jordan river are cold. In the verse just before this it says John’s disciples took his body and buried it, and then they came and told Jesus what happened. So Jesus goes away to mourn. It doesn’t say that his his disciples are with him. The first verse of this reading says he withdrew by himself. He went off in a boat. The disciples aren’t even mentioned until verse 15. My pastor friends pointed out that Jesus sometimes went off to desolate places to pray. I can picture him sitting in a boat, maybe in some secluded cove to pour out his sadness to God. As one commentator said here you see the humanity of Jesus “a man acquainted with sorrows.” And sometimes even reduced to tears.

But Jesus doesn’t remain in his own sadness for long. When the great crowds came looking for him he goes ashore. And it says he had compassion on them. They weren’t seeking him because he was a celebrity. They weren’t after him like King Herod who wanted to be entertained by seeing Jesus do something miraculous. And they didn’t think he might be an interesting guest speaker like that Pharisee who invited him to dinner. Matthew says he had compassion on them and healed their sick. They hope in Jesus because their friends or their family members are sick and Jesus has the power to heal. I suppose he also proclaimed the good news of God’s forgiveness as well. Often in the Bible we see those two things, healing and forgiveness go together. Jesus said, “Which is easier to say, ‘Your sins are forgiven’ or to the lame man, ‘Get up and walk.’ And he did both of those things. In this passage in Matthew’s Gospel there must have been many sick people. There were 5,000 men not counting women and children. So it is getting late in the day when the disciples came to him saying he should send the people away to find food.

Then we see that Jesus is both human and God. Because he does the miracle that God does through out the Bible. Your Heavenly Father feeds his  children. Think of the manna, the bread from heaven that God gave the children of Israel in the wilderness. And remember the huge flocks of quail he sent when they wanted meat. Psalm 145 is another good example where the psalmist says God opens his hands and satisfies the desires of every living creature. The verse that pinches us a bit here is verse 16 when Jesus tells the disciples, “They need not go away; you give them something to eat.” Well, we know it’s not that simple. You have to calculate and figure out how to feed all those hungry mouths. We aren’t having a Fall Fest lunch this year but usually we have to decide how much pulled pork? How much sour kraut? How many bars? How much food will we auction ff later? So you can feel for the disciples when the look at the crowd and then back to Jesus and say, “We have only give loaves here and two fish!”

Now some people looking at this passage have said, “Well in Jesus’ presence after all those hearings the people just felt really generous. They reached into their bags and pockets and pulled out more food and everybody shared.” That idea has been around for a long time. But no, I read a very fine commentary that said the reason Jesus said, “You give them something to eat.” is so we see clearly just what the disciples saw. There is no way to  feed this huge crowd. And what little they have makes it plain that they do not have nearly enough. But Jesus says, “Give it to me.” And he took the bread and gave thanks and broke to and gave it to the disciples to pass out. That that must have taken a long time. And little by little I imagine it dawned on them, “Hey the food is not running out. There is more and more.” And in fact there were twelve baskets of left overs after everybody had eaten their fill. A miracle happened and five thousand men (about) besides women and children were fed. A friend of mine said that word “compassion” is used only for Jesus in the Gospels. He felt for the people not just because they were sick and hungry. One writer said Jesus saw “their spiritual hunger was even more desperate than the hunger in their stomachs.” I suppose that’s why they came looking for him, why they gathered, and then why they stayed all day to hear him. Hunger of the spirit. A deep need for forgiveness and blessings and the mercy of a saviour. 

When I was looking up passages like Psalm 145 about the generosity and the giving that God does I came across one that was highlighted in the old Bible up here. I’m not sure whose it was but it’s interesting to see what passages somebody else thought were important. One was marked in Malachi chapter 3. God is scolding or challenging the people. He says he will open the store houses of heaven and rain down blessings. God says “Bring the full tithe and test me. See how I will bless you.”
I wondered what God was asking ? When I hear tithe I think we all imagine money, right? Even I think of one tenth of my money, that’s a tithe. But here God doesn’t mention money he talks about food. Like in the Old Testament when Joseph gathered the grain in Egypt against the coming famine. And I also thought of those offerings of grain in the Bible. The first fruits as it says of the fields and the orchards. But then I thought of our Gospel lesson. What did that crowd of people, that huge crowd bring to Jesus? What did they have to share? What offering or sacrifice could they bring? Not even the disciples had an answer as to how they would all eat. They brought nothing to Jesus. They had nothing but their sickness, their hunger, and their emptiness of spirit. But Jesus truly human, sad and discouraged by the death of his friend John, but also truly God, whose steadfast love and mercy endure forever, Jesus looked on them and was filled with compassion. And he looks on you and cares for you, and he gives himself, pours himself out completely for you. He took the bread and looked up and blessed it. And he says to you, “This is my body I give for you. This is my blood I shed for you. My blood shed for the forgiveness of sins.” Take it and eat and drink and live in my grace and compassion.

Thanks be to God.

Sunday 7/26/20

The Priceless Gift
(Matthew 13:44 - 52)

To understand these parables of Jesus from today’s Gospel you probably have to think back to Christmas, or maybe Easter when you were a kid. Of course if you remember back far enough you may recall the possibility of getting a stocking full of coal on Christmas Day or a basket full of switches on Easter Sunday. I don’t think that happens anymore, but I know the switch basket did happen to an uncle of mine, and from what I’ve heard he probably deserved it. But except for the last parable about the net full of fish Jesus isn’t talking about punishment here. These parables are about being amazed, even in fear and awe at the discovery of God’s kingdom. Jesus wraps up the parables in Matthew chapter 13 with these three teachings to his disciples. Later in this Gospel he has a few more but these three are about the surprise and joy of discovery. Even the one abut the fish describes a full net, like the disciples saw when Jesus did that miracle for them twice. You remember on one of those occasions the net was so full they called for help from another boat because they were afraid they’d sink under the weight of fish. And that was after they had caught nothing under their own power.

