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Authority and Obedience – Sermon on Matthew 21:23-32

It was the week we now call “Holy Week.” The palm branches from a couple of days before were still withering on the roadside. The money changers from yesterday’s uproar in the Temple were setting up their tables outside the courtyard, trying to be as inconspicuous as possible, in case that angry lunatic Jesus came back. Cleaning up the mess he left behind had taken hours, and they weren’t used to doing that much manual labor in one day! The withered fig tree was already on the compost pile, and Jesus was gathering his followers for another lesson about living in the Kingdom of God. He knew his time was short. Every word must count. The Temple was still the best place to teach his disciples, even though he knew the rulers and priests did not appreciate the lessons he offered. Since he’d been twelve years old, talking with the rabbis in this very place, his questions and ideas had disturbed the leaders of the Temple. He was a threat to them, and they were becoming a very real threat to him. But no other place would do, so Jesus led his disciples up from Bethany, straight to the Temple in Jerusalem.

When he entered the Temple, the chief priests and the elders of the people came to him as he was teaching, and said, “By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?” Jesus said to them, “I will also ask you one question; if you tell me the answer, then I will also tell you by what authority I do these things. Did the baptism of John come from heaven, or was it of human origin?” And they argued with one another, “If we say, ‘From heaven,’ he will say to us, ‘Why then did you not believe him?’ But if we say, ‘Of human origin,’ we are afraid of the crowd; for all regard John as a prophet.” So they answered Jesus, “We do not know.” And he said to them, “Neither will I tell you by what authority I am doing these things.
“What do you think? A man had two sons; he went to the first and said, ‘Son, go and work in the vineyard today.’ He answered, ‘I will not’; but later he changed his mind and went. The father went to the second and said the same; and he answered, ‘I go, sir’; but he did not go. Which of the two did the will of his father?” They said, “The first.” Jesus said to them, “Truly I tell you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are going into the kingdom of God ahead of you. For John came to you in the way of righteousness and you did not believe him, but the tax collectors and the prostitutes believed him; and even after you saw it, you did not change your minds and believe him. (Matthew 21:23-32)

Imagine the frustration those priests and elders must have felt! This Jesus was always catching them in their own words, making them look foolish in the eyes of the people. No matter how carefully they worded their questions, he always escaped their traps. No matter how much time they spent looking for an excuse to arrest him, he could slip through their fingers in an instant, with just a word or two. It was infuriating! And it was frightening. The leaders who had ruled the Jerusalem Temple for so long enjoyed their power. They liked the respect shown to them in the streets and the markets. They loved being the ones in authority. And here was this unschooled carpenter, teaching right under their noses, sounding like he knew God more intimately than any human possibly could. This Jesus could easily turn the people away from the Temple, away from the control of the high priests and the scribes. He taught with authority, but who had authorized him? Certainly not the Temple leaders! Just who did he think he was?

The issue of “authority” is a theme that runs throughout the Gospel of Matthew. Back in chapter 7, Jesus “astounds” the crowds who hear him teaching as one who has authority, not like the scribes they were used to hearing (7:29). In fact, the lesson Jesus was teaching back there in chapter seven was about bearing good fruit, doing the will of God instead of just giving it lip service. The lesson back there was very much like this one, at the end of Jesus’ ministry.

“Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves” Jesus says. “You will know them by their fruits. … A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a bad tree bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. 
“Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven. … “Everyone then who hears these words of mine and acts on them will be like a wise man who built his house on rock. … And everyone who hears these words of mine and does not act on them will be like a foolish man who built his house on sand.” (Matthew 7:15-26)

In chapter nine, Jesus tells a paralyzed man that his sins are forgiven –which makes the scribes a little uncomfortable. Jesus tells them,

“Why do you think evil in your hearts? For which is easier, to say, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Stand up and walk’? But so that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins”—he then said to the paralytic—“Stand up, take your bed and go to your home.” And he stood up and went to his home. When the crowds saw it, they were filled with awe, and they glorified God, who had given such authority to human beings.” (Matthew 9:4-8)

Authority and obedience have been tied together since Jesus began his ministry, and Jesus will connect them again after his resurrection, when he gives his disciples the Great Commission, telling them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations…” (28:18-19).

Theologian David Lose reminds us that “there’s essentially one thing we need to keep in mind about authority: it’s given.” This is the difference between power – having the strength of will or muscle to accomplish something – and authority – being authorized to act by one who holds the actual power, the “author.” But sometimes, authority comes from a different direction. Instead of being handed down from above, it gets “handed up” from below, from people who submit themselves to another’s authority.
In either case, authority is given. True authority cannot be taken.

In Paul’s letter to the Philippians that we heard earlier, he quotes an early hymn of the church that describes Christ’s authority perfectly:

“Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death — even death on a cross. Therefore God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.” (Philippians 2:5-11)

Christ received his authority directly from God, and in obedience he humbled himself. Christ’s authority also comes from those who call him Lord, who seek to do his will.

Which brings us back to the parable Jesus uses to teach this lesson on authority. As he describes two sons, who are each given the same direction to go work in their father’s vineyard, the connection between authority and obedience becomes clear. One says he will go, and doesn’t, while the other refuses, but then changes his mind, and does what he was told to do. “Which did the will of his Father?” Jesus asks. The Temple leaders relax a bit. This isn’t a trick question, after all. The answer is obvious. The one who went to work, even after he said he would not.

Then Jesus looks at these priests and elders, and they suddenly know they’ve been had once again. I imagine the look Jesus gave them was a lot like the look King David got from the prophet Nathan, after he had sinned with Bathsheba. Do you remember the story Nathan told David? “What would you do to a man who had a whole flock of sheep, but took his poor neighbor’s only lamb to prepare a feast for a visitor?” “Of course, he must be punished,” David answers. “You are the man,” Nathan tells him. King David realizes he’s been caught. Just like King David, the Temple leaders now gathered around Jesus realize they are on the wrong side of the equation.

You see, they weren’t able to answer the question Jesus had asked them about John the Baptist’s authority. They got into an argument among themselves trying to come up with an answer that would appease the crowd and uphold their own honor, but that wasn’t possible. So they said, “we don’t know.” What they meant was, “We aren’t willing to commit. We don’t want to look bad in front of the people.” Then Jesus uses the parable to teach that appearances can be deceiving. It isn’t what we say, it’s what we do that shows our commitment to faith. It isn’t our lip service God wants; it’s our repentance. It isn’t our fancy words; it’s our obedience that matters to God. Knowing this puts us in the hot seat too: How do we respond to Christ’s authority?

It’s what we do, not just what we say, that matters. How often do we fail to commit, for fear of being ridiculed? Or maybe we just aren’t sure that Jesus is the Way the truth and the Life. We waffle, and instead of confessing that Jesus is Lord, we bear a different kind of testimony. By our silence, we tell the world that we aren’t so sure Jesus is worth committing our lives to. What are you doing – not just saying – to show you’re a follower of Jesus?

