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Monday, September 22 2014

Matthew 20:1-16

It’s not fair!  If ever there were three words that cause me to tune someone out when someone says them, it is these three little words that make up that one little phrase, “It’s not fair.”

Well, yeah, folks.  It’s not fair.  Get used to it.  Get over it.  I don’t care what it is you’re talking about – by and large someone is going to able to look at it – evaluate it –– no matter what it is – and say, “It’s not fair.”

And I’ll bet that while I was reading this parable that Jesus tells here in the 20th chapter of Matthew, that those three little words were exactly what many of you were thinking – am I right?

And I’ll tell you something – you would be right in thinking, “It’s not fair,” much as I hate that phrase.  It’s a good thing that there weren’t labor unions around in Jesus’ day, because they never would have let this vineyard owner get away with it.  Really, how many of you think that it IS fair that the workers who worked for one hour receive the same wage that those who worked all day also earned?

We don’t like this parable, do we?  And that’s the whole point.  We are conditioned to think that a person should get a fair day’s wage for an honest day’s work, right?  That’s only fair, right?  It’s a good thing that Jesus does not offer this parable to describe how employers should treat their employees.  This is lousy economics. This is lousy labor relations.  The workers who worked all day have a right to complain.  They have a right to grumble.  Because it’s not fair.

So if this parable is not a lesson in how to treat your employees, then what in the world is it all about?  Why is Jesus telling us this story?

Before I answer that, let me ask all of you a question.  How many of you believe that God is fair?  Huh?  Let’s see your hands again.  Yeah.  Interesting isn’t it?  Even though we know that life is not fair, still we hold up fairness as a virtue – something that – if everyone practiced fairness – would make life better for everybody.  That’s what we want to believe, anyway.  And because we lift up fairness as a virtue, we expect that God also will be fair.  That’s what we expect of God.

So why does Jesus tell this parable – this story?  Glad you asked.  This story tells us something about who God is.  This story tells us what the generosity of God looks like.  And let me tell you – listen carefully now – this story tells us that God does not play by the rules.  So I hope you will be patient with me today, because today’s sermon is a return to one of the basic understandings of who we know God to be – one of the basics of Christianity.  Let’s call it Christianity 101.

Those of you who have been around for awhile, you’ve heard me say this many times before.  God is not fair.  And I want you to think about this.  If God were fair, we would all get what we deserve, right?  After all, isn’t that what fairness is all about?  That each one gets what each one deserves?  Thank God, God is not fair.  Because, if God were fair we would all get what we deserve.  And what is it that we deserve?  The just and certain punishment for our sins – in other words – eternal separation from God in a place the Bible calls hell.

Thank God God is not fair. Thank God God does not give us what we deserve.  But what does God give us instead?  Mercy.  God gives us mercy.  God gives us forgiveness.  God gives us grace – and grace of course is what?  That’s right.  God’s undeserved love and favor.  That’s what grace is, and that’s what God gives us – as a gift.  Free of charge.

Now that doesn’t sound right to our 21st century American minds, does it!  Uh uh.  We say, “You only get what you earn.  If something is worth having, it’s worth working for.”  Therefore – it’s a natural progression to say, “If I’m going to go to heaven someday, I’ve got to do my part.  I’ve got to do everything I can – I’ve got to be all that I can be – got to be as good as I can be – just to be sure.”  Listen carefully.  With God, it doesn’t work that way.

God doesn’t hand out brownie points.  And this is precisely what today’s Good News is all about.  You can’t earn brownie points with God.  No.  We are told that we are saved – in other words – we have a reserved place in heaven – because of God’s grace – God’s undeserved love and favor.  It’s given as a gift.  It’s received as a gift through faith.

 Whether you’ve been serving God faithfully for 60, 70, 80 years or more – or you just came to faith in Jesus Christ two minutes ago – God’s grace is the same.  It’s all the same.  And it’s all gift.

I think it’s really quite liberating.  Would you agree with me?  Grace is liberating.  I mean, think about it.  What if – what if – you HAD to earn God’s favor?  How hard would you have to work at it?  How long?  How would you know when you did enough?  For that matter, how good is good enough?  

