September 2014 Sermons:
I grew up in a family of three children. My younger brothers formed a power bloc in our house. I was the only girl, and the odd one out. We fought when each of us wanted to invite our friends to the family tree house. What was the problem with that? It had room for only three people. The tree wasn’t that big, either. Nine people would have been a tight squeeze. My brothers had pretty much the same group of friends, but they weren’t MY friends. The idea was to defend your turf, and squatters’ rights prevailed.
In the book of Matthew, chapter eighteen, Jesus teaches us how to handle disagreement in the church. As believers we can, and should, apply His rules to our homes and workplaces, too. Christians tend to be uncomfortable with Jesus’ teaching in this chapter. I’m uncomfortable with it, myself. It’s this week’s gospel reading from the lectionary. I wouldn’t have chosen it, otherwise. We like to think that churches never have fights. Actually, I don’t hear about very many disagreements here. A few days ago, I wrote, on my Facebook page, about how thankful I am to be serving this church, because the people in it are faithful and kind. But we do have occasional conflicts.
Churches in the first century must have had fights, quite often. We know about some of them from Paul’s epistles. For Paul, the Body of Christ was unhealthy without harmony between all the members. In today’s gospel passage, Jesus says that, if another Christian does you wrong, you shouldn’t smile and act like nothing has happened. But we’re afraid to have hard conversations. We think we are keeping the peace, so we let it go. We do this all the time. Or we complain about the person to someone else, and put our grievance out of our minds after we’ve vented to a friend who may know nothing about the other person’s situation. Modern psychologists call this passive-aggressive behavior. It’s easy, and it feels good. But it’s not Christian. It’s the responsibility of the offended person to seek peace with the offender.
Jesus tells us how to confront a brother or sister in Christ. He says to go to the person in private, and point out your issue with what they did—not in an email message, or through another person, but one on one. If your conversation doesn’t solve the problem, enlist fellow church members, or family members, or co-workers to help you. You go back to try again. If that doesn’t work, Jesus tells you to call on the entire congregation to help.
This third part sounds drastic. It reminds me of the worst aspects of the Protestant Reformation. But churches actually excommunicate people, based on the harshest possible interpretation of Jesus’ teachings. I hope we never do this. Church discipline, at its best, isn’t about getting rid of people, or about ganging up against an offender to expel him or her.
You may have noticed verse fourteen. The parable of the lost sheep comes right before this discourse. God’s intentions are clearer if you read the Matthew passage in context. Jesus is teaching about forgiveness and going the distance to bring people into the fellowship of faith. Jesus is saying that we should do everything in our power to restore someone to the church family. Go and do your best to help that person understand what’s gone wrong, and how he or she, or maybe both of you, have wandered from the truth of the gospel. If you can’t make amends by yourself, get some help. Go to whatever lengths it takes to restore peace and love in the relationship.
That would be in line with Jesus’ other advice to love and forgive people. I know it sounds like judging to point out someone else’s sin, but sometimes that’s what family members have to do. We need each other to say, "Hey! You were out of line when you did that. We care about you! Here’s how we’ll all be able to get past this disagreement together."
We all have memories of confrontations that ended badly. For this kind of conversation to work, in the way Christ intended, the confronter should try to be kind and gentle. It’s best to do it in a quiet, private place. For it to work, the confrontation has to be as hard for the confronter, as it is for the person being confronted. Whenever possible, it should be direct and “one on-one”—not on behalf of an unnamed person who isn’t there. That’s called triangling, and it’s not fair to either party. Too often, self-righteous anger gets in the way in these conversations. It should be hard to have these talks. If you explode and feel good afterward, your discussion has been for your own benefit.
The person who sinned in the first place has a job to do, too. What does Jesus say you should do if you’re the one who’s in the wrong? Jesus simply says, "Listen." Not just hear the words they say. Listen. Those are two different things. If we really listen to people who have the courage to talk with us, we will start asking ourselves questions. Something like, "What must they think of me?" Listening like that isn’t easy. We may be surprised, even shocked, that there is a conflict. Our first impulse is to defend ourselves, or explain our circumstances. No one likes to say, "I was wrong. Please forgive me." Remember that the person who offended you may need some time to think. Conflict resolution is painful work for everyone.
In the family of God, we shouldn’t be afraid of disagreement, because we are all loved. Jesus already took the blame and the punishment for every sin we have committed. It cost Him His life. He wants us to keep short accounts with one another so we can work and worship together, and show the world what it means to be forgiven. Relationships take time and attention. But that’s what God is all about—relationships. God set up His church so we will be here to support each other even when we aren’t at our most- lovable. God wants us to be family, both in our celebrations and in our fights.