During my last semester of seminary, I had to write a mission statement for myself. It’s a couple years old now, but reading through it the other day made me realize that the time I put into crafting that mission statement was well spent. It helped me concentrate on what God is calling me to do and be, and it reminds me that, no matter how many “God words” I toss into my conversations with others, what really matters is what I do as a follower of Jesus Christ, to invite others into a life of following Jesus. Let me share part of it with you:

When I entered seminary, I had no “ministry goal.” I hated hearing the question, “What do you want to do with your degree?” For one thing I thought it arrogant to assume what I wanted had anything to do with responding to God’s call on my life. But I also hated being asked that question because I simply did not have an answer. My call came gradually over time, as I discovered gifts I didn’t know I had until I tried to use them. Even before those gifts began to fully develop, they were evidence to others – and finally to me – that God has a plan to use me in ministry.

So, this is what I know:
I am called to serve Christ and his Church as a pastor: preaching, teaching, making disciples and baptizing them into church fellowship, leading worship, and caring for the needs of a local congregation as it seeks to serve Christ and worship God. My goal as a pastor is to encourage mature faith among those under my care, teaching them to develop meaningful friendships with non-Christians for evangelism, to reach out in love to meet the needs of others in mission, and to grow in faith, as followers of Christ, through spiritual practices, especially the study of Scripture and prayer.

Through pastoral care, I seek to promote restoration and reconciliation among those who have suffered brokenness and pain. Through teaching and by example, I seek to encourage Christ-like living among those I serve, recognizing that it is not me, but Christ in me, who overcomes sin and reconciles us to God through Christ’s death on the cross and his resurrection from the grave. Through preaching and fellowship, I seek to share the Good News that we are saved by grace, through faith in Christ Jesus (Ephesians 2:8), and that God is not willing that any should perish, but that all should come to repentance (1 Peter 3:9). Through the administration of the sacraments of baptism and communion, I seek to remind believers of Christ’s commands to his Church, and our connection to the great cloud of witnesses who participate with us in the Kingdom of God. Through the observance of Christian marriage and burial, I seek to remind both young and old of the covenant promises of God, and his steadfast love for each of us.

My mission, my calling, is to lead others to believe in Jesus Christ so that they may become devoted disciples of Jesus, growing in spiritual maturity and giftedness, and participating fully in Christ’s body, the church. I am called to make disciples of Jesus Christ.

So how about you? What is your personal ministry statement? What is God calling you toward? It may seem like I repeat that question often, but I’m going to keep asking it, because if we can’t articulate our mission as individuals, how can we say what God’s call is for our church? How can we reach new people who need the grace that Christ offers? How can we renew this congregation through deeper discipleship? How can we offer healing to the broken world around us?

Several weeks ago, you had an opportunity to discover your spiritual gifts. Some of you took advantage of that opportunity, and you may have discovered that the gifts God gave you for ministry, are things you already enjoy doing. This week, you will have an opportunity to commit to using those gifts in the coming year, as you develop them in service and discipleship. If you receive the Friday Five from First e-mail, you will find a special link in Friday’s message. Clicking on that link will take you to an online survey, where you can indicate the ways you might be willing to participate in our ministry here. Go ahead and check everything that interests you. Don’t be shy! This is not a commitment to do everything you mark on the form! It’s a way to tell us what interests you, where your giftedness lies, what you think God is calling you toward. Next Sunday, we will have a couple of laptops available after worship, so you can complete the survey right here at church if you want to. It only takes a few minutes. If you aren’t comfortable around computers, we can enlist some tech-savvy young person to enter your answers for you, or you can complete the old-fashioned pencil and paper version. The goal is to get as many of you as possible thinking about ways you can grow in your own faith, as a member of Christ’s body.

However we serve, it’s what we do, not just what we say, that counts. So, let us renew our own commitment to be faithful followers of Jesus, so that our witness draws the attention of people who need reaching. Let us renew our determination to grow in friendship with God, to make new friends with whom we can share a life of faith, and to heal the broken world that cries at our doorstep. Then let us rejoice, for the Kingdom of God is at hand. Amen.

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A Different Pay Scale – Sermon on Matthew 20:1-16

Have you ever been jealous? Have you ever watched as someone else received the recognition or reward that you expected to get? You had to smile and congratulate someone who you knew didn’t deserve this prize any more than you did, while inside you were wishing you’d been the one getting the pats on the back. Been there? Sometimes, life just isn’t fair. Sometimes we have to watch as someone else gets what we think we should be getting. And it’s no fun. Our human nature wants to see the pie divided evenly. We want everyone to be treated fairly, but we especially want to be treated more fairly than anyone else. And when we have to stand aside and watch someone else get the glory, or the money, or the nice house or the most popular prom date, it gives us pain. We get what the Greeks called the “evil eye” – that green-eyed monster, envy, ruins our joy.

Over the past couple of weeks, we’ve been learning from Jesus what it means to belong to the Kingdom of God. Following Jesus means confronting those who have wronged us, and it means forgiving over and over again, far beyond the expectations of reasonably polite behavior. This week, we get another lesson in Kingdom living, as we listen in on another conversation between Jesus and his disciples. Only this time, Jesus isn’t teaching us how to resolve problems we have with others in the Kingdom of God. This week, Jesus teaches us how to solve a problem every one of us must face at some point, a problem we have with ourselves.

Jesus is speaking:

“For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard. After agreeing with the laborers for the usual daily wage, he sent them into his vineyard. When he went out about nine o’clock, he saw others standing idle in the marketplace; and he said to them, ‘You also go into the vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right.’ So they went. When he went out again about noon and about three o’clock, he did the same. And about five o’clock he went out and found others standing around; and he said to them, ‘Why are you standing here idle all day?’ They said to him, ‘Because no one has hired us.’ He said to them, ‘You also go into the vineyard. ’When evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his manager, ‘Call the laborers and give them their pay, beginning with the last and then going to the first.’ When those hired about five o’clock came, each of them received the usual daily wage. Now when the first came, they thought they would receive more; but each of them also received the usual daily wage. And when they received it, they grumbled against the landowner, saying, ‘These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.’ But he replied to one of them, ‘Friend, I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for the usual daily wage? Take what belongs to you and go; I choose to give to this last the same as I give to you. Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?’ So the last will be first, and the first will be last.” (Matthew 20:1-16)

Many scholars consider the parable of the workers in the vineyard to be one of the most difficult parables to interpret. Like any parable, it’s hard to know what’s supposed to be symbolic, and what the symbols mean. Jesus loved to use everyday life as the basis for his stories, but there are several things in this parable that just don’t add up, and theologians have been arguing over these details since at least the third century.

For example, it doesn’t add up that the owner of the vineyard would be hiring his own workers, if he has a manager. That’s something the manager would do. And it doesn’t add up that the owner keeps coming back to the marketplace to hire more workers throughout the day. Any self-respecting vineyard owner would know how many workers he needed, and would hire them all at once first thing in the morning. And the most obvious thing that doesn’t add up is the way the workers get paid at the end of the day.

