Sunday, September 24, 2017

The Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost (LSB-A)

Matthew 20:1-16; Philippians 1:12-14, 19-30; Isaiah 55:6-9

In the Name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit.
The devil will find work for idle hands to do. You see, there’s no fence straddling when it comes to God. As Jesus teaches, you’re either with Him, or you’re against Him. You’re either a child of God, or your father is the devil. There is no neutral ground between the kingdom of heaven and what exists outside its gates; you’re either in the banquet hall, or you’re on the outside where there is weeping and the gnashing of teeth.
Idleness is akin to complacency and lukewarmness, fence straddling. If you are lukewarm and tepid about the Lord, the Lord will spit you out of His mouth. Truly, He’d rather you be either hot or cold, even against Him, than be unconcerned and nonplussed about your relationship with Him. That’s why He warns you that not all who call Him Lord will be saved, but rather those who hear the Word the Lord and do it.
And, so it is that Jesus teaches that the kingdom of heaven is like the master of a vineyard who hired laborers to go and work in his vineyard. The Master cannot tolerate idleness, for He knows that idleness, indifference, and complacency are inroads for the devil. Therefore, He goes out and He seeks and He calls men and women to work and to serve in His kingdom. Those whom He calls may well have believed that they were merely being idle, neutral – not against the Lord, per se, but not really for Him either, neither hot nor cold – but, do not be deceived! There is no neutral ground. Those who are idle perform the devil’s works, and they bear his evil fruit. Thus, it was an act of mercy, an act of grace, that the Lord has called them, that the Lord has called you, to work and to service in His kingdom that you may bear His fruits.
He called some early in the morning, others later in the morning, others still at midday, and still others near the end of the day – but, He called them each and all from idleness, or worse, to meaningful and fruitful labor and service in His vineyard kingdom. That is to say, they didn’t apply for this job, but they were recruited, they were called. Your calling is your vocation, which literally means, “calling.” When you are doing the work and service you have been called to do, it is always meaningful and fruitful, whether it bears visible and quantifiable fruits, in the eyes of men, or not. That is why Luther said that a mother changing her child’s soiled diaper is doing a holier work than the monk praying in his cell – for, the mother is fulfilling her vocation, her calling, serving the child the Lord has placed under her care. Now, don’t misunderstand, there is nothing wrong with prayer. Prayer is good, very good even, but the highest worship of God is to receive His gifts, and to glorify Him by giving and sharing those gifts with others in service of them to the glory of God’s holy Name.
At the end of the day, the Master told His Foreman to call the laborers and to pay them their wages beginning with those hired last and late in the day. They were each paid a denarius, a full day’s wage, regardless of how little or much they had worked. And, here’s were the Old Man in each of us feels his neck hairs bristle. “Unfair! Unequal! Unjust!” we are want to protest and cry. Yup! But, now, let me tell you why that’s a good thing. Remember, this is a parable about the kingdom of heaven, not some American corporation. It will do you no good to demand what you think you have earned, merited, or deserved. In fact, I would advise you sincerely to never make such a demand from your God and Lord. For, just think about it for a moment, what it would be like if your God and Lord paid you what you have earned, merited, and deserved. No, I’m quite certain that you really and truly don’t want that.
Rather, what you want from your God and Lord is not what you’ve earned, merited, and deserved – temporal and eternal punishment and death – but what you have not earned, merited, or deserved – grace, mercy, kindness, patience, and forgiveness. As we prayed in today’s Collect, “since we cannot stand before You relying on anything we have done, help us trust in Your abiding grace and live according to Your Word.” You see, that’s the problem with the laborers in Jesus’ parable who were hired early in the day – they could only think in terms of what they had earned, merited, and deserved. And, to be truthful, they didn’t become concerned about that until they saw those who were hired later in the day, who worked less, being paid the same as them. And so, Jesus’ parable is much less about a fair wage than it is about how we view others, both those of the family of faith, and those outside alike. Jesus’ parable is really about our love for, or our failure to love, our fellow man.