I’ve gotta tell ya, I don’t know how many times I’ve thought, “Wow!  I can’t imagine what it would be like if I had to earn my way into heaven!”  It’s a wonderful thing to know that I don’t have to work my way into heaven.  That I don’t have to earn God’s favor.  That I don’t need brownie points.  What a relief it is to know that God already loves me as much as God is ever going to love me – and that nothing I do can make God love me any more than he already does – and that nothing I do can make God love me any less than he already does.

Let me tell you, it’s a relief!  I don’t need to worry – I don’t need to live in fear – wondering if I’ll ever be good to earn God’s favor.  That’s already been taken care of for me by God himself.  When God sent Jesus to die on that cross.  That’s all it took.  That’s all it takes.  To try to add to what God has already done is to say that the cross of Jesus Christ is insufficient to save a wretch like me.

Now, having said all that, what do I do now that I know – now that I believe – now that I have accepted God’s grace through faith – what happens now?  What happens now is just what you see happening all around you in this place.  Loving God and loving your neighbor as yourself means showing that same grace – that same love to the folks sitting next to you – to the people you live with – the people you work with – the people you go to school with – and people you don’t even know.

Even though we know we cannot earn God’s favor – still, it seems to me – we want to live our lives in such a way that –we want to live our lives in a way that really matters – and like a mirror – reflects that love – and that grace – that God so generously gives to us.  

One of my favorite movies is Saving Private Ryan.  The movie opens as an elderly man walks through the military cemetery at Normandy in France.  He comes to one particular grave, and kneels down in front of it, weeping.

The next scene shows the D-Day invasion at the beach in Normandy.  I have a really hard time watching the next 20 minutes of that movie.  It shows in graphic detail what that D-Day invasion on that beach in Normandy looked like.  One of the things on my bucket list is to walk the beaches of Normandy.    

Anyway – the rest of the movie is about eight soldiers – soldiers who survived the D-Day invasion – and who are sent to find and bring back home – a soldier by the name of Ryan who as a paratrooper had parachuted behind enemy lines.

And they do find Private Ryan, but not all of those eight soldiers make it back alive.  And the last one to die is the captain played by Tom Hanks.  And if you remember this poignant scene – as he dies, he says to Private Ryan, “Earn this.”

At that point in the movie, the scene switches back to the gray haired man in the cemetery – and we realize the old man is Private Ryan.  It is the captain’s grave that he is kneeling at.  Private Ryan’s family is with him, and he turns to his wife, and says, “Tell me I’ve been a good person.”  His wife is puzzled by the question, but we who have watched the movie know what he is asking.  “Tell me that my life has been worth the sacrifice someone else made for me.  Tell me that my life has made a difference.”

I suspect that that’s how most of us feel about our own lives.  We know – we know – Pastor Randy you’ve told us over and over again – that we have been rescued – we have been saved – we have been accepted by God’s grace – God’s undeserved love and favor – through the life, death, and resurrection – through the rescue efforts – of God’s Son Jesus Christ.  WHEN WE DID NOT DESERVE IT!  

So even though we know we cannot earn God’s favor – we still want to know that our lives mattered.  That our lives counted for something.  That as disciples of Jesus Christ – we made a difference for Jesus Christ – IN RESPONSE – in response – to the love and the grace and the mercy that was first shown to us and given to us through faith in Jesus Christ.  

  So no.  No, God’s not fair.  But that’s what the generosity of God looks like.  And thank God, God’s not fair.  Thank God we don’t get what we deserve, but we get the very thing we don’t deserve.  Grace.  God’s love – God’s grace – is the same no matter whether you’ve been serving him for most of your life – or you’ve only just begun.  

So God is generous.  As we sing in Lent that verse that we heard in our reading from the book of Jonah – which says – “Return to the Lord your God, for He  is gracious and merciful.  Slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love.  And abounding in steadfast love.”
And it’s all free.  That’s Christianity 101.    


Posted by: AT 01:40 pm   |  Permalink   |  Email
Monday, September 15 2014

Matthew 18:21-35

    Old Joe was dying. For years he’d been at odds with Bill, formerly one of his best friends. Wanting to straighten things out, Joe sent word for Bill to come and see him.

    When Bill arrived, Joe told him that he was afraid to go into eternity with such bad feelings between them. Then, very reluctantly and with great effort, Joe apologized for things he had said and done. He also assured Bill that he forgave him for his offenses.

    Everything seemed fine, and when Bill turned to walk out of the room, Joe called out after him, “Now, just remember, if I get better, this doesn’t count.”