But Jesus is a master storyteller. He knows the way to set up the scene to grab his disciples’ attention. He knows how to build the suspense, and introduce the conflict that creates a good story. And he knows how to resolve that conflict so that his listeners never forget the moral of the story. And that ‘moral of the story’ is not what anyone expects it to be.

For this lesson to make sense, we need to know a little background. In last week’s story of the unforgiving servant, we learned that a denarius was considered a usual day’s wage in the first century. But it wasn’t a huge sum. It was barely enough to get by. That’s why the Torah insisted that laborers be paid at the end of each day they worked, because those who lived on a denarius a day struggled just above the poverty line. Some employers took advantage of day laborers, paying them as little as possible for extremely difficult and dangerous work. But this was not always the case.

The first century historian Josephus tells us that, following the completion of the Temple, 18,000 workers were unemployed. To meet their needs, and to make sure the Temple treasury was never so full of money that it would draw the attention of the Romans, it became customary for the Temple to “hire” workers to do minimal labor, while receiving a full day’s pay.[1] So, when Jesus sets up the conditions for his story, the number of laborers, and even the flat rate that was paid to all of them, are within the realm of possibility. We have a gracious landowner, who reminds us of a gracious God.

Then we get to the conflict of the parable. It just doesn’t make sense that the landowner who hired the workers would tell his manager to pay them in reverse order. There would have been no complaints from the first workers hired if they’d just taken their money and left, before the later workers received their pay. They would never have known how much the other workers got paid, and they wouldn’t have cared. They got what was promised to them, and that would have been good enough.

So, imagine their pleasant surprise when they see workers, who had barely been in the vineyard long enough to break a sweat, getting a full day’s pay. Imagine their delight as they realize this landowner has a generous spirit. They feel good about the work they’ve done, and they trust the landowner to be as generous with them as he has been with the latecomers to the vineyard. As they step up to the pay table, they are smiling and expectant, ready to say thanks for the landowner’s generosity, certainly ready to come back tomorrow for another day of labor! As they reach out to take what is rightfully theirs, they are already thinking of the food it will buy for their children, of the debts they can begin to pay off with what is left over. And the manager drops into their waiting hand … one denarius. A usual day’s pay. The same pay those lazy bums who only worked one hour got. It isn’t fair. It isn’t right. But they know the manager isn’t to blame – he’s just doing his job. They turn immediately to the landowner himself and demand to know what’s going on here!

“It’s my money and I’ll do what I want to with it” isn’t a very satisfying response. They were hoping for, “Oh, my mistake, of course you should be paid more.” Instead, they hear, “isn’t this the amount we agreed on this morning? Can’t I choose what to do with my own money?” And then the real stinger: “Are you jealous because I was generous with others?”

Some scholars think this parable is about salvation history, and the tension that existed between Jews and Gentiles in the early church. “Shouldn’t the Gentiles have to follow the Law, just as we have all these centuries, in order to be counted as children of God?” the Jewish Christians argued. “Why should they get the same reward as those of us who have lived under the Law since birth?”

Some scholars think it’s about salvation, teaching us that there is no difference, in the eyes of God, between faithful Christians who have lived a holy life since childhood and those who make a deathbed confession of faith. Other scholars have assigned different meanings to different elements of the story, and some arguments are convincing while others are not. Some have concentrated on the phrase that acts as a pair of bookends around this story: The first shall be last, and the last shall be first. They see this proverb as an explanation of the parable.

But what if it’s the other way around? What if the parable is just an example of the proverb, this saying that Jesus liked to repeat over and over again? What if this story describes exactly how the Kingdom of God is not what we expect, how God takes our human understanding of the way things work, and stands it on its head?

What if the moral of the story isn’t so much, “God is just and generous and can do whatever he wants,” but instead is a lesson in humility for the disciples of Jesus, who had a tendency to think more highly of themselves just because they got to hang out with the Son of God all the time? What if the point is that God uses a different pay scale than the one we would use if we were in charge? Gods pay scale isn’t based on our merit, but God’s great love for us. God’s pay scale gives us our daily bread, so that we will depend completely on him.

“Are you jealous because I was generous with these other workers?” the landowner asks. Jesus has taught us how to get along with each other, and now he is teaching us how to get along with ourselves when we begin to think we deserve more than we’re getting, when we start comparing ourselves to others, and when we wonder why they get all the blessings while we do all the work.

Envy is a particularly deadly sin. Even if it is never expressed, it eats away at us from the inside. It prevents us from noticing the many ways God blesses us, because we are always comparing our blessings to someone else’s, and that comparison creates resentment and anger inside us. Envy prevents us from living the abundant life Christ promises to us. And if we aren’t living an abundant life, we can’t possibly invite others to share in it. Instead of directing our full attention on God and his goodness, we become self-centered, bitter, and at odds with God’s intent for us.

Klyne Snodgrass writes, “Why is goodness often the occasion for anger? Why do we find it so difficult to rejoice over the good that enters other people’s lives, and why do we spend our time calculating how we have been cheated?”[2] We cannot experience the fullness of God’s love as long as we are comparing ourselves with others or being envious of what others receive.

Last week, Jesus told us to stop counting how many times we must forgive someone else. This week, he teaches us to stop counting someone else’s blessings, so that we can start living into our own blessings. God’s grace isn’t something you can earn or something you deserve because you’ve been working in the vineyard since the sun came up. God’s grace is freely given to all who believe that Jesus is the Son of God, who died to save us from our sins and rose so that we might have eternal life. Accepting this grace leaves no room for envy.

But envy is not limited to individuals. Whole churches have suffered from comparing their ministries to some other church that has more members, a bigger budget, a nicer building, better music, and a more dynamic preacher. Instead of concentrating on making disciples, congregations stuck in envy spend all their energy and resources trying to measure up to some other church’s standard of fruitfulness. They wonder why God hasn’t blessed their church the way God has blessed that other church. Sometimes, it isn’t another church, but “the way things used to be” that makes them jealous. They look at the denarius in their hand, and wonder why they didn’t get a bigger payback for all the work they did in the past. They become bitter, and they shake their heads as the church sinks further into decline.

But Christ calls us to make disciples, not comparisons. Instead of whining about what used to be or what some other church has, Christ calls us to work in his vineyard, for the harvest is plentiful, and the laborers are few.[3]

The Minnesota Conference of the United Methodist Church is embarking on a new initiative to reach new people for Christ, renew existing congregations, and rejoice in God’s generous goodness to us. Reach – Renew – Rejoice could be just another program, another way to institutionalize the process of making and deepening disciples. Or it could be an opportunity to revitalize our mission, refocus our energy, and see what God might do among us if we are faithful in pursuing God’s will for our congregation. Instead of comparing ourselves to others, God calls us to put down the measuring stick altogether, and do what we are gifted and called to do as workers in God’s kingdom. So let’s roll up our sleeves and head into the vineyard. We have been called to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. Let’s get to work. Amen.

[1] Klyne Snodgrass, Stories with Intent: A Comprehensive Guide to the Parables of Jesus, 364.