Who else knows you better than your family? No one. So who can tell you the truth about yourself? Your family. Sometimes they aren’t very good at telling you. They say it with harsh words. Their timing might not be as good as you would have liked. Sometimes they have just plain misunderstood your situation. But if we listen as we are supposed to, we’ll realize that even when they’re wrong, they are still trying to tell the truth, and they have a right to do that. Families at their worst pretend that nothing happened, but then they get back at each other in indirect ways.
So here is how Jesus taught us to fight. Go humbly and tell someone they hurt you. Tell the truth in love. Go because you want to keep loving them. Get help if you need to. The Lord wants to be in the midst of our fights and our making up. We must take these matters seriously. We might wish we could get along, all the time. But let’s face it, we disagree on occasion.
I am thankful that Jesus showed us how to handle conflict with love. Our job is to maintain a loving church family. What we say and do with one another, has eternal meaning.
Let us pray. Lord Jesus, having called us to be your church, give us what we need to become the church that you would have us be. Help us to have faith in ourselves, and save us from false niceness that masks the truth. Help us to be honest and forgiving of one another. AMEN
Romans 11:1-2a, 29-32
Have you ever said something, and then wished you could take it back? Sometimes our mouths work faster than our brains. We’d like to hit “Stop,” and then press, “Rewind,” and say a kinder and gentler thing the second time around. But insults go on hurting, even if we apologize afterward. You can’t force a bullet back into the gun. Toothpaste won’t go back in the tube. A lottery ticket won’t become unscratched. Sad to say, all those things seem irrevocable.
We are a generous and forgiving society—to a fault. We try to give people second opportunities. In fact, we take consumer forgiveness to the extreme, pretending that the customer is always right. In the retail business, there is almost nothing that can’t be “undone.” People return damaged items to a clothing store, for exchange or credit—even if THEY were the ones who damaged them. In a restaurant, if you don’t like what you ordered from the menu, you can complain to the manager. Your dinner will be replaced, “on the house,” even if nothing was wrong with your entrée in the first place.
Important life events can be reversed, too. Marriages end in divorce as often as they survive. If you don’t like your name, you can legally change it. If you have a lot of consumer debt, you can declare bankruptcy. So little is irrevocable in this world—other than our own occasionally-tactless remarks, and toothpaste that’s been squeezed out of the tube. It’s tough to even buy a videotape player anymore—not to mention a VHS movie—unless you happen to find them at a yard sale. Blockbuster Video stores are gone. Soon, the word, “rewind,” may disappear from the English language!
What a strong word Paul uses in today’s epistle reading. That word is “irrevocable.” The Greek word for irrevocable means “without regret.” At the end of the ninth chapter of Paul’s letter to the Romans, this word jumps out at us. Paul insists that God’s decisions and promises to His people are irrevocable.
We live in a world of constant change. We want absolute truths that we can count on. God’s gifts and His calling are irrevocable, and thank heaven for that! Paul’s letter to the Romans is theologically complicated, but he’s telling us good news—that Jews and Gentiles are God’s children, and that after sinning we will always receive His mercy.
Paul is writing to a small group of Jewish Christians in Rome, whom he has never met. He is explaining why he believes God has expanded His Old Testament family to include the Gentiles. Paul still considers Himself a Jew. The Romans know about God’s promise to Abram in Genesis. God’s marching orders for Israel can be found in Genesis 12: “I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing ... in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” That covenant had been unconditional—in other words, it didn’t depend on good behavior. God had reaffirmed it with King David—a great king who was no stranger to sin. We know the stories of God’s people, behaving badly. Remember how bitterly they complained to Moses when they wandered through the wilderness. Remember Jezebel and her people, who worshipped the heathen God, Baal. Remember Aaron and the Hebrew slaves, dancing around the golden calf. And from the book of Acts, remember that Paul had stoned Stephen before his own conversion on the road to Damascus.
Paul is writing to the Romans at the end of his life. We think he’s around sixty years old, and he has lived with the memory of his transgressions for many years. He says, “I ask then, has God rejected His people? By no means!”
What will be Israel’s fate? Who are the people of God — Jews, Christians, or both? Has the covenant with Abram ended, with the advent of Christ? Those are the questions Paul expects to be asked when he reaches Rome. He assures the Roman Christians: all people who want follow God, are His people. God has extended His mercy beyond the twelve tribes of Israel. Salvation has come to Gentiles, too. Paul makes a surprising statement here—that God wants to win His people back into the fold by welcoming Gentiles, too.