Well, even if you’re not a fisherman you can recall Christmas seasons when there were stacks of gifts under the tree. But you had high hopes and dreams for one in particular. You were looking for your own name written on the “From Santa” label. It wasn’t always the biggest package. Maybe your parents had stashed it away among the other gifts. Sometimes Mom and Dad even had a present that wasn’t under the tree. They brought out the special one after everything else was unwrapped. Or you maybe have run around the church grounds on Easter Sunday looking for the eggs and chocolate rabbits hidden here and there in the spring grass. We had eggs hidden in our home one year in Wisconsin when it snowed on Easter. Those coloured eggs would have been easy to find out in the snow. And there was the joy of finding where they were hidden behind the curtains or peeking out between books on the bookshelf. In the Gospel lesson Jesus says the Kingdom of God is hidden. It’s like buried treasure in a field. But a person stumbles across it. Quite by chance he discovers it. And it is far better than chocolate Easter eggs or a Christmas present. In fact it’s worth everything that man has. Truly it’s worth more than all his possessions. He doesn’t have to weigh the value of it in his mind. If this were an auction he wouldn’t have to think twice about bidding on it. He can’t believe his luck! He takes a quick look around to make sure nobody else has noticed and then covers it back up. And in the last part of verse 44 Jesus says, “Then in his joy he goes and sells all he has to buy that field.” He’s overjoyed by the discovery. “What have I stumbled on?!” His joy sweeps him up.

The second man is like him, except he’s a professional merchant. He has spent his career looking for fine pearls. In his time I suppose he has weighed and assessed the value of hundreds and hundreds of them, checking their lustre and finding some that are really beautiful. And then one day, just doing his job, he sees one that takes his breath away. He sees a pearl that is like none of the others. This is a pearl beyond price. And he gives his entire fortune to own it. The fishermen in Jesus’s third story also have a great catch. Maybe you’ve been fishing and you know the feeling of getting something on the line. Something really heavy. But you’re not quite sure what you’ve got. It might just be a snag, or an old boot. Well, in this parable Jesus is talking about net fishing. And here he says this is a parable about the end of the age, when Christ returns. In this parable we are the ones in the net. The angels sort out this great catch. Last week Jesus said the good grain is gathered up into his barn. Here he says the good are gathered into containers, but the discards are tossed aside to burned.

When he has finished these three parables Jesus asks his disciples, “Have you understood these things?” And they say, “Yes.” If you read all of Matthew chapter 13 again you see that they do come and ask him to explain his parables. And Jesus did. He told them about the weeds, the temptations that choke out faith, and he explained about the poisonous seed that gets tangled up with the good seed. He also told them how the  Kingdom of God is so small as to be almost invisible. Yet it grows to be a refuge and home for all kinds of people. He said it’s like a little yeast that a baker works into the dough so the bread rises, as faith fills the heart and we give praise to God and trust in him. So the disciples can say they do understand these things because Jesus explained them. Here he’s told them about treasure. But they don’t understand everything about that yet. Because Jesus hasn’t gone to the cross for them yet. The hidden treasure, the pearl of great price is Jesus’ death on the cross. The treasure is Jesus himself. And there is no way for you to buy him, or trade for him, or to win his grace and mercy. Instead God hid him, stashed him like a Christmas gift, or tucked him away like a basketful of chocolate eggs. Jesus took on human form. Isaiah the prophet says he wasn’t handsome or beautiful. In fact Isaiah said God’s servant was “so marred” so disfigured that we didn’t want to look at him. He didn’t look like a treasure. In Isaiah 53:3 the Bible says, “Like one from whom men hide their faces he was despised and we esteemed him not.” Yet he saved you. He died for you.

Yes, the disciples have understood Jesus’ teaching. But Jesus says the master brings out treasures old and new. As Isaiah prophesied speaking for God, “The old things took place and now before they happen I declare a new thing to you.” God is sending your saviour. So Jesus comes to revive you and make all things new like a treasure discovered. Back in the 1970s when the evangelical churches were growing you may remember seeing some bumper stickers on cars. I believe those were the days when the huge megachurches like North Heights had their beginning. Those bumper stickers were everywhere. You saw the slogan a lot. It simply read: “I found it.” That’s not a creed. But it is a declaration of faith. It’s a response to Jesus’
call, “Seek and you will find.”

A couple of years ago after my parents passed away we were cleaning out Mom and Dad’s house. We had a big sale and brought out all the kitchen ware and furniture and things that had been in closets or stored down in the basement. All the stuff we didn’t really want. My cousin was out in the garage on the first day of the sale looking over things to see if there was anything she wanted. And she came to me and said, “Hey, did you want this to be sold?” What she had was a decoration, a wall hanging made out of wood. It was a flat outline of a Dutch windmill made from cut pieces of wood stained dark, with a little wooden shelf to set some knick knack, some little figuring or maybe a small framed picture on. For years that thing hung in my grandparents house, off in a corner. I had forgotten all about it. I didn’t put any special value on it. But my cousin turned it over and on the back is written “Oscar Albrecht, Herrington High School, 1937 - 38. It’s from Dad’s wood shop class. He got a B- on it. It’s hanging on the wall of my office now. That day was kind of like Christmas morning for me, or Easter Sunday when you find a great treasure. In Mark’s Gospel Jesus quotes Psalm 118:22 and 23, “The stone the builders rejected has become the cornerstone; the Lord has done this, and it is marvelous in our eyes.”

The Father has given you the treasure that was buried in a field. The Father has given you the pearl of great price. Jesus is worth everything. Paul practically bursts out in song about this gift. In our second reading from Romans 8 he wrote, “What shall we say to these things? If God is for us who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us?” Can anything take this treasure from you. No. Nothing will be able to separate you from the love of God in Jesus your Lord.

Thanks be to God.


Sunday 07/19/20

God’s Field and God’s Mercy
(Matthew 13: 24 - 30, 36 - 43)

Our message from Matthew’s Gospel for this morning is another parable about planting and harvesting. Last week we heard the parable of the Sower. Where Jesus said
that many things choke and destroy faith in God. But the sower is still creating faith for those who hear God’s word, so sometimes the Kingdom grows even to one hundred times
more than expected. Today the story again is of sowing and harvesting but this time a disaster happens.

In today’s lesson Jesus says he himself, the Son of Man, sows the good seed, the Word of God’s truth, the Gospel of the mercy and Grace of God for sinners. But in his explanation he 
says something different than last week. This time the seed is you and me, the children of the Kingdom of God. But what happens is overnight something other seed got sown. I didn’t realise
how serious this was. I’ve seen fields of wheat and thistles or other weeds growing up in them, and it’s pretty obvious where the bad seed got planted. But the situation Jesus describes is 
different and enemies really did this in his time. There was seed that looked very much like the good, wholesome wheat seed. But enemies sowed this impostor after dark. What grew up looked just
like the wheat. It wasn’t possible to spot the bad plants until the ears or heads of grain appeared. Then it was obvious. And one commentator said this was an agricultural and economic disaster
for the farmer who owned that field. It was a sneak attack. You can think of Pearl Harbor. Or our current situation when this virus came along and just blind-sided us. I was reminded of the story
of the Garden of Eden. When the serpent comes whispering to Eve in that passage from Genesis the Bible says the serpent was more “subtle” than any creature in the garden. He was sneaky and
sly and he sounded rather reasonable. “Don’t worry. You won’t die. You want to be like God, don’t you?” That’s gotta be a good thing, right? Subtle because this grain looks like it would be good to
eat but the results are disastrous. These tares that are planted are poisonous. You might as well burn the whole field.