[2] Snodgrass, 378.

[3] Matthew 9:38, Luke 10:2

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Reaching Through Forgiveness – Sermon on Matthew 18:21-35

I don’t think any of us come to worship God in this place with the idea of becoming less like Jesus as our goal. We’re all in it to become more like Jesus. Sometimes, it’s hard, though, isn’t it? Sometimes we’d like Jesus to let us off the hook a little bit, tell us what we are doing is good enough, pat us on the head and let us get on with being a little less like him. Right?

But it never seems to work that way. Jesus always calls us gently toward greater perfection. Christ sets the barre high for us, as his followers. Jesus doesn’t let us off the hook, because we’re all he’s got. Christ depends on us, as he reaches into this troubled, broken world of ours, to show people what it means to follow him into the Kingdom of God. We matter. And what we do, how we treat one another, matters. How else will people who are in pain, who need God, see the difference that following Christ can make in their lives? How else will they know that they matter to God?

In today’s passage, we pick up the conversation between Jesus and his disciples from the point where we left off last week. Jesus has been teaching us how to live in the Kingdom of God, and he has urged us to be reconciled to those who have wronged us. Last week, we learned a process for resolving conflict between two believers, and in the UMC we call that process the Rule of Christ. It outlines a series of steps for confronting a brother or sister in disagreement. We must first examine our own contribution to the problem, then go directly to the one who has hurt us and tell that person what is wrong. If they don’t listen, or won’t be reconciled to us, then we must bring in another believer to act as mediator or advocate, and if the other party still will not listen, we are to call upon the resources of the whole church. Once we’ve tried everything, and there is still no resolution, we are to treat the other person as a Gentile and a tax collector – in other words, as an outsider. While many traditions interpret this to mean we are to exclude, or shun, the person, a look at the way Jesus himself treated Gentiles and tax collectors may indicate that what we are really supposed to do is work even more diligently at finding ways to live in community with the offender, offering the same invitation to discipleship that we would offer any other outsider we would win to Christ.

The “three strikes and you’re out” that Jesus gives – go directly to the offender, then take one or two witnesses, then take it to the church, if all else fails, treat the offender as an outsider – line up nicely with the common practice of first century Jews. It was understood that three pardons were enough – a fourth offense did not need to be forgiven. If I forgave you three times, and you wronged me again, I could hold a grudge and still claim to be righteous.

As the disciples listened to Jesus teach about conflict resolution, they may have interpreted his words in this way. But Peter knew better. He knew that with Jesus, it was never that simple. With Jesus, the old order of things was never good enough. So, to clarify things, he asked a question, hoping that – for once – he had guessed the right answer in advance.

Hear the word of the Lord as given to us in the gospel of Matthew, chapter 18, verses 21-35:

Then Peter came and said to him, “Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?” Jesus said to him, “Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times.

“For this reason the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his slaves. When he began the reckoning, one who owed him ten thousand talents was brought to him; and, as he could not pay, his lord ordered him to be sold, together with his wife and children and all his possessions, and payment to be made. So the slave fell on his knees before him, saying, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.’ And out of pity for him, the lord of that slave released him and forgave him the debt. But that same slave, as he went out, came upon one of his fellow slaves who owed him a hundred denarii; and seizing him by the throat, he said, ‘Pay what you owe.’ Then his fellow slave fell down and pleaded with him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you.’ But he refused; then he went and threw him into prison until he would pay the debt. When his fellow slaves saw what had happened, they were greatly distressed, and they went and reported to their lord all that had taken place. Then his lord summoned him and said to him, ‘You wicked slave! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. Should you not have had mercy on your fellow slave, as I had mercy on you?’ And in anger his lord handed him over to be tortured until he would pay his entire debt. So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart.”

Peter thought that surely , if the standard was forgiving up to three times, seven ought to be more than enough to satisfy Jesus. Seven was a perfect number, after all. When Jesus says, “Not seven. Seventy-seven” or maybe even “seventy times seven,” depending on how you read it, he’s asking Peter to go deeper in his understanding of forgiveness. And Jesus invites us to go deeper, too.

You see, the issue isn’t a number at all. And Jesus makes this clear in the parable he tells to explain his point. Here we have a king and his slave. The slave owes the king an enormous amount of money. It’s possible he became a slave in order to pay off a debt he owed to someone else. We don’t know, and how he came to be a slave, or came to owe the king so much money doesn’t really matter in this story. The important thing is that this debt is so huge, he will never be able to pay it. A talent was equal to about 130 pounds of silver, or about 15 years of wages for a laborer. At 10,000 times that amount, it would take the slave 150,000 years of work to pay off the debt. Impossible.

Yet, when the slave begged for more time, the king had pity on him, and not only withdrew the sentence, but actually forgave the entire fortune the slave owed. The king showed mercy.

But what does the slave do after receiving such generosity from his master? On his way out of the king’s presence, he runs into a fellow slave who owes him the equivalent of 100 days of wages. Not 150,000 years, but 100 days. A manageable sum. A realistic debt. You would think that the first slave would be feeling generous, having just received a very sweet deal from his master, but instead, he grabs his fellow slave by the throat and demands payment. The second slave falls into the very same posture of humility, and uses the very same words the first slave used to beg for a little more time. But this time there is no mercy. There is no pity. There is no generosity.

And the other slaves see how wrong this is. Even without benefit of Facebook or Twitter, the word gets back to the king that this slave he forgave will not forgive. The king is furious, and rightly so. Not only is this behavior wrong, it reflects badly on the king for one of his own slaves to behave so badly. It makes the king appear weak when he shows mercy to a scoundrel who apparently doesn’t get the concept of ‘paying it forward.’

So the king rescinds the original pardon, and the first slave suffers the consequences of his own lack of mercy to another. If he won’t forgive another, the king won’t forgive him.

I wonder why that slave would not show mercy, don’t you? Maybe he was just greedy. Now that his own debt was gone, any money he could force out of another would be free and clear cash in hand – he didn’t have to ‘borrow from Peter to pay Paul anymore.’ Or maybe he was so used to a cycle of violence and coercion that threatening the other slave was just force of habit for him. Whatever the reason, the slave who had been forgiven had not been transformed by the grace shown to him. The change in his circumstances did not bring about a change in his behavior, or his outlook on life. He suffered the consequences of his actions, and was thrown into prison.

And Jesus says, “This is what will happen to you if you don’t forgive from your heart.”

It isn’t the numbers that matter; it’s what we hold in our hearts that really counts. Seven or seventy-seven or seven times seventy doesn’t matter. 150,000 years of wages or 100 days of wages doesn’t matter. What matters is the stuff that goes on in the depths of our hearts. If we accept the forgiveness that God offers us through his Son’s death and resurrection, we become new people. We are changed. And if we are changed, our behavior changes. The way we look at life changes. The way we treat other people changes. Our capacity to forgive others changes. There is no room for holding grudges in a heart that has been touched by God’s unmerited favor.

