Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost (Matthew 20:1-16)

Bethlehem Lutheran Church & Bethel Lutheran Church, Lebanon and Sweet Home, OR
Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost (Baptism of David Timothy Miller) + September 24, 2017
Text: Matthew 20:1-16

The dictionary defines grace as unmerited favor from God. So, we sing praises of God’s grace in Christ.  We name congregations after it and we sing about how amazing grace is.  It truly is incredible to ponder, as Paul explains it in Romans 5: For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. For one will scarcely die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person one would dare even to die— but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.”  What an incredible thought, that the righteous judge of all humanity, the One who knows the thoughts and intents of our hearts, the one to whom we will all have to give an account…has paid the penalty for our evil, and embraced His enemies as sons!
We can’t say enough about God’s grace when it has to do with us personally.  Yet, in practice, God’s grace becomes a stumbling block to the natural way we think.
That’s what Jesus shows in this parable.  It’s a work setting, and what we know about work is that labor deserves fair wages.  Here, the wages are constant: a denarius, a silver coin which was the going rate for a day laborer.  What varies is how much work is done.  In some cases, 12 hours, others 9, 6, 3, and even 1.  However, at the end of the day, each receives the same wage—for varying work.
This is a picture of grace, not that the laborers worked and got paid, but that they watched other people work less or more, yet get the same wage.  There would have been no quarrel if those hired at the beginning of the day hadn’t seen the latecomers.  But if grace is unmerited favor, then those 12-hour workers also wouldn’t understand what those hired at the last hour experienced: That for very little if any work, they were accounted as having worked a whole day.
But this is how the kingdom of heaven is.  It’s not about our labors or our striving or even our wise choices.  Because of that, grace is scandalous.
Grace is scandalous because it means the Kingdom of Heaven isn’t something that can be achieved.  Today, we witnessed that beautifully in an infant being baptized.  I can be perfectly honest and say that David had no clue what we were doing or had any comprehension of the words that were being said.  As an infant, he is as close as you can get to being a non-participant.  He can’t even find his mouth with his hand, much less vocalize the name Jesus.
But this is an offense to us who think the Kingdom of Heaven is something for us to enter.  They cite Romans 10:9: “If you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.”  They argue people shouldn’t be baptized as babies because they don’t know what’s going on, and they can’t decide that it’s right for them.  The scandal about grace is that it happens apart from our works, so that it even happens to the unaware.  The recipients of grace are so passive that the best example of faith is parents bringing even infants to Jesus that He might bless them.
Consider the Paralytic and his friends: “And behold, some people brought to him a paralytic, lying on a bed. And when Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralytic, “Take heart, my son; your sins are forgiven.”  The man is there, not inert like a rock, but he certainly can’t bring himself.  But is says when Jesus saw their faith, He declared the man’s sins forgiven.  What had he done?  Had he brought himself? No.  Did he ask his friends? Maybe, but it doesn’t say that.  He is another perfect picture of grace, because it’s received apart from works.
Grace is also a scandal because it isn’t just.  Even if we can get over our unbelief that a little bitty baby can have faith and receive the Kingdom, we have trouble with grace when it means God welcomes people deserve far from forgiveness and salvation.
Conflicts with others in the church challenge the application of grace.  It’s not just that they didn’t lift a finger to move toward God, but they are guilty of fighting against God and other people!  If grace happened in a vacuum, it wouldn’t be a problem, but when you see God’s grace given to sinners, our thirst for people getting the just rewards of their actions isn’t sated.
But through Jesus Christ, it is achieved—both in achievement and in justice.  You are saved by works—Christ’s.  In Jesus Christ, justice is carried out, the scales are balanced in a divine, miraculous way.  All our sin, be it small or great, is paid for by the blood which Jesus shed on the cross.
So the reward is the same, not in silver or gold, but in the precious blood of Christ.  The Kingdom of Heaven is not a reward for our works, but a gift paid for by another.  That’s grace, and it’s not just for you.  It’s also for the person sitting next to you, the people you meet on the street, and for even those you can’t stand.  Repent of your earthly grumblings, and let your heart be tuned to the grace of the Kingdom of Heaven.  Amen.

Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost (Romans 13:1-10)

Bethlehem Lutheran Church & Bethel Lutheran Church, Lebanon & Sweet Home, OR
Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost + September 10, 2017
Text: Romans 13:1-10

People love to be free of the burden of authority.  School kids count the minutes before the bell on the last day of school.  College freshmen rejoice to be free of their parents’ rules when they move into their own space.  Women who have lived in Muslim countries marvel at the freedom of dress and activity that they can enjoy in this country.  We like freedoms, not submission; liberty, not authoritarianism.
That’s why this country was founded, right?  We declared our independence from England so that we could be free to enjoy life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.  We built freedom into the Bill of Rights with the free exercise of religion, speech, and the press.  In fact, we’re so accustomed to celebrating freedom, people get in an uproar at the slightest hint of curtailing freedom.
But it’s not a far journey before supposed freedom turns into anarchy.  A simplistic understanding of freedom and the pursuit of individual liberty, would seem to say we can throw off any authority we don’t deem worthy.  Children can mouth off and disobey their parents because they think they’re little free people.  Citizens can rant and rave about the horrible job their elected officials are doing and use their personal life as an excuse to disrespect them.  Members of a congregation can get riled up against their pastor because he doesn’t meet their expectations or he preached against their pet sins, and force him to leave.
But God has a Word for us:
“Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Would you have no fear of the one who is in authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive his approval, for he is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain. For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer.”
“He is God’s servant for your good.”  God is doing good to us by the authorities that He has set in place.  In a country with an elaborate democratic process, we might think it was our choice or that “millions of illegal votes” put an official in power.  But it was really God, working out of sight.  As the Prophet Daniel told the pagan king Nebuchadnezzar, “He changes the times and the seasons; He removes kings and raises up kings.”[1]
The point is that the authorities which exist are appointed by God for our good.  They protect us from evil and loss, like fighting wildfires, telling people when to evacuate, and helping cities rebuild after a hurricane.  They bring justice and punish those who act wickedly and those who disobey, putting criminals in jail and garnishing the wages of those who don’t pay their taxes.
But this doesn’t just apply to civil authorities.  God gives authorities for your good in other circles of our lives, all covered by the Commandment, “Honor your father and your mother.”  Before there ever was a government, God set up the family—fathers and mothers to nurture, admonish, and train their children.  This, the willful child forgets when he doesn’t want to obey the command to clean his room—without his parents (or sometimes grandparents), he wouldn’t have a room.
It also applies in the church, as God gives spiritual leaders for our good.  God sends men with the Words of eternal life to teach, reprove, correct, and train in righteousness.[2]  But complacent Christians forget the Lord and His good purposes in this man.  They squabble over human opinions and in the end cast off the burden of having a pastor to their great spiritual detriment.
But God does not just bark orders from heaven because He can.  He shows us that these authorities are for our good by living under them Himself.  “In the fullness of time, God sent forth His Son, born of woman, born under the Law, to redeem those under the Law.”[3]
He submitted to His parents, even to Joseph who was only His father by marriage: “And he went down with them and came to Nazareth and was submissive to them.” (Luke 2:41-51)
Jesus also submitted Himself to the church authorities of His day, orderly participating in synagogue worship.  Even while He preached against the false teaching of the Scribes and Pharisees, He admonished us to obey our leaders: “The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat, so do and observe whatever they tell you, but not the works they do.”[4]  But ultimately, He submitted to appearing before the Sanhedrin to be charged as a blasphemer.
He submitted to civil authorities when He appeared before King Herod and Governor Pilate, and even confessed before Pilate, “You would have no authority over me at all unless it had been given you from above.”[5]
Even though He was innocent in every respect, He suffered as a lawless man: one who strikes his parents, one who rants and raves against God and His Church, one who leads uprisings and starts riots in the streets.  And He was suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried.
But so were you, who are baptized into Him.  You, who have not honored your parents and other authorities, have not loved and cherished them, but instead have angered, grieved them, and given them sleepless nights.  Because Christ your Lord stood in your place, suffered in your place under the full weight of the Law, you are forgiven.  And “Blessed are those whose lawless deeds are forgiven, and whose sins are covered; blessed is the man against whom the Lord will not count his sin.”[6]
Because of that, instead of being burdened by all the ways we have abused freedom, we are free to do this:
Owe no one anything, except to love each other, for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law. For the commandments, “You shall not commit adultery, You shall not murder, You shall not steal, You shall not covet,” and any other commandment, are summed up in this word: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” 10 Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore love is the fulfilling of the law.
As people who have been exhonorated by the highest Authority, raised from dead works, you are free to “honor [your parents and other authorities], serve and obey them, love and cherish them.”[7]  “Therefore one must be in subjection, not only to avoid God’s wrath but also for the sake of conscience.” (Rom. 13:5)  Your conscience has been washed clean by the blood of Christ.  So, you are free to love the law enforcement agents, judges, and elected officials.  You are free to love and cherish your parents at home and teachers in school.  You are free to serve this congregation and obey your pastor as the Lord’s servant.  Because we have been redeemed and renewed, we can see and give thanks to God for all of these, imperfect as they may be at times, because over it all God is working for the good of those He has called to His eternal kingdom.  Amen.
[1] Daniel 2:21
[2] 2 Timothy 3:16
[3] Galatians 4:4
[4] Matthew 23:2-3
[5] John 19:11
[6] Romans 4:7-8, quoting Psalm 32:1-2
[7] Small Catechism, 4th Commandment