But when the workers come and ask, “Should we get rid of these poisonous plants? Should we pull them up by the roots?” Jesus says, “No. For the sake of the good seed- for the children of God-
let it all grow together until the harvest. When harvest time comes I will direct my angels to gather the weeds first and tie them up for burning. But the good wheat I will gather into my barn.” What struck
me is that this parable is not about how we plant the crops, or water them or the fertilizer we use. It’s not even about weeding the fields. All the servants do is to report in to the master. When Jesus explains
the parable in verse 38 he says the good seed is the children of the Kingdom of Heaven. That’s you. And he says, “On a day that no one knows, not even the Son but only the Father, on that day when 
Christ returns the children will shine like the sun in the Father’s Kingdom.” Until that day you have this treasure, the shiny gold and jewels of God’s word, of the promise of God’s grace and mercy and truth
in clay vessels. We aren’t too shiny. We don’t shine like the sun yet. 

I was talking with some pastor friends a couple of years ago and one of them was complaining about the church where he served, because he was worried about it. There weren’t any terrible problems or
shocking disasters there. Just the usual difficulties: parents who dropped their kids off for Sunday School but didn’t come to church; people who wanted some changes in the church but when the annual meeting
came they didn’t show up to vote; he took youth out to work camps but he said those kids wouldn’t come to worship on Sunday morning. So he worried about the future of the church. He asked, “What can we do?”
And another pastor friend said, “We are called to be faithful.” That’s what God calls us to be. To be faithful as God calls even to grow up among the weeds. We listen because God is working to bring in his 
Kingdom - to create faith in you and me. 

When  you hear how rotten people can be you know that sin is not just an abstract idea. Some people say, “Just let it all go down the tube.” But I had a hopeful reminder from a seminary student who is studying with the North American
Lutheran Church. He’s not a pastor yet but he wrote a sermon where he said, “In this age when people are yelling across the aisles at each other Jesus calls us to pray for our enemies and even for those who
despitefully use us.” The workers in parable didn’t do, much but they did talk to their master. When you hear how bad things are it’s tempting just to think,  “Let it just go to chaos. Let anarchy rule.” Or you may
wish for God’s flaming judgement. Let God miraculously wipe out the evil like at the Red Sea with Pharaoh, or when the earth open and swallowed the Golden Calf and many worshippers in the wilderness. 
That would be an amazing miracle. But God works a different miracle. Several years ago I heard a bishop speaking. One thing bishops have that we as individual churches don’t is an over view of the church.
They can see the larger picture. What this person said was, “In this day and age the individual churches, the gathering in each congregation is a miracle.” You are part of God’s miracle. You who gather to worship
and confess your sins and your faith. The miracle God works is to send his son. I was thinking about Psalm 8:3 and 4 earlier this week as I was searching for a comet. The Psalmist says “When I consider the heavens the work
of your hands what is all of humankind that you care for us?” Yet once long ago God sent a star to shine where he wanted people to find his baby son. So they could come and worship Jesus their saviour. He became a
human being to give his life for you.  You who are part of the body of Christ. You who have faith in Jesus, you together are part of God’s miracle. For God sent his son to you, not to judge the world, but that so you
and all who believe in Jesus and his saving grace may have eternal life. 

Thanks be to God.

Sunday 7/12/20

The Fruit of the Word
(Matthew 13:1 - 9, 18 -23)

Mark Twain the writer of Huckleberry Finn and Tom Sawyer once said, “It’s not the parts of the Bible I don’t understand that bother me. It’s the parts I do.” There are troubling passages in the Bible. I heard one of 
our pastors from this area telling about a teacher had at seminary. That professor told the students when writing a sermon or reading the Bible you should pay attention to where the words pinch you. Notice the passages
that make your eyes smart like a bee sting, or one of the prods that Paul talked about. When he told of his experience of meeting Jesus on the road to Damascus he said a voice said, “Why do you kick against the prods?”
Like a sharp stick the word of God has passages that poke you and make you kick. The one we heard from Romans in our second reading this morning is a good example. Verse 14 says, “If you live according to the flesh
you will die.” Well that is a sharp poke to us. It’s a clear word of Law, “The wages of sin is death.” We are blessed because we know that that’s not all Paul has to say in Romans 8. Here he talks also about the Spirit we have
that freely calls out to God. But those earlier works do poke like a cattle prod and give us warning. 

Our Gospel lesson for this morning is filled with those images that warn us. They may have lost some of their pinch because we have become so familiar with them. But you will notice that we have two separate parts of Matthew 13
here. The first part is the parable that Jesus preaches from the lake front to a huge crowd that comes to hear. It’s the story of the sower throwing out his seed far and wide. And the results of that planting. And Matthew told them many things
in parables. The Gospels also say that often they didn’t understand what he taught. Earlier in Matthew 13 verses 10 and 11 the disciples ask Jesus why he speaks in parables when he talks about the Kingdom of Heaven. Jesus tells them,
“To you it has been given to know the secrets of Heaven.” To everyone else it’s a mystery, like a story that goes in one ear and out the other. But here in chapter 13 verses 18 to 23 Jesus explains to his disciples and to you and me. If fact
in verse 16 he says, blessed are your eyes that see and your ears that hear - you followers, or little children that listen to Jesus. 

And he does tell them some painful truths. God is the sower. Jesus himself is the teacher bringing the word, the good news of the Kingdom of God to all. He scattered it all around. You might think of Martin Luther who translated the Bible into
the spoken language of the people. Or Sunday school teachers who taught it to you in stories and songs. Or parents and grandparents who had the Small Catechism in their hands to teach you. If you’re very fortunate you got to hear Pastor Craig
Koester, or Jim Nestigen, or Gracia Grindal teach the Bible. The word gets broadcast, put out now days even over TV and the radio, podcasts and computer websites. Also quite a few pastors have climbed up into this pulpit to throw it out there.
The part that pinches in this story as Jesus explains is that it doesn’t always take root. And he tells us why. In the first case he says there is seed that alls on the path. But for anyone who doesn’t understand the word of the kingdom it is easily 
snatched away. We can dismiss it, or say it applies to other people. Or you can say that you meed to be a Bible scholar to figure it out. But that’s not true, although the devil tempts us to  believe it. Remember last week Jesus prayed and thanked God for revealing to little children what was hidden from the wise and understanding. But here the painful truth is that the word is snatched away from some.