This does not mean that we should allow others to abuse us or take advantage of us. Theologian David Lose writes, If someone is repeatedly unkind or hurtful, let alone mean-spirited or violent, we may very well want to put some distance between us. But even that decision doesn’t completely define … our … relationship with the other person, only how we conduct that relationship. We may continue to love a child or sibling or friend who is abusive, but we don’t have to put up with the abusive behavior. Indeed, the most loving and forgiving thing to do may very well be to stop putting up with the behavior.”

Remember that this passage belongs to the one we heard last week about confronting one who has wronged us. Confrontation without forgiveness only serves to make a conflict worse, but confrontation is necessary in order for forgiveness to bring reconciliation and healing.

The point of Jesus’ parable isn’t to get us to increase our forgiveness quota. It’s to get us to stop counting altogether. Because forgiveness is part of love, and love can’t be counted. If Peter had asked Jesus “How many times should I love my neighbor?” we would think the question ridiculous. Love can’t be counted. Neither can forgiveness, because forgiveness is really a decision to accept what you can’t change in the past, so that the past no longer has power over you. When you cannot forgive, the past puts you in prison. Forgiveness is the freedom to let go of the past, and walk into the future.

And isn’t that good news? Isn’t it worth sharing the good news that forgiveness, like God’s love, is without limits? The only thing God can’t forgive is an unwillingness to be forgiven, and it isn’t because God refuses to offer forgiveness, but because we have to be willing to accept the offer for it to go into effect. And when we accept Christ’s offer of forgiveness, it changes us into people who offer forgiveness to others. Just like those servants who ratted out the ungrateful slave, others will spread the word, but this time, the news will be that we care, that we aren’t here to judge others, but to share God’s saving love with them. Instead of tattling on our wrongs, people will be talking about how forgiveness is so much a part of our DNA, it has changed our lives.

That’s how we reach others for Christ. We respond to God’s grace by offering grace. We answer God’s forgiveness by forgiving the people who have wronged us. And the word gets around.

Christ sets the barre high for us, as his followers. Jesus doesn’t let us off the hook, because we’re all he’s got. Christ depends on us, as he reaches into this troubled, broken world of ours, to show people what it means to follow him into the Kingdom of God. We matter. And what we do, how we treat one another, matters. How else will people who are in pain, who need God, see the difference that following Christ can make in their lives? How else will they know that they matter to God?

brothers sailing

The Rule of Christ – Sermon on Matthew 18:15-20

When our son was studying the cello, he had a great teacher. Mr. Howard taught his students more than good playing technique. He also taught them skills that could transfer from music to other areas of life. So when our son struggled with a difficult passage, Mr. Howard taught him a problem solving process for “learning the hard parts” of a piece that could work in non-music situations, too. The process had four steps. The first two concentrated on the problem itself, and the last two focused on the solution. Albert Einstein once said something about being given an hour to solve a problem, he would spend 55 minutes on the problem, and five minutes on the solution, but Mr. Howard’s method was not limited by time. Here are the steps:

  1. Identify the problem
  2. Isolate it
  3. Innovate possible solutions
  4. Implement a solution

If the solution doesn’t work, go back to the beginning and start over. Identify, Isolate, Innovate, and Implement. It was a great way to help a young music student concentrate on the few notes or measures that needed fixing, and our son still remembers the four steps of the process, nearly a decade after his lessons with Mr. Howard have ended. No doubt, he still uses these four steps on a regular basis.

But problem-solving strategies don’t always work when the problem at hand is really a conflict between two people. When those two people are both followers of Jesus, resolving the conflict between them has to reflect that they are children of God, who live together as members of the body of Christ.

Today’s reading from the gospel of Matthew is part of a larger teaching on how to live in the Kingdom of God. In this passage, Jesus teaches us how to resolve conflicts so we can live together in peace. In the United Methodist Church we call this process the Rule of Christ, and our Staff/Pastor Relations Committee is formulating a guide to help us follow the Rule of Christ here in our own congregation. The Rule of Christ reminds us that we do not do this thing called ministry alone. We are in community together, and because we are all sinners, it means we are going to bump up against each other from time to time. We are going to disagree with one another from time to time. We are going to hurt each other occasionally. When that happens, Jesus gives us a means for getting reconnected, for making peace, for becoming whole again.

Hear the Word of the Lord, as given to us in the Gospel of Matthew, chapter 18, verses 15-20.
“If another member of the church sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone. If the member listens to you, you have regained that one.But if you are not listened to, take one or two others along with you, so that every word may be confirmed by the evidence of two or three witnesses. If the member refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if the offender refuses to listen even to the church, let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.
Truly I tell you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven. Again, truly I tell you, if two of you agree on earth about anything you ask, it will be done for you by my Father in heaven. For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.”

In the first few verses, Jesus gives us a process for working out our differences that seems to be as simple as Mr. Howard’s problem solving method. While the four steps of the Rule of Christ don’t exactly line up with Identify, Isolate, Innovate, and Implement, they come pretty close. But the process itself is a little different. Instead of discreet steps, the Rule of Christ follows a progression that begins small, and grows larger only if it needs to:

  1. Start by addressing the one who has hurt you face-to-face. Whenever someone wrongs you, go immediately to them and tell them what is bothering you.
  2. If that doesn’t work, bring along a witness who can also act as mediator or advocate.
  3. If that doesn’t work, call on the resources of the larger church.
  4. If you still can’t convince the other person to repent, “let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.” This sounds like one of those sayings that must have been its own catch phrase in first century Palestine, doesn’t it? We’ll come back to that in a moment.

Before we can even go to the one who has hurt us, though, Christ encourages us to do a little soul-searching, to recognize our own part in the conflict. Earlier in chapter 18, Jesus tells us to cut off any part of our own bodies that cause us to sin. To do that, we have to recognize our own sinfulness. So before we can address sin in another, Jesus calls us to look at ourselves. Answering a few questions can help us gain clearer understanding, avoid overreacting, and move us toward wholeness.

The first question we should ask ourselves is, “Can I let it go?” If the offense is minor, and you can honestly let it go, there is no reason to confront the other person. There is no reason to create conflict where it doesn’t already exist outside our own minds. But if you know this is going to keep bothering you, it’s time to ask another question: “What might the other person think I have contributed to this problem?” Taking the time to see things from the other person’s viewpoint can help us recognize what we need to take responsibility for, before we confront another. And asking, “what does God see?” can give us an even broader perspective. This broader view helps us see the issue more objectively, and prevents us from allowing anger and fear to cloud our vision as we work toward resolution. We may discover that the problem we have is really within ourselves, and we can avoid causing distress in others and in the church through our own repentance and discipleship.

But sometimes, that self-examination shows me that I really have been hurt by another, and allowing that wound to fester will not lead to healing. Then I must get up and go to the one who has hurt me, and tell that person what is wrong. The purpose of this step is not to get even or express my anger. The purpose here is to resolve the conflict. As I work to understand the other person’s point of view, the goal is for us to work together to come up with solutions.