    One of the hardest things for any one of us to do is to forgive someone who has hurt us.  If you’ve ever been bullied, felt left out, disrespected, lied about, you name it, forgiving another person is often one of the hardest things for us to do.

    Thankfully few of us have the experiences lived by the German pastor Helmut Thielicke, a survivor of the Nazi regime. Thielicke proclaimed that One should never mention the words ‘forgive and forget’ in the same breath. No, we will remember, but in forgiving we no longer use the memory against others. Forgiveness is not pretending the event never occurred, or that it does not matter, and there is no use pretending otherwise. The offence is real, but when we forgive, the offense no longer controls our behavior. It is not acting as if things were just the same as they were before the offence . . . they will never be the same.

    I have to confess that I used to think that if we are to forgive, we must also forget.  I have come to change my mind about that.  As we remembered the events of 9/11 on Thursday – I realize not only it is very hard to forgive anyone associated with that outrageous event that happened 13 years ago – but that we need to remember – we need to memorialize – the victims of that event.  
    No.  I would say that forgiveness does not mean forgetting.  However, having said that, what I think we do need to work on is letting go of the hurt, and as Thielicke says, not using the memory of that hurt against others.  And what I really like about what he says, is that when we forgive, the offense no longer controls our behavior.  

    So when we do forgive – or when we are in the process of forgiving – just where does that ability – that desire – that power to forgive come from?  Let me suggest that it comes from God.  Would you agree with me with that?  The power to forgive comes from God.  

    Now, one of the chief characteristics of the God whom we serve and worship is that He is a God who forgives.  In fact God wants to forgive – he is anxious to forgive your sins.   AND He wants us to know that our sins are forgiven.  And that’s why every weekend – at the beginning of every worship service – you hear me say to you – on behalf of God – that your sins are forgiven.

    AND remember that your forgiveness comes at a cost.  Your forgiveness cost God something.  It cost God the life of His Son Jesus. So the forgiveness that we receive from God comes at a cost, but it is something that we want – we know it is something that we need – and it is something that we gladly accept – even though it comes at great cost.

    Now here’s the problem.  Today’s reading is the parable about the unforgiving servant.  Here’s a man who had been forgiven a ridiculously large debt by his master – who then refuses to forgive a fellow servant who owed him not too much.  And because of the servant’s unwillingness to forgive after he himself had been forgiven much – well – it doesn’t end up well for that servant.  The clear meaning is that God has forgiven you much – in fact, God forgives you everything.  And the implied therefore is this.  Therefore – since God has forgiven you everything – God’s great desire is that we learn to forgive a brother or a sister from the heart – the same way that God has already forgiven us.  

    Or – as we pray in the Lord’s prayer – “Forgive us our trespasses – or sins – as we forgive those who trespass – or sin – against us.”  You hear me say this all the time.  The Lord’s Prayer is a dangerous prayer to pray.  Are you ready to pray that prayer?  To ask God to forgive you the same way you forgive others?  

    The Bible tells us that we love because God first loved us.  I want to apply that verse to forgiveness. And it goes something like this.  We forgive because God has first forgiven us.   

    Having said that, let me repeat that I know that forgiveness is never easy.  And that forgiveness is a process.  Sometimes – quite often in fact – it takes time – maybe even years.  When Jesus told Peter to forgive 70 times 7, he did not mean literally 490 times.  What he’s telling us is this.  “You are forgiven.  So you also must forgive.  No matter how many times it takes.  No matter how long it takes.”

    Let me tell you something.  Even though forgiveness sometimes seems to be an impossible thing to do, I want you to know that it is still possible.  Even when it takes a long time.

    C.S. Lewis wrote about a teacher who brutalized him as a boy and how he grew up hating this teacher. Later in life, when he became a follower of Christ, Lewis realized he had to forgive this teacher if he was going to be able to move on with his relationship with God.

    But, he said, every time he tried to forgive this teacher he just couldn’t do it the bitterness was just too great. So he finally resolved to just say the words, “I forgive you,” every day, whether he felt it or not. He would just say those words “I forgive you.”
    And then something began to happen. Later he wrote, “Each time I said those words another stone was removed from the wall of bitterness I had built, until, one day, I came to realize that the wall was no longer there.”