The kingdom of heaven is like a Master who calls anyone and everyone to work and service in His vineyard kingdom and pays each of them alike regardless of how long they’ve worked – for He pays them in the forgiveness of sins, salvation, and everlasting life. Do you see how absurd it is to become petty with the Lord’s eternal gifts? No one has earned, merited, or deserved what the Lord doles out freely, but if you insist on being paid what you’ve earned, merited, and deserved, then you’d better be prepared for an eternity of punishment in hell, for if you insist on getting what you’ve earned, the Lord will give it to you, for He will not force Himself upon anyone. But, you know better than that. Not only must you not begrudge the Lord His generosity towards others, but knowing His generosity and grace yourself, you must go and show and tell others this Good News about your generous and gracious Lord, and give freely to others of what you have freely received. Indeed, this is part and parcel the work and service you are called to do in your Master’s vineyard kingdom – to love and to serve others with His gifts to the glory of His holy Name.
For, time is running short. No, I’m talking about predictions of the rapture or the return of the Lord or any such foolishness, but simply that, the Lord is coming at a day and hour which no man can know. Therefore, each and every day you draw breath is the day of the Lord’s gracious visitation, the time in which He may be found with His abundant pardon. Thus St. Paul teaches that your salvation is nearer to you today than when you first believed, for each day is another day you live in your Lord’s grace, and there is no promise of tomorrow. Each and every day is an opportunity to be found not idle in the marketplace, but to be found working and serving in your Master’s vineyard kingdom.
This is what Paul is getting at in today’s Epistle saying, “If I am to live in the flesh, that means fruitful labor for me.” For, to live is to live in Christ, for Christ’s life to be lived in and through you, His branches. Christians are fruitful, not because they are good people, holy, or anything of the sort, but Christians are fruitful because they have the life of Christ enlivening and flowing through them. Thus, Paul could also say that for him, to live is Christ. Like many of you, particularly those of you blessed with long life, St. Paul longed to depart this life and to be with Christ. Yet, at the same time, he believed and confessed that, if it was the Lord’s will that he remain here, that his life would be lived to the Lord in loving service of his neighbor.
Yet, in this life and service, you are not alone, but we “are standing firm in one spirit, with one mind striving side by side for the faith of the gospel,” and we are not frightened in anything by those who oppose us, for this is a clear sign to them of their destruction and of our salvation in Christ. “For it has been granted to you that for the sake of Christ you should not only believe in Him but also suffer for His sake, engaged in the same conflict” with St. Paul, St. Peter, St. Augustine, St. Martin Luther, and all the saints who have gone before us.
It is our Lord who has called us into His family of faith. We, who were no people, He has called and made to be His people, a great and holy nation. We, who were idle, bearing the devil’s fruits of destruction, our Lord has called by His Holy Spirit through the Gospel, enlightened, sanctified, and kept in the true faith that we might be fruitful and give life to world to the glory of His holy Name. However, we do not stand on anything that we do, but our trust in our Lord’s abiding grace, and we strive to live according to His Word. Therefore, we offer up the sacrifice of thanksgiving, and we call upon the Name of the Lord. We present our bodies and our lives as living sacrifices in loving, compassionate, and merciful service to our neighbor to the glory of His holy Name. And we find our sustenance and our life in His Words and Wounds as we lift up the cup of salvation and as He enters under our roofs in Holy Communion. This is what the kingdom of heaven is like.