And then there are those who hear about God’s Kingdom and receive it with joy, but Jesus says they have no root in themselves. The word does not take hold. It’s nice enough for Christmas Eve or for Easter Sunday. Or maybe it’s like a movie that you really enjoy: good enough for a couple of hours. It’s a good distraction. It’s a feeling that lasts for awhile. My mother told me and expression she had from when she was young for unhealthy or sickly children: they didn’t thrive. They didn’t have
the necessary strength or energy to grow up. Here Jesus describes it as when tribulation of persecution comes because you believe God’s word, when times are rough because you believe that Jesus is the living word and king, then some quickly fall

And there is more painful news, in the third example Jesus says some of the seed fell among thorns. When he explains this to us he says some hear the word but, on one hand our worries and our cares get the best of us. These days we have 
more to worry about than usual. You don’t hear many people telling you what Jesus said, “Do not be afraid. Take heart! It is I.” Or what God says in the words of Psalm 46, “Be still and know that I am God.” Be calms and at peace, because you know
God in your saviour.  Or as Jesus said in the crowd in the Sermon on the Mount “Do not be anxious about your life.” God knows just what you need. This third example in the parable has another temptation that goes with it. In verse 22 Jesus also says that the deceitfulness of riches choke the word. Your wealth can lie to you. Riches can get a stranglehold on you. “I’ve worked and saved all my life.” You’ve heard that expression. Maybe you don’t think of money or savings as an idol but here Jesus
says it chokes the plant so there is not fruit. You remember the story of the rich young man who came to Jesus with a  sincere desire to learn from him. He wanted to know what he had to do to inherit eternal life. He sounds like a great guy, sort of like
a lively puppy. He comes running up to Jesus, kneels at his feet and calls him “Good teacher” when he asks his question. He sounds like he’ll make a great disciple. And when Jesus reminds him that he knows the commandments, numbers 4 through 10, God’s Law about treating your neighbours with love and care, the young man says, “I studied these from when I was a child and put them into practice.” And in Mark 10:21 it says Jesus looks at him and loves him. So he tells this young man, There’s only one thing you lack. Sell your treasures; give to the poor. And come and follow me.” But the man went sadly away. All he had, all he was keeping had become an idol. He had been tricked, deceived into a false sense of security in his treasure. Mark says, “He had great wealth.” And in Matthew’s Gospel Jesus says both lying wealth and fears and works can strangle the word. Choke the seed so it doesn’t bear fruit.

But that’s not the end of the story. Remember Jesus is explaining this parable to his followers who will go and tell of his coming. They will spread the word so he wants them to know the whole story. And he wants you and me to know it too. So he ends his parable by saying there is also the seed that finds good soil to grow in, and it will produce fruit in abundance. Sometimes it’s a hundred times or sixty times or thirty times more than what was sown. And he finishes the parable not with the moral of the story but with a call, “He who has ears to hear, let him hear!” The lesson was to be heard to get in through the ears. It’s different from a philosophy book or a math problem that you pour over and look at till your eyes are sore. Or even a scripture passage, maybe something in Revelation that you have to wrestle with in hopes that the meaning will be revealed. This is a word to hit you right away. So you’d walk away from this as you would feel when somebody says, “Watch out! or “No, don’t touch that hot burner.” or even, “Be still and know that I am God.” Or “This is my body given for you. This is my blood shed for you.” Or  “Come to me all who are thirsty.”

Last week I was preaching about being yoked to Jesus. I said it was like being tied to a work horse or a rugged Indian pony.  I was looking for good images of horses in the Bible. Honestly I didn’t have that much success. Usually the Bible says, while it’s true that horses are strong, do not put your hope in the strength of horses. That not going to be enough to help you. Even the power of a big Clydesdale work horse will not save you. But I did find one Bible passage that praises the horse. It’s in the book of Job. And the quality God praises is that the horse hears. It’s ears perk up at the sound of the trumpet from far away. It hears the call of the commander.  In the parable the seed that gets planted is God’s word. When the disciples heard it they came to Jesus and said “Tell us more.” Martin Luther talking about John’s Gospel says, wrote that we should “Simply hear what the Son of God says. Hear his word, and stick to it. … He has to promised to give his Holy Spirit to anyone who hears the son.” And as Luther taught the Holy Spirit calls gathers and enlightens you. Not just you along, but sometimes 100, sometimes 60 and sometimes 30 even sometimes just two or three who gather. There Jesus comes to be with you. As the Father says of Jesus, “This is my beloved son with whom I am well pleased listen to him.”

I love what the Psalmist says in Psalm 85: 8, “I will listen to what God the Lord says, surely he declares peace to his people.” And so Jesus gives you his word. He speaks to you in his still small voice and says, “Peace be with you. I have died for you to make you children of the Kingdom of Heaven. Your sins are forgiven. Come and follow me.”

Sunday 7/5/20

Free to Walk with Jesus
(Matthew 11:25-30)

I met with my friend Dave the other day. He was sharing some memories of his Swedish grandfather. He said he could still hear his grandpa when he’d say, “David! It’s not good to be too smart.” His grandpa wanted Dave to grow up to be a minister so he was not against education. But Dave said what he meant was, “It’s not good to be a know it all. You need to keep your heart and mind open or it will petrify. You’ll become paralysed, proud and set in your ways.” In our Gospel lesson this morning Jesus starts with a prayer of thanksgiving. I was saying last week that the expression “little children” is an affectionate term that Jesus uses for his followers. Here he prays, “Thank you Father, Lord of Heaven and Earth. You have hidden things from the wise and understanding and revealed them to little children.”

This takes place after Jesus’ disciples have returned. You’ll recall he sent them out to all the villages and places where he would come to cast out demons and heal people and proclaim the Kingdom of God. And they came back rejoicing because they were able to do those things in Jesus’ name. Luke’s Gospel (Luke 10:17 - 20) also reports they’re return and how happy they are. But it’s here in Matthew’s Gospel that Jesus says this prayer of thanks that God has revealed his presence, and power and His grace to these “little ones”, the followers of Jesus. And Jesus repeats that it is the authority that he has from the Father that he has shared with the disciples. In verse 27 of our Gospel lesson he says the Son reveals God, reveals the Father to anyone he chooses. 