    So forgiveness – though difficult – is possible.  And yes, it does take time.  And I know that some of you are struggling with a situation where someone’s done you wrong – or hurt someone you love – and you’ve not yet been able to forgive them.  And up until now you may have found it impossible to forgive.  Well, if that’s where you’re at today – let me tell you something else.  Not only is forgiveness possible, it is highly desirable.  

    You see, here’s the problem.  Who are you hurting when you refuse to forgive?  You know the answer to that, don’t you!  You’re hurting yourself.  What happens when you say you can’t forgive?  You’re rehearsing – reliving – that pain, that hurt, that resentment over and over again.  And you certainly are NOT hurting the one who hurt you when you don’t forgive – or darn it – when you absolutely REFUSE to forgive.  You’re only hurting yourself.  And unless you are a person who likes to torture yourself like that – then let it go.  It’s over.  Let it go.  Why do you want to relive those feelings of resentment and anger – over and over again?  

    Someone once said that refusing to let go of anger – refusing to forgive – is like burning down the house to get rid of the rats.  So let it go.  Let it go.  Refusing to forgive hurts you!  And that can leave you bitter.  And is that what you really want?  I didn’t think so.  

    And by the way, maybe this will help.  Study after study after study show that there is a link between forgiveness and better health. Did you know that?  Better health through forgiving!  The more prone a person is to give forgiveness, the less likely he or she will suffer from any stress related illnesses. Forgiveness is the key to a healthy mind and heart. Forgive someone who has done you a great wrong and you will sleep better at night. Forgive yourself and you will sleep better at night. Forgiveness is the best thing you can do for your body and your soul.  Chew on that for awhile.

    So forgiveness IS possible.  It IS desirable.  AND it IS essential.  Why is it essential?

    Now listen.  Listen carefully.  How can you ask God to forgive you – if you are not willing to forgive somebody else?  Peter Marshall served as chaplain to the US Senate in the late 1940’s.  He once said, “If you hug to yourself any resentment against anybody, you destroy the bridge by which God would come to you.”

    In the Bible, in the book of Colossians 3:13, you will find these words, “Bear with each other and forgive one another if any of you has a grievance against someone. Forgive as the Lord forgave you”

    The key to understanding what it means to forgive is to remember that God in Jesus Christ has already forgiven you.
    We love to sing the hymn that goes like this, “Amazing Grace how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me.  I once was lost, but now am found.  Was blind, but now I see.”

    Do you see?  Do you really see?  Do you see that forgiveness is possible, desirable, and essential?  Grace – God’s undeserved love and favor – makes it all possible.  

    So you’ve been forgiven.  By God.  And maybe even by somebody else!  It’s what we all need.  And every time you come into this room – and you see that big brass cross up there – let that cross remind you – let it remind you that you have indeed been forgiven – and that your forgiveness cost God the life of His Son.  

    And then think about – and pray for – that person who has hurt you.  After all, you cannot stay mad for long at someone you are praying for – and give to them the same grace that God has given to you.  

    So – forgive and forget?  Maybe.  Maybe not.  But do let go of the hurt.  Let go of the resentment – the hate – the anger.  Let it go.  And start to say – day after day – “I forgive you.  I forgive you.  I forgive you.”   

Posted by: AT 08:54 am   |  Permalink   |  Email
Wednesday, September 10 2014

Matthew 18:15-20; Romans 13:8-14

    There is a viral phenomenon that is sweeping the country, and it is called “The Ice Bucket Challenge.”  Has anyone here NOT heard of it?  Has anybody here taken the Ice Bucket Challenge?  So you know how this works, right?  Someone issued you a challenge – which you apparently graciously accepted.  And you got wet, right?

    So here’s how it works.  The person who accepts the challenge – in turn issues a challenge to whomever it is that they call out to take the Ice Bucket challenge.  What follows immediately is a bucket of ice water – or cold water poured over their heads– or maybe even immersion in a cold swimming pool – or in John Christopher’s case – both.  Fully clothed!  And you have to take a video of it – post it on Facebook – YouTube – or wherever – and make a donation to raise awareness and provide funds to help find a cure for amyotrophic lateral sclerosis or ALS.   It’s also known as Lou Geherig’s disease.

    President George W. Bush accepted the challenge – his wife Laura did the honors of pouring a bucket over his head – and then he challenged President Bill Clinton.  I have no idea if President Clinton accepted the challenge or not.