God favors both Jews and Gentiles, Paul tells the Romans. The Greek word for “irrevocable” appears nowhere else in the Bible but in this passage. Paul writes to the Roman Christians, and we all know, that seasons of blessing on earth don’t last forever. Rains come and go, and the crops thrive, or they shrivel and die. Neither wealth nor fame are permanent. But God is merciful to His children. Parents can relate to God’s mercy. We love our own children, no matter what they do. The heart of a good parent prefers relationship to punishment. Even if we withdraw our blessings for a time, it’s hard to stay angry with the ones we love.
Paul’s point here is that all human beings commit sins. It’s part of the human condition. We must return to God through His mercy in Jesus Christ, no matter what we do. Confessing our sins isn’t fashionable in the culture we live in. Televangelists like Joel Osteen don’t like to talk about it. In the first church where I was pastor, there were some people who didn’t want to say the prayer of confession in the worship service. “I never did any of those things it says in the prayer,” they would tell me. I told them that we were praying as a congregation—not as individuals—and admitting that we are fallible human beings.
Our eternal relationship with God is not based on our actions, our decisions, or our deeds. It’s based on God’s decision for us in Jesus Christ. We never get what we really deserve. We would perish if we did. We can never deserve what we do get, because God seems to love us, no matter what. So we confess together, receive forgiveness, and move on. To admit our sin is to show we believe that God’s mercy will never end.
So what do we make of all this? Let’s be thankful that God doesn’t give up on His commitments, simply because our relationship with Him appears not to be going well. When we stray from God’s plan, does it mean that God has forgotten His promise to us? Paul would say, “By no means!” God has promised, in grace, to be for us. And from all that we know of Him, we can be sure that in life, in death, in any life beyond death, God keeps His promises.
Let us pray. Loving Savior, Jesus, we thank you for revealing to us the heart of God. You showed us God’s loving intentions for the world. You demonstrated to us a depth of divine love that is willing to suffer for us and our salvation. We depend on your promise to never let us go. AMEN
Matthew 20: 1-16
This story seems very unfair! Imagine a manager paying the same wage for one hour’s work as for twelve hours’ work. Do you think the workers hired at dawn should have started a union and organized a boycott of the vineyard owner for unfair practices? I’ll bet the workers’ wives and families got an earful when they got home that night.
Can you imagine how different the scene would have been, in the home of one of the men who had only worked for an hour? Can you imagine him saying, “Honey, you’re not going to believe what happened! I had been worried because I didn’t get hired early in the morning. I was afraid we wouldn’t have enough money for dinner. But the strangest thing happened. At five o’clock in the afternoon, the manager of a vineyard stopped at the street corner where I stood. He said to me, and to the other guys who had waited there all day, ‘Come on, I’ve got a job for you.’ I had only worked for an hour, but he paid me as much as the men who had worked an entire day! Can you believe that? You should have heard the others, grumbling! I know it wasn’t fair to them, but we really need the money.”
A full day’s wages. Just one denarius, but that was enough so that any worker of Jesus’ time could feed, clothe, and shelter his family for one more day. In one sense, the vineyard owner is being generous when he pays a full day’s wages for just one hour’s work. On the other hand, he’s being reasonable, too. He’s paying the laborers what they need to survive. No more, no less.
Now, I can hear those others arguing. Couldn’t he at least have paid a bonus to the workers who had been on the job eleven more hours? After all, those men certainly did more work! Well, that may true, but we have to remember that this is a parable. The vineyard represents the world. The owner is God. The workers are the chosen ones, whom God has called. Their “pay” is eternal life. So on the one hand, like the full day’s wage, that’s really the minimum. Nothing less would be sufficient. On the other hand, it’s also the maximum. Nothing more is possible. It’s something like the mathematical concept of infinity. Infinity plus one is still infinity. Infinity times three is still infinity. Infinity squared is still infinity. You can’t have more than infinity.
So, even if you worked in the vineyard all day long, and I only worked for one hour, it’s not possible for you to get twelve times more eternal life than I receive! Or, if you worked at being good and doing the right thing all my life, and I didn’t become a Christian until I sat on death row awaiting execution; nevertheless, you don’t get to go to a nicer neighborhood of heaven because you lived a righteous life for a longer time than I did. My fellowship with God is the same as yours. God’s grace is sufficient and generous for us all. He gives His people infinitely more than a just wage.