And then after praying Jesus again calls out to all the people around him. “Come to me all who labor and are heavy laden.” He calls to those who are loaded down with too much to bear. I was reading one of the Psalms, Psalm 81:6 that reminds the people of their days as slaves in Egypt. The writer thanks God for “taking our hands from the basket.” That doesn’t sound so bad if you’re thinking of an Easter basket, or a full shopping basket from Target, or one full of canned goods you won at the Fall Festival auction. But what the writer of the psalm is talking abut is the slaves’ basket, filled with mud to make bricks. If you’ve worked for a brick layer you know about  the loads of concrete that you carry hoisted on your shoulder and run with so the brick layer can put it down before it dries to set the bricks. Back in my high school and college days I worked landscaping and we would unload trucks for sod and roll it out. You do the rolling out on your knees. It gets you in the back. You’re sore at the end of the day.  Here in Matthew 10 Jesus calls  out to all weary, hurting people. It’s like he did to those gathered at the temple, “Come to me all who are thirsty.”

But now Jesus says this peculiar thing. He says, “Take my yoke on you.” It sounds like more weight to me. Now I have sung the words from this passage at the beginning of worship several times in a song that combines them with what Peter said in 1st Peter 5:7. The song goes, “Cast your burdens on me you who are heavily laden. Come to me all of you who are tired from carrying heavy loads. For the yoke I give you is easy and my burden is light. Come to me and I will give you rest.” I have always pictured the yoke Jesus describes as a double yoke. Like one of this you see in pictures or movies of the pioneer days with two oxen or two plow horses slowly pulling covered wagons or plowing the fields. So you see two horses side by side. But there’s the young horse that is not used to the job. Next to that one you yoke the older, experienced, stronger one. Like one of those big Clydesdale work horses you see at the state fair. A horse whose strength and sense of direction is certain. That one is Jesus. He is the one who bears the weight and knows the way to the Father.

When I was rewriting this sermon I thought about that comparison. You and me and the yoke connecting us to Jesus like horses. And I thought, “I’m probably being way too generous to us.” It sounds like we can carry our own share of the load. That is misplaced optimism I think. We like to talk a lot about our freedom. Our right to be free. And now days it seems that has come to mean totally unrestricted, reckless and on the loose. Probably a better horse image for us is a bucking bronco at the rodeo. We want to be free! To throw the saddle and the rider off our backs. To live independent lives. Go back to the beach and call the whole crowd together. Swing by the bar and gather the gang to sing, “Eat, drink and be merry for tomorrow we may die.”
But Jesus says, “Learn from me for I am gentle and humble, lowly of heart. Let me lift that load of sin, pride, despair and selfishness from you and take every ounce of it on myself. Take it all to the cross.”

When I was in grade school my mom got me a horse. Oh, it wasn’t a pony. My mother went to garage sales and one day she brought back a statue of a horse. It a parody, an ugly cartoon version of what we used to call a plug horse. It was all sway-backed with the ribs showing and it has big snaggle-teeth. I didn’t like it at all. My mom could see it wasn’t a present I wanted. So she said, “Let me tell you about this horse. Everybody has forgot about her. She has no friends. Nobody loves her because she’s old and used up. Nobody wants this horse anymore, but she wasn’t expensive so I bought her for you.” Well, that night after us kids had gone to bed my mom looked in on me. I was young enough that I had some stuffed animals. I remember a rabbit and a little pillow I liked. We even had a live cat that I’d drag into bed sometimes. But Mom found me curled up hugging that horse up against my face. It was made of concrete so it was leaving dents in my face, so she took it out of my arms. But it joined the ranks of all the stuffed toy animals I had. 

See you are the plug horse. That’s you and me. Not pretty or lively at all. In fact Paul says While you were dead in sin Jesus found you. Took all your sins and gave you an easy yoke. Gave you faith and his Holy Spirit. Gave his innocent life, his body and blood for you. And you know when you are tired, and discouraged, ready to quit. When you are terrified, overwhelmed by the world. When you realise you’re really not as smart as you thought, or too smart for anybody’s good. Then how wonderful it is to realise you are walking right next to your friend and saviour. In his death he yoked himself to you. How wonderful to hear him say, “Children come follow me. Listen to my word because you are bound to me. I have purchased you with a price. Come to me and I will give you rest.”

Thanks be to God.

Sunday Devotion 6/28/20

As Humble Children
(Matthew 10:34 - 42

I said last week that one of the things you get in the teachings of Matthew’s Gospel is a challenge.
When you read Matthew chapter 10 you are confronted with the question, “Are you sure you want to be part of the body of Christ?” “Are you sure you want to be a child of God and a follower of Jesus?” Because it will be a challenge. In your bulletin this morning the editors make it clear in the first verse of today’s Gospel that Jesus is talking to the disciples as he sent them out to the towns and synagogues, to their own people. But I was saying last week that the purpose of Matthew’s Gospel is to teach you. It’s not just a history lesson of Christianity and those disciples of long ago. In fact the commentators I read agree that Matthew 10 combines two teachings of Jesus. The first is Jesus sending his disciples to the towns where he himself was coming later. And the second, the passage we have today, might be connected to the Great Commission, Jesus’ command to all his his followers to go into all the world,
to all nations. Both of those things are true and we learn from both of them. In today’s reading we also hear two things. Again this is a challenge but there is also God’s promise of rewards.

Jesus told his disciples they were going out as sheep among wolves. But here he says it is not just the people you meet out there you need to worry about. He says the wolves might be people you know very well. They hit you right where you live. In verse 36 he says, “A person’s enemies will be those in his own family.” You have probably had the experience of being shocked and disappointed by those you love the most. In Psalm 55 David wrote that if it was an enemy attacking and insulting him he could endure that, or hide from his enemy. But in verses 13 and 14 of Psalm 55 he says, “It’s you, my close friend and companion, you have become my attacker. We were best friends. We even went to worship God together. Now you are close enough to stick a knife in me.” You remember Jesus’ own brothers and sisters didn’t believe in him. They came looking for him one time because they were embarrassed  by his forgiving sinners and all his talk about the Kingdom of God.

Here in our Gospel lesson Jesus says the word of God can have this result. It separates people, cuts them loose from each other. It challenges you to consider what and who your priorities are. When I was rewriting this sermon I thought about what Pastor Dave Wollan and Pastor Scott Grorud said in one of their adult forum studies. When you look at these verses you wonder, “So is separation and hatred God’s will?” What those pastors from Faith Lutheran said was, “Just because it’s in the Bible doesn’t mean it’s a good thing, or that you should do it.” The Bible describes sinful people, who want their
own way and who do wound others. But we have the 4th Commandment, the only one that mentions a reward. It says, “Honour your father and mother that it may be well with you and you may live long on the earth.” Paul quotes that very passage in his letter to the people at the church at Ephesus. And then he adds that parents should  not provoke their children to anger. But you should instruct them, teach them what it means and why it matters to be a follower of Jesus. Martin Luther told parents, “Do not terrify your children because you’ll break their spirit and crush their hearts.”