In the + Name of Jesus. Amen.

Sunday, September 17, 2017

The Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost (LSB-A)

Matthew 18:21-35; Romans 14:1-12; Genesis 50:15-21

In the Name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit.
Jesus says, “The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his servants.” Now, I don’t know about you, but, for me, that’s not a very encouraging image. It makes me think of bank managers and credit card companies and collection agencies and the IRS – not very heavenly things in my opinion. But, that’s precisely the point, isn’t it, that the kingdom of heaven is actually very, very different than how we typically imagine it and expect it to be? You see, as Jesus teaches it, the kingdom of heaven is like a king, or a bank manager, or a collection agency, seeking to settle an account with a debtor. However, when the debtor was unable to pay and plead for patience, for more time, the king, or bank manager, did the unthinkable – he completely forgave the debt altogether. No payment plan with interest and penalties, but complete and total forgiveness. That’s not something that happens in this life and world, is it? Nevertheless, Jesus says that this is what the kingdom of heaven is like. Though you remain a debtor, a sinner, your sin-debt is forgiven you and is not counted against you because of the merciful forgiveness of your King and Master Jesus Christ who has paid your debt in full by His substitionary death on the cross and has cleansed you from all sin and guilt in His holy, innocent shed blood.
Now, that’s good news, isn’t it! That’s the Gospel! But, is that all there is to it? Well, yes, and no. Yes, in terms of your justification, your standing before God the Father, that’s all there is to it. All that was necessary to make you right with God has been accomplished, fulfilled, and finished by Jesus in His sacrificial, substitionary, and atoning death upon the cross for you and in your place. However, no, that’s not all there is to it in terms of the Lutheran question, “What does this mean?” As we confess in Luther’s explanation of the Second Article of the Apostles’ Creed, Jesus has done this “that I may be His own and live under Him in His kingdom and serve Him in everlasting righteousness, innocence, and blessedness.” In other words, Jesus’ love, mercy, grace, and forgiveness will cause you, will enable you, to bear fruit, good works of love, mercy, grace, and forgiveness toward others to the glory of God the Father in Jesus Christ.
And, bearing this fruit is not an option, but neither is it really a choice. To understand this, all you really need to do is to consider how it is that fruit is borne. Consider the apple tree, does it choose to produce apples? Indeed, does it think about producing fruit at all? No, of course not. An apple tree produces apples because it is, well, an apple tree! So it is with the children of God in Christ Jesus; a Christian produces the fruits of love, mercy, grace, charity, kindness, compassion, and forgiveness because they are Christians. The Scriptures even teach that such fruits must be present, for Jesus’ disciples are known by their fruits. Moreover, the fruits you bear are truly Jesus’ fruits borne in and through you. To use His own analogy, Jesus is the Vine and you are the branches. The branch bears fruit because, and only because, it is attached to the Vine. It is the life of the True Vine Jesus flowing through you, His branches, which makes you fruitful. And so, it is Jesus’ fruit that you bear in your words, deeds, and lives, fruit that others may both see and receive and benefit from.
Our Scripture readings today each deal with forgiveness, mercy, and, consequently, not judging. These are fruits, Jesus’ fruits, which you bear in your lives, words, and deeds for others to the glory of God in Jesus Christ. Moreover, though the word does not appear in today’s lections, these are each an aspect of the greatest fruit Jesus bears in you, love. Failure to forgive and failure to show mercy are ultimately failure to love. Likewise, when you judge others, you fail to love both your neighbor and God, who alone is the judge of all.
Jesus’ teaching about the kingdom of heaven today was prompted by Peter’s question concerning how many times he should forgive his brother who had sinned against him. Jesus’ answer, in effect, was, “Don’t ask such a stupid question!” How often must you forgive? Always, every time, without exception. However, the reason you must forgive may not be what you think. It is not the Law that makes you fruitful with forgiveness, love, and mercy, but it is the Holy Spirit working through the Gospel alone that does that. If you have received forgiveness, love, and mercy, if the Holy Spirit is in you – and He is! – then you will, you must, bear these fruits. Truly, when you forgive others, you forgive with Jesus’ forgiveness. And, when you give to others, you give of Jesus’ gifts. And, when you love others, you love with Jesus’ love. In fact, you can only give to others what you have first received yourself. Those who do not have Jesus’ love, gifts, and forgiveness do not have anything to give to others – at least, not anything that is truly needful. Thus, Jesus teaches, “to the one who has, more will be given, and he will have an abundance, but from the one who has not, even what he has will be taken away.” For, to refuse to forgive others is relinquish your own forgiveness. And, the same goes for mercy, compassion, and the other derivatives of love.