Sometimes, two people simply cannot agree, and when that is the case, Jesus urges us to bring in some help. An advocate or witness can offer yet another viewpoint, and may be able to point out possibilities that the two parties in conflict might not have been able to see. This could be church staff, or the SPRC, if the conflict is with a member of the church staff, or someone from the Church Board. If that doesn’t work, it’s time to draw on the larger church. The conference offers resources for conflict resolution, and the district superintendent can also be a resource. But if we’ve followed the Rule of Christ with integrity, no church conflict should ever come to this “last resort” stage. Jesus encourages us to solve the problem as simply and directly as possible, before it becomes a full-blown crisis of the church.

Here’s something to ponder: that word “church” only appears twice in all the gospels, and both of them happen in Matthew. Jesus also uses the word “church” in chapter 16, when he gives Simon the name “Peter.” Both of these passages that include the word “church” also promise that what is bound on earth will be bound in heaven, and what is loosed on earth will be loosed in heaven.

Jesus emphasizes that what we say and do here on earth is connected to what happens in heaven. Resolution and agreement reflect a heavenly ideal of the “unity” in “community,” and Christ promises to be with us as we seek to resolve our conflicts with one another. Christ is present among us as we work out what it means to live in the Kingdom of God, loving one another in Christ’s name, seeking each other’s good, showing the world what it means to live in peace.

Jesus isn’t saying that we have power to dictate what will be acceptable in heaven by what we choose here on earth, any more than he is saying that we can ask for any whim to be satisfied, and simply tack on the words “in Jesus’ name” to get what we want. Jesus says simply that he will be present in the process of seeking reconciliation, and God will honor the solution reached by two parties who actively seek God’s will. We do not do this hard work of building community by ourselves, but through the power of the Holy Spirit.

But what happens when nothing works?

Even when we follow the Rule of Christ to the letter, some issues simply cannot be resolved. In those cases, it’s best to remember our mission, let go of disappointment and anger, and move on with our ministry. We all have known churches that have been split apart by grievances that could not be resolved. When those unresolved issues become the center of a church’s attention, the wound never heals, and the church gets stuck. Even worse, when a church allows conflict to take God’s rightful place as its center of attention, conflict becomes what the church worships, instead of God. Christ’s words may seem harsh, but treating someone who will not be reconciled as “a Gentile and a tax collector” may be the only way the church itself can survive the aftermath of such a crisis.

Here we are, back at that “Gentile and a tax collector” phrase I mentioned earlier. While his disciples may have heard this as a standard expression for excluding an outcast, Christ’s practice was to include both Gentiles and tax collectors among his followers. Matthew himself was a tax collector, after all! Think about the way Jesus treated the Samaritan woman at the well, or Zacchaeus. He made himself available to all, and spent a good deal of his time and energy welcoming outcasts. When we cannot reconcile with another believer, Jesus encourages us to treat that person as an outcast, but I don’t think he’s asking us to shun those who won’t agree with us. I think he’s asking us to spend even more energy on drawing them into God’s love and forgiveness, entering into intentional community with them, engaging them in ongoing discipleship.

Because the bottom line is this: God really cares about how we treat each other, and how others treat us. God wants us to live in Kingdom harmony with one another, so that others may be drawn into this abundant life by our example. It isn’t always easy to turn God’s flashlight into our own souls to see where we might need to do a little repenting before we accuse another of sin. And it certainly isn’t easy to get up and go directly to the people who have wronged us, to speak to them face-to-face. It’s even harder to admit we can’t accomplish reconciliation on our own, and we might need some help from a broader circle of witnesses in the church. Hardest of all is admitting that, on rare occasions, reconciliation simply isn’t possible, and we have to redirect our energy back toward the work of ministry we’ve been called as a church to do.

As we ponder these words of Jesus that seem so harsh, we might wonder where forgiveness comes into the picture. Will the conflicts we must inevitably face always lead to division? Does every unresolved conflict have to end in separation, and must that separation be permanent? Come back next week, when we’ll hear more from Jesus about living in the Kingdom of God.

 

having fun at FUMC

What’s Your Superpower? – Children’s Message on Romans 12:1-8

What do you think your superpower is? Everybody has one, but sometimes we forget to use the one we’re given! Do you know someone who does a really good job of teaching you things? They know how to keep it interesting, and they answer your questions – sometimes before you even ask! They just seem to know how to make learning fun and you can remember what they teach you? That person has a gift of teaching.

Do you know someone who is really good at encouraging you? No matter how bad you feel about yourself, this person can always help you see what’s good in you, and how God is working in your life. They help you cheer up when you are discouraged, and they always make you want to try harder. That person is an encourager; it’s their superpower.

Or maybe you know someone who is really kind. They are always doing nice things for other people, and they never seem to get mad or angry – that person’s superpower is kindness.

So what’s your superpower? You may not know it, but you are already developing a special gift that has been given to you by the Holy Spirit. This week, I’d like you to pay attention to the way God might be using you, and see if you can figure out what your superpower is. You can ask God to show it to you, and then be on the lookout for things you find yourself doing that might be God working through you. The church needs all kinds of people with all kinds of gifts, especially you and the superpowers you have! Let’s pray…

God, help us to notice when you are working in us and through us to show love to other people. Help us pay attention to the superpowers you have given us through the Holy Spirit, and help us to use our powers for good, so others will come to know you. Amen.

 

worshiptime

Gifts that Differ – Sermon on Romans 12:1-8

No one seems to know who first said, “The problem with living sacrifices is they keep crawling off the altar,” but in today’s reading, the Apostle Paul encourages us to stop crawling away and start really living, as we devote ourselves to following Jesus. Maybe people cringe from offering themselves because our idea of a sacrifice is pretty gory, and always fatal. Or maybe it’s because people focus on what they will lose as they offer their sacrifice. But Paul asks us to consider a different meaning for the word “sacrifice.” He calls us to remember that the root of this word is the same as the word “sacred.” Instead of thinking of a sacrifice as something we have to give up or give away or kill, Paul invites us to recognize that true sacrifice means setting apart something as sacred or holy, and that thing we are to make holy is ourselves, our whole selves. Hear the word of the Lord as given to the Apostle Paul in his letter to the Romans, chapter 12, verses 1-8:

I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect.

For by the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think of yourself more highly than you ought to think, but to think with sober judgment, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned.  For as in one body we have many members, and not all the members have the same function, so we, who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually we are members one of another. We have gifts that differ according to the grace given to us: prophecy, in proportion to faith; ministry, in ministering; the teacher, in teaching; the exhorter, in exhortation; the giver, in generosity; the leader, in diligence; the compassionate, in cheerfulness. – Romans 12:1-8

Paul tells us, in remarkably concise language, what it takes to be transformed into Christ-likeness, rather than conformed to this world. Through the renewing of our minds, we are able to know God’s good and perfect will for us, and become “living sacrifices.”

Our transformation begins the moment we claim Jesus as Lord, and continues throughout our lives. We aren’t talking gory death here, but full and abundant life, dedicating to God our entire will and being. But in order to be transformed into Christ-like people, we must also fight against the urge to conform to the world around us.