So Jesus tells his followers, “Yes it could happen that those of your own house will cause you tears and frustration.” But this is not the passage where Jesus says, “Just shake the dust off your feet and leave them in the road.” Look at how Jesus lived, what he did. When the blind man who Jesus healed was dragged before the council he was left alone. Not even his own parents would stand up for him. He was thrown out of the city. Everybody had turned their backs on him. That’s when Jesus came and found him. And when Jairus that important, high official had no one else to turn to, when his daughter was deathly ill, Jesus went with him. And when Jairus’s servants came to him with the bad news, “It’s
too late. She’s already gone.” Jesus didn’t stop. Everybody else laughed at him. Professional mourners who thought they knew everything about dead people laughed because Jesus said something else. So he tells her, “Little girl, you get up.” And he gave her back to her Mom and Dad. And let’s not forget those parent, mothers and fathers bringing their kids to Jesus. But they ran up against the disciples  who said, “You know Jesus is a busy guy. Do you have an appointment? Because really matters of faith that’s for grown ups. So don’t bother him  with your kids.” It says Jesus was indignant with them. “What?! You let those kids come to me. The Kingdom of Heaven is for such as these.” And he took little ones in his arms and he laid his hand in blessing on big kids, teenagers even if you can believe it! He blessed toddlers and teens and those in between and you know their parents were blessed too.

Before we decide that Jesus is a home wrecker we would do well to remember Paul’s words that God gave the church the mission of reconciliation. Just look at the Old Testament stories of God’s people: Joseph throwing his arms around his brothers who sold him into slavery. Seeing his little brother Benjamin and asking them to bring his father to Egypt so they can all live together. He says, “You meant to do me evil, but God turned it into good.” Or Jacob who ripped off his bother Esau; robbed him of his birthright when his brother was starving half to death. But when Jacob returns full  of fear, dreading the justice his brother will dish out, Esau greets him with a big bear hug and invites him to live next door. So Jesus works on us, and God’s word and grace do work on us.

This passage from Matthew is very dramatic but it ends on a quieter note. It is a challenge to answer Jesus’ call but it also talks about the reward of humble service. He says even a cup of cold water offered to these little ones has it’s reward. Now when I did my homework on this passage I found a Bible scholar who said, it might be that Jesus is not talking about kids there. Little children is a phrase he uses for his followers. Maybe he is talking about those disciples and you and me. Those who offer you care and comfort. Those who have simple gifts to give to you are seen and rewarded by God. His eye is on the
sparrow. So Jesus comes to save you and me. To humbly care for you. In his death he reconciled you to God. In deep compassion he calls orphans into his family. He calls you home. Calls prodigal sons and daughters to be at the feast in his father’s house.

He calls you his friends and his brothers and sisters.

Thanks be to God

Sunday Devotion 6/21/20

Abiding In the Father’s House
(Matthew 10:5a and 22-33, Psalm 91)

Matthew’s Gospel is called “the teaching Gospel.” In the early church for new members of Christ’s church this is the gospel that was used to teach about Christianity. When I looked at the passage for this morning I tried to think, “If I were a person learning about the church what would be the message for me?” There are a few different things you can learn from this passage but what struck me was a question it would ask, “Are you sure you want to do this?” “Are you sure you want to be part of the family of God?” “Are you sure you want to be part of the body of Christ?” Because this all sounds pretty terrible. Jesus says families will put each other to death. You will be hated. And he recommends
running away - flee from one town to another. This is how they treated Jesus, the master, and they will also hate you. He says they will “malign” those of God’s household. That means back stab, slander and even tell lies about you. When I was doing my homework on this passage I read of a Roman historian who wrote that Christians were a cult that had “hatred for all mankind.” That was the official word recorded about the early church.

And Jesus was right; the church did go through terrible persecutions and not just back in the early days. Martin Luther reported similar things in the 16th century. Now days they say the church is no longer loved or respected. In recent memory even if you didn’t go to church you still thought that Christianity was a good idea. If it wasn’t for you it would still be good for you children. Some say that attitude of respect and care has changed here in America.

But in this passage with all its bad news Jesus does give his followers some hope. For one thing he repeats the message that he often had for his followers. “Do not fear.” and “Fear not.” Even while this storm rages, even with hatred and contempt around you, you are not forgotten. And then he gives them a couple of concrete images. He says your heavenly Father knows everything you are going through. You are under the watchful eye of your Father in Heaven. He can see and count the number of
hairs on your head.And he can spot even those small birds that are sold two for a penny. Just common sparrows and yet God’s heart is touched  when one falls. And you, you are of much more value to your Father.  When Jesus wanted to tell people about God he told them about a man whose younger son left home. I figure that father was old, because the young son was tired of waiting for his dad to die off. So he took his half of the inheritance and left his home and his father behind. And he found out that this old world really will beat you up. So he decided to drag himself back home. But even though his father was old that elderly man still had clear vision, amazing eyesight. He could see so clearly that he spotted his son a long way off and came running to welcome him back home.

On this Father’s Day I was looking at the psalm we read, Psalm 91, that talks about our Father’s house. This week was one of those when this passage kept popping up in daily devotions and other places. Seems like God was putting it right under my nose. Also since I’m getting older I decided awhile back that I’d memorize it. My brain isn’t so young anymore so I run into trouble when I get to verses
8 and 9. I can’t remember exactly where they fit but I’m still working on it. This Psalm talks bout living in the shelter and protection that God gives. But it also says that the Father IS the place where we live. As Luther wrote in his hymn “A mighty fortress IS our God.”

That’s the picture we get in verse one of Psalm 91. It says those who live in the shelter of the Most High. Another translation is “in the covert” or secret place. When you were a kid maybe you set up house in your closet, or took the covers off your bed and built a fort, a snug, safe place for yourself. That’s the picture here. I’ve got  photo of my dad and Cassidy from years ago when Dad set up a little collapsible tent inside the house. And there they are inside sitting there smiling at each other. That’s what the psalm writer is talking about, being tucked away, abiding under the shadow of the Almighty. Living in the grace and favour of your heavenly Father. In verse 2 he calls God a refuge for you. And there is the picture of the Father who spreads his wings over you to cover you. In verse 4 the Father is a shield, his faithfulness is your shield and defense like a roof over your head.