    I have been challenged by one of our congregation’s disciples.  Thank you Pat Massey!  But I’m afraid thus far I have disappointed you.  One of the worst feelings I hate to feel is the feel of wet clothes on my body.  Absolutely can’t stand it.  And I cannot stand to be cold.  So… if you think I’m going to stand up here and let a bucket of ice cold water be poured over my head – ain’t goin’ to happen.  Besides, it would damage the carpet, and ruin the wood floor up here.  So, sorry Pat.  

    And as I understand it, as of this past Wednesday, the ALS Foundation has raised over $107 million dollars to date.  By the way – for those who accept the challenge – the contribution is to write a check for $25 to the ALS Foundation.  If you do not accept the challenge, it’s $100.   

    So let’s see.  Cold, wet clothes – $100.  Cold wet-clothes – $100.  I’ll let you decide.  What do you think?  What would you like me to do?  That was a dangerous question, wasn’t it!  OK – the best I’ll say right now is, I’ll think about it.  I have been issued the challenge – and I will – think about it.  

    Now, I understand that to be called out – to be challenged – to participate in the Ice Bucket Challenge is to be tagged.  Tagged.  That’s the word that’s being used.  Anybody here ever play tag?  Yeah.  To play the game, you DID NOT want to be tagged, because then you would be “it.”  And nobody ever wanted to be it.

    But now – to be tagged – means that someone thinks enough of you to include you in this thing that is sweeping the country.  As much as I have been hoping that no one would tag me for this challenge – I can only say that I feel honored that I have been tagged.  So thank you, Pat.  Again – I’m still thinking about it.

    May I suggest to you that all of you – with this new understanding of what it means to be tagged – all of you have been tagged.  And I’m not talking about tagging you to do the Ice Bucket Challenge.  No.  I want you to know that you have already been tagged.  You are already walking wet.  In the water’s of baptism – God tagged you.  That’s where God tagged you and named you and claimed you as His own.  

    So last week – I issued a different kind of challenge.  I challenged everyone at worship last weekend to read Romans 12:9-21 and Acts 2:41-47 every day this past week.  Now, I’m not going to ask how many accepted that challenge, because I myself forgot to read those texts on Monday.  But I did remember the other days of the week.  I issued that challenge because I want us to learn what it means when I say that we are Romans 12 Christians living in an Acts 2 church.  

    I like the Romans 12 and Acts 2 passages because they tell me what it looks like when we say that we have been tagged by Jesus Christ.  But you know, today’s reading from Romans 13 and what Jesus is telling us in our reading from Matthew, are also great passages to tell us what it means to be tagged.  And I say that because – this new understanding of what it means to be tagged – is to accept a challenge.  In this case, let’s call it a God-shaped challenge.  

    And it has to do with our reading from Romans – as well as what Jesus is telling us in our reading from Matthew about being reconciled to someone who has hurt us– well – it’s all about being tagged.  You see – we are not defined – disciples of Jesus Christ are not defined – by pouring a bucket of ice water over our heads.    So what do our readings today tell us about what being tagged looks like?  This God-shaped challenge can be discovered in our reading from Romans.

    The very first line in our reading from Romans – Romans chapter 13 – says this.  “Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law.”      Owe no one anything except to love one another.  

    It’s one thing to have someone dump a bucket of cold water over your head.  But imagine what it would be like if we – taking the word of God seriously that we heard read to us just a few moments ago – to owe no one anything except to love one another – what do you think would happen if we were known for our ability to dump buckets of love over people’s heads!  Huh?  Instead of buckers of ice water, buckets of love.  What do you think might happen?

    Remember our new definition of what it means to be tagged:  it means you have been offered a challenge.  Friends – I want you to know that you have been tagged.  You have been tagged by the love, grace, mercy, peace, pardon and forgiveness of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.  You have been tagged, and now – you’re it!  Can you imagine it?  You’ve been tagged – we’ve been tagged – and now it’s our job – it’s our calling – to tag everyone we meet with that same love and amazing grace that God in Jesus Christ shows to us.  

    Buckets of love!

    And here is the Good News!  When the waters of baptism were poured over your head – or when you were fully immersed in the back yard swimming pool – or in the full-immersion baptistery of some other church – doesn’t matter how, where, or when that baptism occurred.  In baptism, you are tagged – and God has given to you His grace – His underserved love and favor.  And He reminds you – He reminds me – of that love and that grace and that forgiveness – over and over and over again.    