Jesus’ answer to Peter came in the form of a parable, a parable conveying a central truth about the kingdom of heaven. A man whose enormous debt was completely forgiven by his master in turn refused to forgive the small debt another man owed to him. When the master learned of this injustice he was furious and He sent the man to prison until he could pay the debt he owed in full – the same debt he had previously been forgiven. “You wicked servant!” the master said, “I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. And should not you have had mercy on your fellow servant, as I had mercy on you?” This is Jesus’ story, and He concludes it with this threat, “So also my heavenly Father will do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother from your heart.”
“From your heart.” Now, that’s the kicker, isn’t it? It’s one thing to say “I forgive you,” but it’s altogether another thing to mean it and to believe it in your heart. However, it’s the heart that matters, much, much more than what rolls off of your lips, for what comes out of your mouth has it’s origin in your heart. Thus, Jesus says that it is not what goes into the mouth that defiles, but rather what comes out, for that proceeds from the heart and defiles a man. And, likewise does Isaiah proclaim, “This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far from me.” No, the heart must be changed. Jesus Himself acknowledges that not all who call Him Lord with their lips will be saved, but He knows the hearts of men, He knows His sheep and His sheep know Him; they listen to His voice and they follow Him.
The problem with Peter’s question is that it flowed from a heart that was turned in upon itself, seeking to limit the sacrifice of forgiveness and love he made towards his brother. Jesus’ rebuke of Peter was relatively mild. However, the problem with the unmerciful servant in Jesus’ parable was that he did not show love at all, but he treated his fellow servant with unmerciful contempt and scorn. Jesus’ rebuke of the unmerciful servant was harsh and unrelenting. To those who refuse to show mercy to others, no mercy will be shown. Lastly, Jesus warns all of his disciples, and rather strongly, that the Father’s mercy will be revoked even to them if they do not love their brother from their heart. Yet, as harsh as this truth is, it is nothing that should cause you fear and concern so long as you trust in Jesus and strive to show mercy, love, and forgiveness towards others. And, when you fail – and you will – flee into the merciful absolution of Jesus repenting of your sins.
The Old Testament pairing of Joseph’s absolution of his brothers with Jesus’ Parable of the Unmerciful Servant was truly a brilliant lectionary decision. You know well the story of how Joseph’s brothers despised him and treated him horribly. In our reading today, even when they realized that it was Joseph who had provided grain for them during the seven years of famine, they still lie to him, telling him that their father’s dying wish was that he would forgive them. When he heard this, Joseph wept. I believe that he wept over his brothers’ brokenness and sin even after he had done them so much good. I believe that he also wept because of God’s mercy, goodness, and love by which He had worked all the horrible things that had happened to Him for good. Joseph answered his brothers, “Do not fear, for am I in the place of God? As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today. So do not fear; I will provide for you and your little ones.” This is what the kingdom of heaven is like.
Grace, mercy, forgiveness, and love – that is what the kingdom of heaven is like. Your King and Master has canceled and forgiven your debt completely, paying the price Himself in Jesus’ holy, innocent shed blood. How can you withhold mercy and forgiveness from anyone? You cannot. You must not. And, if you remain in Jesus, the True Vine, He will remain in you, and you will bear His fruit, His fruit of love. What you must do is receive. Keep your eyes and your ears and heart and mind focused on Him. Receive His gifts of Word and Sacrament that you may be filled to overflowing with His gifts and bear His fruits. Thus, the kingdom of heaven is like…, well, it’s like this Divine Service in which your sins are forgiven anew, and you are showered in your King and Master’s grace, mercy, forgiveness, and love in Jesus Christ. And, because you have these gifts, you will be given even more that you may have an abundance with which to forgive and love others. You can only give to others what you first have received yourself. Therefore, come and receive today the gifts Christ freely gives and live, even as you give life to others to the glory of God in Jesus Christ. This is what the kingdom of heaven is like.