Christians United: A Brief Commentary

On August 29 of this year, a group of conservative Christian leaders released a biblical statement about LGBT matters called the Nashville Statement.  A little over a day later, a dissenting group who is strongly in favor of LGBT inclusion in the Christian Church released a statement under the name Christians United.
The Church has but one weapon with which to wage war–the Word of God.  Personal attacks and slander are irrelevant and don’t truly bring people around to a God-fearing understanding (James 1:20).
So, I offer this Scriptural critique of just the preamble to the Christians United statement, to better understand the arguments that are being made in favor of “alternative sexualities and genders” under the Name of God.

Commentary on Christians United Statement

A note on the choice of the featured image: Ever since the first temptation in the Garden of Eden, the Word of God has been used as a playing card in people’s agendas.  Greedy televangelists twist it to explain why you should send them money.  Politicians use Bible quotes to give epic weight to their platforms and policy choices.  The LGBT inclusion movement is no exception.  Their agenda is to live the life they want, so they read the Bible insofar as it supports their goals.  This a deeply dishonest way to regard the Word of the Living God.  May the true Holy Spirit who calls us to repentance for our dark deeds and enlightens us to hear the Bible as God’s Word work in their hearts before it is too late.

Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost (Romans 12:9-21)

Bethlehem Lutheran Church & Bethel Lutheran Church, Lebanon & Sweet Home, OR
Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost + September 3, 2017
Text: Romans 12:9-21

