Monthly Archives: September 2014

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.

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