I thought about my dad’s house: over the years Mom and Dad’s place was a home base for me. I went off to Africa and came back there and to seminary and to Japan twice and came back there. Even when I was between jobs with a family moving from one apartment to another here in Minnesota when things were very uncertain we went home to my father’s house. A few years back when I did my father’s eulogy I reminded some of my relatives how when things were tough in their lives they came and lived in my father’s house as well. It was a refuge for them when they needed a place to live.

Psalm 91 talks about God as your dwelling place where you live in the grace and mercy of God. And like Jesus in Matthew’s Gospel the psalmist also talks abut those dangers and the persecutions of the world: terror by night, violence by day, the deadly pestilence and the plague that stalks in darkness. But where you live is with the father who is faithful, who has his eye on you. In verses 8 and 9 the psalm writer repeats that you have taken refuge in the Lord and the Most High (God) is your habitation. In architecture we call this part of the church the sanctuary. Traditionally sinners could come here, it was a refuge, and be under the protection of the House of God.

Psalm 91 ends with the Father speaking. I like my translation of vs. 14 better. It says, “Because he cleaves to me in love…” I’ve got a picture up in my office where I can see it. It shows a kid, you can’t really see if it’s a boy or girl  but they are holding on to their dad’s big shoulder, tucked in close to his neck. That’s cleaving, holding on and resting in the arms of the one holding you. As Pslam 91 ends the Father says, “I will deliver them and hear them when they call on my name. I am with them in trouble, and I will show them my salvation.

And the Father did that. He sent you the best picture of himself in his beloved son. The fullness of God is what we see in Jesus. He told his followers, “If you have seen me, you have seen the Father.” And “The Father himself loves you.” And even more he promised, “I am going to my Father’s house
and there I will prepare a place for you.” There you will live in the peace, joy  and everlasting love of your heavenly Father.”


Thanks be to God.

Sunday Devotion 6/14/20

The Authority Who Has Compassion
(Matthew 9:35 - 10:20, Exodus 9:4)

Pastor Scott Grorud once said sometimes it’s hard to see any connections between the passages from the Old Testament and the ones from the New Testament when you look at the Bible verses that are given to us each Sunday. They seem to be random selections from the Bible each talking about a different subject sometimes. I think that’s true of the ones we have this morning. But if you pay attention week after week in the case of the Gospel readings you do see a message. Last week we heard the end of Matthew’s Gospel where Jesus gave the Great Commission, “Go and teach and baptise all nations.” And he told his people, and you and me, “I am with you always.” Today again in Matthew’s Gospel he sends them out. In both cases he gives his followers authority. He tells them to proclaim the Kingdom of God and he tells them he has the authority to send them. In the passage from last week he sends them out to all nations. Bring the good news to the Jewish people and to everybody else too. Tell everyone that Christ is King.

But todays’ passage is earlier in the Gospel of Matthew. Here Jesus makes a point of saying, “Go nowhere among the Gentiles and enter no town of the Samaritans, but go rather to the lost sheep of Israel.” And again, as in The Great Commission from Matthew 28, he gives them authority over unclean spirits, and over sickness and even over death. If you look at verses 7 through 9 you see that Jesus knew really well how this authority would be a temptation for human greed. He gives this
wonderful message, “The King of Heaven is at hand” and the authority to heal and cast out demons and raise the dead. He gives the authority that comes straight from God, and then immediately he says, “You are receiving this without paying for it, give without being paid.” And in verse 9 “Don’t acquire gold of silver in your own belts, for your own money bags.” Jesus sees that if you have this amazing power from the King, human sin and greed will quickly say, “Wait a minute, I can make some cash here. I could be rich.” Jesus knew the temptations that would come from having this kind of authority.

And he also knew the doubts and fears that would come with this commission to go out. There is the fear of being not good enough for the task. Well, for the most part Jesus’ followers were not highly educated, or people of great skills. We might think Simon Peter is there, but remember it was Simon who sank down into the Sea of Galilee after Jesus gave him power to walk on the water. And you will notice that Judas Iscariot is also part of this group. And there is another Simon, Simon the Zealot who is listed. Why would Jesus choose an extremist, somebody whose main hope was that the Romans would be thrown out of Israel, for this mission? It looks like Jesus has made some odd choices in the people he is sending. Then again he chose you and me to be his own. So we have to trust that he knows what he’s doing.

Also in todays’ lesson he doesn’t send his people out to the ends of the earth. I suppose they would have been overwhelmed to even think about that. At this time he sends them to their own people. In verse 5 he says, “Go nowhere among the Gentiles and enter no town of the Samaritans, but go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” They don’t have to be able to speak in foreign languages. And their message is simple, “The Kingdom of Heaven is at hand.” It always worries me that Jesus says don’t take much with you. No extra shirt or sandals, and not even a walking stick. You know the travel advisor, Rick Steves, even he says you can take a back pack, or a little suitcase on wheels. So you can have a couple of changes of underwear and some spare shoes in case the one pair gets wet. Jesus says just carry the message. When you enter a house say, “Peace be with you.” “The Kingdom of Heaven is at hand.” See Jesus had a plan for his followers. They could depend on the hospitality of their own people. That was a characteristic that God had taught his chosen people. Even that they should welcome strangers. Later Paul would remind us, “Do not neglect to show hospitality because sometimes angels come in disguise.” Or if you read King Solomon’s dedication of the first temple in Jerusalem he prayed that it would be a house of prayer that even outsiders and strangers could come to. It would be a place where everybody could find a home. I also like the story of Elijah the prophet. In 1st Kings 17 when there is a terrible drought and famine in the land God tells Elijah to go live by a brook and the ravens will bring him food. Eventually the brook dries up so God says, “Go to Zerepath of Sidon. A widow there will take care of you.” The one in authority is taking care of his people even in hard times.

When I was looking for a connection between our lessons for this morning the one that struck me was Exodus 9 verse 4 and what Jesus says when he sees the crowds that were harassed and helpless. The Gospel lesson says he was filled with compassion. He sends his disciples out and tells them to pray because he had compassion on people who were wandering, afraid, thirsty for the good news. And God in Exodus is speaking to his people after he has set them free from slavery in Egypt.   God says, “I bore you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself.” He is the one who has strength when you don’t have any. It isn’t by your own power that you have faith, or hope, or love for your neighbour. It is by the grace and mercy of God. And because God loved not just his chosen Jewish people but you as well he sent his son. To show his compassion for you. Jesus is the king, the one in authority, who died to make you inheritors of his kingdom. He will raise you up on the wings of his grace and make you shine as children of the most high. He gives you a place to live so you may say, “My refuge and my fortress, my God in whom I trust.” It is through the Spirit that Jesus sends that you are lifted up out of doubt and fear, set free to be sons and daughters of God.