In the + Name of Jesus. Amen.

Saturday, September 16, 2017

LWML Zone Rally "Live By His Design"

John 4:1-30; Romans 6:1-11; Psalm 36

In the Name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit.
It was about the sixth hour, that is, noon, the very hottest hour of the day. No one comes to the well at noon, but the women go to the well to draw water in the morning and in the evening when it is cool. And yet, Jesus comes to the well at noon. Jesus comes tired and thirsty from His journeys, desiring a drink of water at the hottest, the most desolate time of the day. Yes, Jesus comes in real need, in real need of assistance from others, in real need of refreshment and relief. Jesus comes vulnerable and weak, seeking mercy from someone else.
Now, I’ll bet that’s not how you typically think of your Lord Jesus, but you should. For, Jesus is God incarnate, as a human man. That is what it means that He is Emmanuel, God with us. God came to us as a lowly, helpless infant. God came to us as the humble son of a carpenter. God came to us as an itinerant rabbi having no place to lay His head. And, God came to us as Isaac, the son of promise, in the offering of His own Son unto death that He might be for us the sacrificial Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.
Our God comes to us, as one of us, to lift us up out of the lowly and mean status of our lives and make us His own children, sons and daughters of God. Our God comes to us, as one of us, to turn us back to Him by making us to see the futility and hopelessness of the way of death that we have been following, that we may walk upon His way, the way of forgiveness, eternal life, and salvation.
No one should have been at the well at noon, and anyone who would go to the well at noon would surely be in a desperate state. Such was Jesus’ state, and such was the state of the Samaritan woman whom He met there. The Samaritan woman was desperate for a good number of reasons. First most, she was coming to the well at noon in order to avoid her womanly peers, for she was a known adulteress and a disgrace among her people. Second, it was scandalous for a man and a woman to be alone, or even to speak, if they were not married. And, third, Samaritans and Jews did not interact. Jews considered Samaritans to be unclean, and they would be defiled if they were to have contact with a Samaritan and thus unable to participate in the worship life of the temple. As it was, both Jesus and the Samaritan woman were social outcasts, isolated, alone, and in need. Jesus needed water and refreshment at the mercy of another, and the woman needed her dignity and her honor restored to her at the mercy of Jesus. This is precisely what God has done for all of us in Jesus Christ, He has visited us in our lowliness and need and has restored us to dignity, honor, holiness, and life with Him.
Utilizing His own vulnerability and need for refreshment, Jesus gave the debased woman an opportunity to be of service and of value, and therefore, to have dignity. Now, human reason and flesh locate value and dignity in power, wealth, influence, and possessions, but true value and dignity are located in the spiritual gifts and acts of love, mercy, and compassion, with which we both serve and are served. Therefore, in answer to the woman’s protests concerning His being a man and a Jew, and her being a Samaritan woman, Jesus answered her saying, “If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, ‘Give me a drink,’ you would have asked Him, and He would have given you living water.” Jesus restored the woman’s dignity by humbling Himself to address her and accept service from her even though she was a Samaritan woman.
However, this woman was deeply wounded and debased. She had heard and had been taught the things that debased her so that she believed them herself and was in bondage to them. Thus, defending herself, she began to recite the reasons that Jews did not associate with Samaritans. However, Jesus would not be drawn into her pontificating and sophistry, but He answered her saying, “Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again but whoever drinks of the water that I will give him will never be thirsty again. The water that I will give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life.”
Then He had her, not because she understood His meaning, but because she desired relief from her debasement and the restoration of her dignity that such an ever-flowing spring of living water could provide. She wouldn’t have to go to that accursed well at noontime in the heat of the day anymore! Therefore, Jesus changed the subject. “Go, call your husband, and come here.” It was not sufficient that the woman would be restored to dignity and honor for herself, but she must become a spring of ever-flowing water for others as well. Not only was it improper for a woman to speak to a man who was not her husband, but it was even considered disrespectful for a wife to address her husband unless first spoken to by him. Thus, once again, Jesus restored the woman her dignity and her honor, even giving her the authority to speak a good word to her husband and other men as He would do following His resurrection with the women at His empty tomb.
However, whereas Jesus had restored her dignity and honor concerning being a woman and a Samaritan, now she had her own sins and guilt to deal with. She confessed that she had no husband, and that was the truth, however, it was not the whole truth. But, Jesus is the Truth in human flesh, and He knows the truth: “You are right in saying, ‘I have no husband’; for you have had five husbands, and the one you now have is not your husband. What you have said is true.” At this revelation, she was now able to see that Jesus was a prophet and that He knew all things. Nonetheless, once again she attempted to defend herself, this time by theologizing concerning the conflicting locations of worship recognized by Jews and Samaritans. And, once again, Jesus would not bite, but He said to her, “Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem will you worship the Father […] But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father is seeking such people to worship Him. God is spirit, and those who worship Him must worship in spirit and truth.” At this the woman began to consider that Jesus just may be the promised Messiah saying, “I know that Messiah is coming (He who is called Christ). When He comes, He will tell us all things. Then, Jesus said to her, “I who speak to you am He.” Thus, Jesus had restored her as a woman, as a Samaritan, as a human being, and as a child of God. Moreover, He had made this outcast and pariah to be an ever-flowing spring of living water for others; for those He forgives, renews, and restores, He also sends as light, leaven, and salt for the life of the world.
At that moment, Jesus’ disciples returned. This made the woman uncomfortable, for they did not ask the customary questions when a man and woman who were not married were caught speaking to each other alone. Therefore she left her water jar and went into the town and said to the people, “Come, see a man who told me all that I ever did. Can this be the Christ?” The woman who formerly could not associate with anyone, who had to draw water alone, at noon, in the heat of the day, who had no husband but was a known adulteress, who was despised by the Jews as an unclean Samaritan – this woman was made to be an ever-flowing spring of living water. Her dignity and honor were restored to her as she reclaimed her purpose of serving others to the glory of God in Christ Jesus.
The Samaritan woman came to the well in the heat of the day to draw water. However, after her encounter with Jesus, she left her bucket behind and returned to the village without water. She came to draw the water that could quench thirst for an hour or two. She returned to the village without that water, but, instead, she carried a witness to the water that quenches the thirst of the spirit forever. This is a most fitting Gospel for this gathering of the Lutheran Women’s Missionary League, particularly with your rally theme “Live By His Design,” for Jesus restored the Samaritan woman to life, and He made her to be an ever-flowing spring of living water to give life to others to the glory of God. Irenaeus of Antioch once said, “The glory of God is a man fully alive.” That is what Jesus did for the Samaritan woman; He restored her and made her fully alive. That is what Jesus has done for you and for me; He has restored you and made you fully alive that you may go and bring glory to God by being fully alive with His love, grace, mercy, and forgiveness, and let that life flow from you as ever-living water to the glory of His Name.

In the + Name of Jesus. Amen.