Humans can go only so far in understanding the infinite. We know it goes on forever. But we can only think on the finite level. We are used to a world governed by rules and laws, not by grace. I think that most of us have an easier time picturing God as a lawgiver than as a grace-giver. Think about God, giving the Ten Commandments to Moses to deliver to the rest of us…laws we are expected to obey. That’s one of our primary images of God: one who hands down rules. Or how about the Israelites, making the golden calf while Moses is away. God gets angry with them and threatens to destroy them. We also have that image of God: the one who punishes us when we disobey rules.
The image of God as gracious, isn’t logical. We expect God to be just and fair—not extravagantly generous. Obeying rules isn’t fun, but we have learned to the line in order to get rewards. It’s what our society has taught us to do. By contrast, grace is free, and we all get the same measure. Whether we are one of those who has kept the Ten Commandments, and never broken a single one; or whether we’re one of those who has broken every commandment many times, and has repented, and received forgiveness, God’s grace is the same.
If I am a person who has only recently come to know God, and I am also a brand new trainee in the vineyard, this is tremendously good news. It means that I’m not starting at a disadvantage. It means that the sins of my past will be forgiven. It means that God’s blessings will come to me, just as generously as to those who have been faithful to Him for many years.
For other folks, it may take some getting used to. God’s way of doing things seems wrong. People tend to feel shortchanged when they have labored for God for a long time, and then they notice that late-in-life converts are getting the same benefits they are receiving. We all want the world to be predictable. It gives us a sense of control. We get angry when God doesn’t act as we expect He will act. We need to learn to be gracious, as God is gracious. Not only fair, not only just, although fairness and justice are important; but gracious, too.
When Jesus said, the last shall be first and the first shall be last…it’s not that there is extra reward for being one of the last to come around. It’s just that those who are last may have greater need for God’s saving grace. The last vineyard workers had been out on the street corner all day, waiting to be hired. Let’s assume that they would have been willing to work for more hours, if God had chosen them at dawn. Jesus says they were idle, but that doesn’t mean they were lazy. The just didn’t get chosen first. Unfortunately, the people who are first, frequently get so caught up in self-righteousness that they forget it is God who has the power to save, and not they themselves.
A parable invites us to identify with our own place in God’s story. It helps us use that knowledge to grow in the image of God. This parable is shocking. It challenges the Protestant work ethic that built our nation! Pull yourself up by your own bootstraps. The Lord helps those who help themselves. The early bird catches the worm. Not in this parable! The gospel of Matthew was written for a church that had issues with membership. Those who had been devout Jews for generations, who had come to welcome Jesus as the Messiah, couldn’t quite get their heads around the fact that the outsiders—that is, the Gentiles-- might be equal in the eyes of God. Weren’t the long-faithful followers better, because they had obeyed the Jewish law? Jesus said “no,” and then He told this parable. You can be sure the disciples were listening, and I expect they found this story to be confusing and disturbing, just as we do today.
Do we begrudge God’s generosity? Or are we really open to God’s amazing grace? It comes equally to each one of us, no matter when we were hired to work in the vineyard, no matter how long we have been working there. God’s grace gives us so much more than we deserve. It sets us free to be who God created us to be. There is plenty of work to do in God’s vineyard. The love and generosity behind our work is more important to God, than the work we do.
Jesus’ generosity took Him all the way to the cross. Jesus calls us to imitate the vineyard owner. How far will our generosity take us? Giving as Jesus gave—loving the hungry and the hopeless as we love ourselves—that is the challenge of a lifetime.
Let us pray. Make us generous, O God of all good things. When we are tempted to complain and grumble, remind us of Jesus’ suffering on our behalf. Remove jealousy from our hearts, and help us to be your disciples. The extent of your graciousness is both a relief and a shock to us, O God. Help us not to resent others, but to find joy in your blessings to believers, old and new. In Christ’s name we pray, AMEN
There’s an old saying that goes, “There are three kinds of people in this world; those who watch things happen, those who make things happen, and those who ask, ‘What just happened?’” You may be wondering what just happened in this gospel reading. Jesus has taught a lesson on belief, backed by action. He’s encouraging His followers to be the kind of people who make things happen.
Did you notice that the story I just read, has two parts that don’t seem to go together? The first part is Matthew’s account of Jesus’ argument with the chief priests at the temple. The second part is a parable. If you think about it, the parable of the two sons illustrates Jesus’s point. He’s teaching a lesson about doing good—not just talking a good game.
Jesus has been proclaiming God’s unconditional love, ever since he rode into Jerusalem on a donkey. He tells the crowds, lining the streets, that tax collectors and prostitutes can repent and be saved. The “powers-that-be” are not pleased to hear this from a fellow rabbi. Tax collectors and prostitutes, to them, are unclean.