Even churches struggle with this pull toward worldly conformity. In our eagerness to be accessible, to be inviting and welcoming, churches often try to look and act as little like “church” as possible, making themselves attractive to those for whom the word “church” has negative meaning. As they strive to accommodate the needs and desires of worldly people, these churches sometimes find themselves offering faith as a commodity, rather than a life-giving source of deep joy and transformation. Paul reminds us that our transformation requires an entire mindset change. We have to start thinking differently in order to grow into our new identities as children of God.
And that mindset requires some humility.

By God’s grace, Paul writes, don’t think of yourselves more highly than you ought to think. In other words, don’t get puffed up, but think of yourselves with modesty, according to the faith God gives you.

Our transformation develops right thinking about ourselves in relationship to God and others. Following Jesus changes our thinking from being self-centered to being God-centered. Instead of putting ourselves first, we recognize our place in the body of Christ, and live into that purpose and function with humility.

Because each part of the body is necessary to the whole, and we are connected to one another through Christ, though our functions may be quite different from one another. I often say that we can be believers in isolation, but true discipleship happens in community. Our part in the body connects us to all the other parts of Christ’s body, the church. We depend on one another to make the body function as it should.

But the gifts we bring, the parts we play in the church’s work, are all different. Paul lists seven examples here, but he identifies at least 20 among his letters to Rome, Corinth, and Ephesus. While it isn’t an exhaustive list, the gifts of prophecy, ministry, teaching, encouragement, generosity, leading (which may really mean administering finances, or being a benefactor), and compassion, are all examples of good gifts, used well. This brief list is not given in any particular order of importance, either. It is simply an illustration of the many ways we work together for the kingdom of God.

So why don’t we talk about these gifts of the Spirit more often? Why don’t we work, as a church, to help people develop their spiritual giftedness? Authors Dan and Barbara Dick explain that most churches depend on structure-based ministry. They determine what needs to happen to keep the institution alive, and then seek church members who can fill those needs. But this approach no longer works, partly because our society no longer trusts institutions of any kind, and individualism has taken prominence over community. But what might happen if we refocused our energy toward developing the gifts that God has already placed among us, and then structured our ministry around that giftedness, instead of looking for the gifts we need to maintain the status quo?

Dan and Barbara Dick tell us, “Gifts-based ministry focuses on the people – their gifts and passions and their sense of call and Christian vocation.”[1] The beauty of developing a gifts-based church is that all gifts can be used in many ways, but their purpose remains the building up of the church, and the equipping of the saints for ministry (Eph 4:12).

The primary mission of the United Methodist Church is to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. The Minnesota Conference has identified three gospel imperatives to accomplish this mission:

  • Grow in love for God – nurturing and strengthening personal Christian faith
  • Reach new people – welcoming them into the family of God
  • Heal a broken world – live out our calling to be salt and light to a world that needs some good news

As we work toward these goals, our gifts are not delegated to one gospel imperative or another. Rather, we all use all our gifts to address all the tasks of ministry. Everything we do as a church should line up with the ultimate goal of making disciples for the transformation of the world. We nurture faith and love for God, we reach new people, and we help to heal a broken world by exercising the gifts God has given us.

Our gifts are the “superpowers” God has given us to do ministry in this time and place. These spiritual gifts are not only to be used for the benefit of others, however. They are for our own benefit, too. Our gifts also draw us more closely into Christ-likeness, transforming each of us into what God created us to be. When Paul says, “use your gifts to equip the saints for every good work” I sometimes think we forget that we who have been given these gifts are those saints being equipped for ministry.

Dan and Barbara Dick write, “All too often, we are working rather than worshiping when we sing, read, or serve in church. How glorious it would be if we could be truly filled with holy fire in our mission and ministry, if we could trust in that power and allow God to use our spiritual gifts, … to build up the body of Christ and prepare it to be the church in the world.” (22)

Exercising our gifts isn’t something to do just when we feel like it. Serving Christ isn’t a hobby or a way to use our spare time to make us feel better about ourselves. Using our giftedness is how we follow Jesus. Director of Ministry for the Minnesota Conference, Cindy Gregorson often says that she would like to eliminate the word “volunteer” from church vocabularies. When we volunteer, it implies that we are using our discretionary time and energy in an optional activity. Following Jesus is a 24/7 endeavor that requires a completely transformed mindset: there’s nothing optional about being a disciple of Christ.

Dan and Barbara Dick write, “When people who are gifted, graced, and equipped for every good work choose to live and work and grow together in community, the church is fulfilling its mission and call to love God and love neighbor through faithful discipleship.”[2]

So what gifts do you possess? What special superpowers has the Holy Spirit given you for the building up of the church and the equipping of saints for ministry? Today, you are going to have an opportunity to discover your gifts. The ushers are passing out some spiritual gifts inventory forms, and I invite you to prayerfully give attention to learning how God has gifted you – not so we can figure out which committee to assign you to! – but so you can begin to develop your unique gifts in service to God, which is your spiritual worship. If you aren’t a paper/pencil type, and you would rather complete a spiritual gifts inventory online, you can go to our church website and find links to several different assessment tools. I’ve tried them all, and had similar results from each, so I’m pretty sure you’re safe in choosing any of them. Some websites give you more information about each of the spiritual gifts on the inventory, so you may want to explore those sites to learn more about your particular gift set.

Then I invite you to do something that will dramatically impact the life of our church. I invite you to tell us what your gifts are. You can do it anonymously, if you’re still afraid the nominating committee is going to use this information to put you to work. But it might be an eye-opener to discover what gifts we have among us, where our strengths as a congregation lie, and how God might be calling our church into ministry through the gifts that have been given to us.

So, I’m giving you a homework assignment. This week, discover your gifts, and learn something about them. Pray daily for God to show you how to use your gifts. Then come to church next week, prepared to write the name of your primary gift (with or without your own name – doesn’t matter) on a card that we will collect.

I am eager to see how God has gifted each of us. I am more eager to see how God will transform us individually, and as a church, through the renewal of our minds, so that lives might be changed, and together we might discern the will of God – what is good and acceptable and perfect. Amen.

[1] Dan and Barbara Dick, Equipped for Every Good Work: Building a Gifts-Based Church, 19.

[2] Ibid, 20.

Herman

Grafted In – Sermon on Romans 11

This week, as events unfolded in Ferguson, Missouri, I was struck by the difference on social media between the responses of my white friends and my black friends to the death of Michael Brown. Here in New Ulm, where pretty much everyone is white, you may not have paid much attention to the news from Ferguson. It may not have seemed relevant to our mostly German community. But as I read today’s scriptures over and over, they kept pointing me back to the news, and particularly to the pain and frustration my black friends were expressing as the week wore on. Not just the tensions in Ferguson, but the tensions in Gaza and other parts of the world all seem to come back to the fact that we, as human beings, don’t do a very good job of living together peacefully.