Christians are strange people in the world.
On June 17, 2015, a young man came to Bible study at a church in.  The rest of the group welcomed him, even though they didn’t know him and even though he was the only fair-skinned person in the group.  After welcoming him and discussing Scripture with him, that young man, Dylann Roof, took advantage of that group and opened fire on them while they were praying.  Later at his indictment hearing, several relatives of the victims asked to speak.  They shared their obvious pain and anger, but nonetheless, they told the man who had killed their relatives, “I forgive you” and that they werepraying for God to be merciful to him.[1]
On the morning of October 2, 2006), another troubled man by the name of Charlie Roberts entered the West Nickel Mines Amish School.  He barricaded himself inside the school and executed 5 children ages 7-13.  In this case, the shooter took his own life, so there was no earthly justice to be had.  In the aftermath, the parents from the Amish community publicly forgave the man who had brutally killed their daughters.  At the shooter’s funeral, the community came together to embrace the shooter’s parents, Terri and Chuck Roberts, and one of the first to approach them was one of the parents who had lost two daughters in the attack.[2]
In a world that thirsts for justice, selfish ambition, and power, Christians stand apart.  The Holy Apostle Paul writes about this alien quality of Christians:
Let love be genuine. Abhor what is evil; hold fast to what is good. 10 Love one another with brotherly affection. Outdo one another in showing honor. 11 Do not be slothful in zeal, be fervent in spirit, serve the Lord. 12 Rejoice in hope, be patient in tribulation, be constant in prayer. 13 Contribute to the needs of the saints and seek to show hospitality.
14 Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. 15 Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. 16 Live in harmony with one another. Do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly. Never be wise in your own sight. 17 Repay no one evil for evil, but give thought to do what is honorable in the sight of all. 18 If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. 19 Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” 20 To the contrary, “if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink; for by so doing you will heap burning coals on his head.” 21 Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.
Psychologists and sociologists study trends and factors that lead to why people are the way they are.  Yet, in spite of personal backgrounds and the culture they live in, Christians are aliens.  If it isn’t simply because of family of origin or culture, how do Christians become this strange?
It goes back to little word in last week’s Epistle reading: “Therefore”  “Therefore, by the mercies of God, present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God.”[3]  “Therefore” encompasses all that came before: The righteousness of God has appeared, condemning the whole world, exposing the judgment that all have fallen short of the glory of God, but are justified by His grace as a gift in Jesus Christ.[4]  This gift comes to us according to God’s everlasting promise of salvation, secured even for His enemies, for the whole human race even if they should never believe.[5]  Yet those who believe rest in the peace that comes from God.  They have comfort in their continued struggle against their own sin, and because of the peace they have received, they extend that peace to others.[6]
Therefore, because God has shown what true love is, His people love.  Therefore, because God has turned the evil of the crucifixion into the world’s good, His people are heirs of that mighty act.  Therefore, because Jesus endured the cross in hope of our salvation, those who follow Him are empowered to bear all things with hope in God.  Therefore, as Jesus blessed His crucifiers and prayed for their forgiveness, so also we, who are baptized into His crucifixion and death, bless their enemies and pray for their good.
The members of Christ’s Body sing, “I’m but a stranger here; heaven is my home,” and it’s true.  Christians are strangers in this world, not only because they don’t behave like other people, but because they belong to a different place than this world.  When the world and our own flesh are bent on vengeance, justice, and wrath, Christians are for peace and forgiveness.  In a culture that says, “It’s all about me,” Christians are generous and count others more important than themselves.
Therefore, because you have this different identity, this different origin, you think of yourself and others in God’s light.
Never be wise in your own sight” reflects your humility at the thought that you have nothing to boast of before God—not college degrees, not experience, not a pious life, not purer doctrine.  God doesn’t have any favorites, and He doesn’t make distinction, so of course how could you set yourself up as better than any other person?  That also means you’re not afraid to be wrong, to admit your mistakes, your part in making conflicts worse.  Let God be the only one who is absolutely true and right all the time.  You?  Me? Not so much.
God’s therefore also changes how we treat those who have wronged us, not by minimizing the injustice or the damage caused by it, and not even by the other party admitting what they’ve done to be wrong.  It changes how we respond: 19 Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.’”  Vengeance comes in many forms these days besides physical. They used to say, “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.”  The words that have been uttered have proven that playground rhyme false.  In person and online, words cut people down and make them small, insignificant, and worthless in our eyes.
Besides condemning that firmly with the 8th Commandment, “You shall not give false testimony against your neighbor,” God has gone further.  By making peace with His enemies, God has undercut the reason we have to accuse others and speak ill of them.  He has made us different by making us people of peace and forgiveness.
Just as that’s true individually, it’s true as a congregation.  Over the past few years, there have been a lot of hurts, betrayals of trust, slander, and broken promises.  There’s no sugar-coating the wrongs that have been committed, some are public and some are not.  Instead, there is the blood of Christ, the sacrifice offered which is the power behind the words God speaks: “I forgive you.”  Just like the parents and relatives of mass shootings—who have every right to be angry, who suffered so much because of someone’s actions—we who are baptized into Christ can say to those individuals who have wronged us: “I forgive you.”
It’s this forgiveness that makes us strangers and aliens in this world, but also what makes us heirs of eternal life.  The mark of us being a Christian congregation isn’t found in externals of the leadership, or worship style, or in how many are at our congregation versus another.  The mark of us being a Christian congregation is that we sincerely forgive and even gladly do good to those who have sinned against us.  We love even our enemies, not with a subtle wish that burning coals would hurt them but that God would keep us all in humble repentance and the grace which God has showered on us in Jesus Christ.  Amen.
[3] Romans 12:1
[4] Romans 3:22-25
[5] Romans 4:16, Romans 5:6-10, Romans 5:18-19
[6] Romans 7:14-15, Romans 8:1-2, Romans 8:26