Thanks be to God.

Sunday Devotion 6/7/20

Jesus Gets Closer
(Matthew 28:16 - 20)

How close are you to dying? How soon will it be before your life is over? These days we see numbers every day that tell us how many Americans
are dying from Covid-19. And if the news doesn’t make you think about that, there are the advertisements to tell you what drugs to buy to stay alive.
So dying has become a daily reminder. Today we are celebrating new life in Clyde Hansch’s baptism. And yet little Clyde is in the high risk category.
For that matter so am I, though I don’t put a lot of thought into it. But I do have my kids to remind me of it. For awhile there I’d lay down to take a
nap and they’d ask, “Dad are you okay?” “I’m just taking a nap! Naps are healthy.” Mark Twain who had a dark sense of humor sometimes, once
said, “Don’t worry too much about life. It ain’t no how permanent.” Jesus put it better in his parable of the rich fool. That rich man had big projects in
mind for the future to completely rebuild his farm from the ground up. He would tear down the old barns and build bigger and better ones. And then he
planned to enjoy his harvest and his life for many years. But God said to him, “Dream on. Tonight is all you’ve got. This night your soul is required of you.”

Well, I’m not trying to join the TV newscasters with their body counts, or the advertisers who say, “Buy yourself some pharmaceuticals so you’ll live a little longer.” Baptism is all about new life. But some churches do show us the drowning part of baptism. Even with babies. In the Orthodox Church down into the water they go from head to toe. And they come up with a big gasp - eyes open wide. Last week we talked about the birth of the church - Pentecost and the pouring out of the Holy Spirit. That new life came because Jesus kept his promise to send his Spirit - the same one that comes in baptism. I said last week that’s the Spirit Jesus talked about with that tired, thirsty woman at the well. Nobody else wanted to talk to her but Jesus told her that God wanted people to worship him in Spirit and in truth. See we are more than people just doomed to die. Because God wants you and has put his Holy Spirit in you. There’s a reason that when we confess our faith in the Apostle’s Creed we say “I believe in the Holy Spirit.” and then right away “…and in the Holy Christian church.” God wants you to have life, and faith
and to know the truth that sets you free. So God calls you together so the Spirit can work on you.

In today’s Gospel lesson Jesus’ followers all came together at a place Jesus had appointed. I was doing my homework on this sermon, and every Bible scholar I read agreed it was the eleven disciples and many more of Jesus’ other followers who came to that meeting. Jesus appeared to quite a few people after he rose from the grave. John in his Gospel says there are many other incidents of Jesus appearing - John just records three after the resurrection. He says I wrote these so you can believe and have life in Jesus’ name. Well, it was a crowd of followers who came to meet Jesus here at the end of Matthew’s Gospel to hear Jesus’ words.

Also after his resurrection it seems that Jesus was not so easy to recognize even for his friends. Mary didn’t recognize him. She was sure he was dead. Mary was so sad crying by the tomb, she didn’t even recognize his voice. But then he said her name. The eleven disciples in that locked room didn’t recognize him. He said, “Come and see my wounds in my side and hands. Let me have something to eat.” That he was back from the dead? That’s unbelievable! Too good to be true. Until Jesus comes close.

Well, in today’s Gospel lesson from Matthew when the people gather it says they came and worship, but some doubted. I love the way the Bible doesn’t leave things out. It would be a lot smoother if Matthew had said they all believed when they gathered. In the Word here in Matthew’s Gospel we see that people have doubts. Is that really Jesus? He died and he was buried! These are real people. Now days the news is just beating you up with terrible reports. There’s a daily death toll and then on top of that you can’t trust the authorities. It has been decades since I first heard the phrase “police brutality” but it’s still around. And then we get rioting. If you don’t have some doubts and fears I’d be surprised. What kind of world will your children and grandchildren grow up in?

So what happens in this Gospel lesson? Jesus comes near and tells his followers, “All authority in heaven and on earth is given to me.” He says I am the final authority. And he is different from the authorities that make the news. He is the king who was glorified by dying for you. To those who serve faithfully that’s not a big news story. And good news isn’t a real goal for television. When I was doing my homework on this sermon I found one wonderful scholar who said in all of his appearances after the resurrection, when people had doubts and fears and couldn’t really believe that Jesus was alive again - what does Jesus do? He gets close. He comes right up to them.
He tells Thomas put your fingers in my hands and side. Do not doubt but believe. He called Mary by name, called her out of her deep sadness so she could say, “Teacher! It’s you!” She was ready to grab him. He said, “Don’t hold on to me. I have to go to my Father. You go and tell my disciples that I’ll see them soon.” You remember those two sad people on the road home to Emmaus that told that stranger that their hopes were gone. But he opened the Word of God to them so their hearts came back alive. They took him right into their homes, and when he prayed and tore that loaf of bread to give them, they recognized him. No doubts. Just joy that sent them running back
to Jerusalem.

The Psalm says the Lord is near the broken-hearted and crushed in spirit. I asked before how close are you to dying, to giving in to despair? That’s when Jesus comes near. So the next question is how close are you to life in the Spirit, to eternal life? As close as water poured on your head. As close as Jesus’ promise, “This is my body given for you. This is my blood poured out for you for the forgiveness of sins.” I guess nobody told Jesus about social distancing. Jesus comes right up to you with the big bear hug of his mercy and grace. He told those disciples, “To and teach and baptize.” and then he said, “I’ll go with you. I am with you always to the very end.”

The Bible says that John was Jesus’ best friend. He was the one at the foot of the cross. And later John wrote to the church for those who had fears and were tempted to despair because of their sins and failures. In his first letter John said, when your hearts condemn you, God is greater than your hearts. God’s grace is greater than your fear and sadness. Because Jesus comes near where two or three gather together. Jesus goes searching for the one who is lost and afraid until he finds you and me and brings us back carrying us on his shoulder. Luther did his homework too. He was quoting somebody about the Holy Trinity. How God makes us and saves us and makes you holy. Luther wrote, “God did not create things with the idea of abandoning them after they had been created, but he loves you and expresses his approval
of you. So he is together with you. And you can rest here in the presence of Jesus your Lord and savior.

Thanks be to God.