In our Old Testament reading today, Joseph’s revelation to his brothers might seem like a happy ending, but we know the rest of the story. Joseph brings his whole family to Egypt, and 400 years later, their descendants will struggle under Egyptian oppression. The Gospel Lesson tells us of a Canaanite woman who convinces Jesus to help her daughter, but she has to overcome Jewish prejudice against Israel’s earliest enemies in order to do it. And in our reading from Romans today, we will hear the Apostle Paul wrap up his own argument in the Gentile/Jew debate. No matter where we turn, it seems, the Bible keeps playing the race card.

When scripture collides with current events like this, we cannot afford to bury our heads in the sand and pretend we don’t see it. Maybe you think the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri has little or nothing to do with you, and the aftermath of his death may seem like a mess you’re glad is happening there, instead of here. Maybe you think we’re a long way away from that St. Louis suburb. On the other hand, our readings today might just be telling us, to paraphrase one of my Facebook friends, that Ferguson is nearer to New Ulm than we think.
Here’s the word of the Lord, as given to the Apostle Paul, in his letter to the Romans:

I ask, then, has God rejected his people? By no means! I myself am an Israelite, a descendant of Abraham, a member of the tribe of Benjamin. 2 God has not rejected his people whom he foreknew.

 

If the part of the dough offered as first fruits is holy, then the whole batch is holy; and if the root is holy, then the branches also are holy.
But if some of the branches were broken off, and you, a wild olive shoot, were grafted in their place to share the rich root of the olive tree, do not boast over the branches. If you do boast, remember that it is not you that support the root, but the root that supports you. You will say, “Branches were broken off so that I might be grafted in.”  That is true. They were broken off because of their unbelief, but you stand only through faith. So do not become proud, but stand in awe. For if God did not spare the natural branches, perhaps he will not spare you. … 

…  for the gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable. Just as you were once disobedient to God but have now received mercy because of their disobedience, so they have now been disobedient in order that, by the mercy shown to you, they too may now receive mercy. For God has imprisoned all in disobedience so that he may be merciful to all. (Romans 11:1-2, 16-21, 29-32)

“Has God rejected his people?” Paul has to ask this question because, apparently, some of the Gentile Christians in Rome thought God had disowned Israel, and Gentile Christians had become God’s chosen people in Israel’s place. But this isn’t true, Paul tells us. Salvation is for all who believe, whether Jew or Gentile.

Paul defends his point by reminding his readers that he, himself, is a Jew. If God had completely rejected his people, Paul wouldn’t have had a chance. Yet, here he is, a Jew and a follower of Jesus. Just because the nation of Israel had rejected God, it didn’t mean that God would break his promise. Jesus had told the woman at the well “salvation is from the Jews,” after all (John 4:22). If not for the Jews, Paul tells us, there would be no gospel story. There would be no good news. God has not rejected his people.

Paul goes on to describe salvation history using an olive tree as an example. It was common practice to prune out branches of an old tree that had borne well for many years, then graft in younger branches from an uncultivated tree to get the old tree to bear again. The strong root of the old tree would support the new branches as they fused with the established tree. “You Gentiles are like those new branches,” Paul says, “but don’t get cocky. You depend on the strong root of Jewish history, not the other way around.”

And this is where scripture collides with the events of this past week, as hateful words flew, and violence escalated in Ferguson, MO. You see, Emperor Claudius had kicked the Jews out of Rome, but Nero had repealed that edict when he came into power a few years later. While the Jews were absent, Gentile Christians in Rome had continued to grow in numbers and influence. To some extent, when the Jewish Christians were allowed to return to Rome, they came back to a church in which Gentile Christians had taken over, and had begun to see themselves as more privileged than the Jews. There may have even been evidence of a particularly troubling heresy that rejected the Old Testament and Judaism completely. It’s no wonder that Paul’s words are strong here, as he warns against arrogance. When addressing people of privilege, it sometimes takes strong language to expose that assumption of privilege for what it is: oppression.

The thing is, people who live privileged lives don’t usually see that we have freedoms others can only dream about. We take for granted that others will assume we are clean, honest, and dependable. We might even look down our noses a bit at people who don’t appear to be any of these things. When I stroll down the aisles at Walmart, I don’t have to worry about keeping my hands out of my pockets. I don’t have to” watch my step or practice what to say when – not if – the police pull me over.” But I know people who do. And I can tell you that my life of privilege makes their lives harder. Not because they have to work harder or be smarter or do more to get the same recognition I get, but because when I blithely go about my business without a care in the world, I’m creating a world that doesn’t care. And that is not what Jesus calls me to do.

“For the gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable,” Paul writes. God has called all his people to himself, no matter what ethnic tribe they claim, no matter what social standing they have, no matter how rich or poor they are. And since we are all called as disciples of Jesus Christ, it follows that I may be rubbing elbows with another disciple who doesn’t look like me or smell like me or think like me or act like me, but we are in this thing called faith together, as brothers and sisters, united in our love for God and for one another.

None of us is any better or worse than any of us. We each have our part in the story. Paul writes, “Just as you were once disobedient to God but have now received mercy because of their disobedience, so they have now been disobedient in order that, by the mercy shown to you, they too may now receive mercy. For God has imprisoned all in disobedience so that he may be merciful to all.” (vv30-32)

If the Jews had not rejected Jesus, there would have been no reason for Paul to reach out to the Gentiles with the good news of God’s saving love. If the Gentiles had not responded to that good news, there would have been no way for the Jews to see that God’s love and mercy is available to everyone. In Greek, “mercy” is the last word in verse 32. What would it look like for mercy to be the last word, the ultimate gift we might offer to one another, regardless of our differences?

As the governor sent in the State Highway Patrol to take charge of security in Ferguson, tensions relaxed a bit, but were raised again when the governor announced a curfew “until further notice.” Video footage released by the police identifies Michael Brown as a suspect in a robbery that took place earlier on the day he was killed. But the police officer who shot Michael Brown was not aware of the robbery. The details are muddy, and a grand jury will start sorting them out in the next few days. No matter who did what, or where the blame lies for protests that turned into riots, complete with military-style response from police, the last word needs to be mercy. Mercy is all we can ask, and all we can offer.

It’s unfortunate that the final verses of chapter 11 are not included in today’s lectionary reading, because Paul offers us a song of praise to conclude this section of his letter. He’s said everything that needs to be said about Jews and Gentiles having the same access to God’s grace and forgiveness. The only thing left to do is give God thanks for his goodness, to praise him for being God. Next week, we will move on to Paul’s instructions for recognizing and using our spiritual gifts. If you’ve ever wondered what spiritual gifts you possess, you’ll want to be here! But in the meantime, let us join with the Apostle Paul in giving glory to God. Hear the last four verses of chapter 11:

 

Oh, the depth of the riches of the wisdom and knowledge of God!
How unsearchable his judgments, and his paths beyond tracing out!
Who has known the mind of the Lord?
Or who has been his counselor?
Who has ever given to God, that God should repay them?
For from him and through him and for him are all things.
To him be the glory forever! Amen.