This isn’t a happy time for Jesus. Things are going badly for Him in the last week of His life. The atmosphere is tense. His entry into Jerusalem, followed by the cleansing of the temple and the cursing of the fig tree, have angered the scribes and the Pharisees. These men run the biggest house of worship in Judea. They’ve been tight with the Lord, or so they think, for many years. They’re wondering, “Who does this man think He is, speaking with such authority in a house of worship?” The Pharisees had rejected John the Baptist. Jesus seems to be another radical from the boondocks like John. He makes them nervous.
It’s Passover. Pilgrims are pouring into town from all around the Mediterranean. Temple officials want to keep peace in the city throughout the holidays. If they seem to oppose Jesus, the crowd will go wild. If the crowd goes wild, all the Jews will be in trouble with the Roman occupiers.
Debates were a form of crowd-pleasing entertainment in the Jerusalem temple, in Jesus’ day. Jesus is debating the powers-that-be, and He’s good at it. He answers their question with a question about John the Baptist. They, in turn, evade answering His question. They don’t want to look bad, and Jesus knows that. If they say that John was just a charismatic personality, the people in the crowd who had regarded John as a great prophet will be angry. If they answer that John was a prophet, then they have to explain why they are ignoring John’s pronouncement that Jesus is the Messiah. They realize that this is a question like, “Have you stopped beating your wife?’ There’s no good answer. They decide to concede this round to Jesus by saying, “We don’t know.” But they do know. They know they are wrong. The crowd hears this exchange, and they seem to love it when Jesus wins.
Jesus scores another point with the people by telling a parable. A parent asks his two sons to go work in the family’s vineyard. The first son refuses at first. Then he changes his mind and goes to work. The second son says “yes” but never shows up at the vineyard. If they were our sons, we’d be embarrassed by both of them. Why can’t they both just say yes, and then follow through? But then, it would be a much less intriguing story.
Doesn’t this parable make you uncomfortable? It surely made the scribes and Pharisees squirm! Are you like the second son sometimes? How often, when asked to do something difficult, do you give the answer that the questioner wants, instead of the honest answer? We all do this. Unlike Jesus, we prefer to avoid conflict. To keep the peace, we turn away from our own truth. We do the easy thing, and walk away feeling guilty—but safe.
Jesus is calling the temple officials to a higher standard. The message of His parable is that God is not impressed with people who say they will do what God asks of them, but have no intention of doing His will. They speak out of both sides of their mouths. God wants doers—not pious talkers. The Pharisees get the point. Jesus is talking about them.
We can understand His point. If you are a parent, you want your own children to do what’s right, not just talk a good game. And yet, we know it’s easier to make a promise than to keep it. Our friends fail us, just as our children do. Which friend would please you more: a friend who says, “Call me anytime, I am here for you,” but when you really need that person, she’s not anywhere to be found? Or would you rather have a friend who grumbles, but always comes with jumper cables when your car battery dies?
Do we say yes to God, even when we may have to take action that is inconvenient, or costly, or even dangerous to us? Jesus’ parable of the two sons calls us to speak honest words that reflect our beliefs, then follow through with Godly actions.
Jesus' authority rests in his actions—in practicing what He preaches. Our own authority as apostles, rests in practicing what we preach. To be witnesses to the power of God in our lives, we must not only know the story. We must not only tell the story. We must become that story for the world to see.
Once there was a little boy who went off to the first day of school with a brand new baseball cap on his head. When his mother picked him up from the school bus, the first thing she noticed was that the expensive cap was gone. Immediately she lost her temper—scolding her son by saying to him, "We just bought that hat for you. You had to have the expensive one. Now, just one day at school, and it’s gone."
When the boy was finally allowed to speak, he said, "Mom, my teacher told us that my friend, Emily, won't be in school this year because she's got a disease that makes her hair fall out. It's going to be getting cold, pretty soon, Mom, and I just thought Emily should have something to keep her head warm. So I gave my hat to the teacher to give to Emily.”
Let’s make the abundance of our own lives become abundant life for others. Let’s make God’s love available to others who may not know Him as we do. Christians make things happen. They don’t just wonder what has happened.
One day, someone walked up to a man who was leaving a church service and asked, “Is the sermon done?” “No,” the man replied, “the sermon is preached, but it remains to be DONE.”
Let us pray. Lord, we give you thanks that you love us enough to tell the truth to us. Lord, we ask for one more gift—that you give us the courage and the openness to hear what you have to say to us. In the reading of your Word, help us to hear you and tell your story. AMEN
First Presbyterian Church of Hokendauqua
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