    Listen!  We love because God first loved us.  So maybe you as a Christian have already allowed other people to pour buckets of ice cold water over your head – or like me – you’re still thinking about it.  Or maybe you have chosen to do something else.  Like you’ve already decided to join hands with other Lutheran Christians at Town Line Lutheran Church in Alden early this [Sunday] afternoon to put food packages together to help feed hungry people.  Whatever it is that you do – I know that you do it specifically because you have been tagged by God’s love in Jesus Christ.  And you are taking Paul’s challenge – this God-shaped challenge – to owe no one anything – except to love one another.  And that includes what Jesus is telling us today – to be reconciled to that brother or sister in Christ who has harmed you – or perhaps that brother or sister that you have harmed.

    By the way, I find it interesting that Paul in this lesson from Romans 13 says that those who have love for others have fulfilled the law.  Listen again to what he says, “Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law.”

    And here Paul lists some of the laws that we know as the Ten Commandments.  And he summarizes all of these by saying that these, “…are summed up in this word, “Love your neighbor as yourself.”   

    Well, where have we heard that before?  Yeah.  Right here!  It’s Jesus who says, “Love God.  Love your Neighbor.”  And then we throw in, “Because nothing else matters.”  

    One more thing.  Sunday School starts this weekend, and our theme for the kids this year is “Let your light shine.”  That’s just another way of saying, “Love God.  Love your neighbor” or “Tag, you’re it!”  So tell you what!   I’m going to let my light shine.  And – I want you to know – I’ve thought about it.  In fact, I’d already made up my mind about this on Wednesday of this week.  I’ve been tagged – and I accept the Ice Bucket Challenge.  I will do this in memory of our brother John Fahnestock – a disciple here at Zion Lutheran Church – who lost his battle with ALS 8 years ago.  

    SO – after the 10:45 service, during the Sunday School picnic.  So if you’d like, you can come with your cameras or video recording devices.  You know – it’s a wonderful thing to be tagged.  A wonderful thing to be “it.”  To be thought of.  To be remembered.  To be included – by Jesus Christ.  You have been tagged – remembered – thought of – included by Jesus Christ.

    In other words, you have been tagged.  And that’s the Good News.  Tagged by the love, grace, mercy, peace, pardon and forgiveness of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.  Christ poured his life out for you in buckets.  So now you go and pour your life into someone else.  No matter what that looks like.  No matter where that takes you.  Whatever that means for you.  No matter how much it costs.  Learn what it means to owe no one anything except to love them.  
                            So… Tag.  You’re it.    Amen

Posted by: AT 09:44 am   |  Permalink   |  Email
Wednesday, September 03 2014

Matthew 16:21-28; Romans 12:9-21

    Can any of you see what I’m holding?  Can anyone under 18 tell me what it is?  Anybody under 25?  Would someone from up front here like to read what it says?  Yeah – this is a milk bottle from the family business my Grandfather started back in 1907 when he was 17 years old.  R. Milleville Dairy.  Anybody here remember milk delivery?  One of our slogans was “At your door, or at our store.” 

   Through my high school years, and summers when I was in college, I had a guaranteed job.  This bottle?  I used to wash this bottle and hundreds just like it when they came back from the customer.  Let me tell you – some of them came back pretty ripe, if you know what I mean.  I also worked in our small store – selling milk, bread, and Perry’s ice cream.  10 cents for an ice cream sandwich.  10 cents!  

    At your door, or at our store.  We had another slogan that went like this:    “Everything we own, we owe to udders.”  And you wonder where I get it from!

    But you know, this business model – the Mom and Pop kind of place – doesn’t much exist anymore.  I think we saw that start to happen at our dairy when my father’s cousin – when asked why she didn’t come to the dairy to buy milk anymore – said, “It’s another stop.”  The last thing any of us needs is another stop, right?

    And that’s why Wal-Mart is so successful.  Would you agree with me that we live in Wal-Mart world?  Wal-Mart succeeds because they know that Americans like to have a wide variety of choices, AND offers them at very low prices.  They also realize that time is a precious commodity.  At a Super Wal-Mart you can do one stop shopping for just about everything you might want or need.  Get in.  Get out, and be on your way.

    Well – whether you love Wal-Mart or hate it, you have to admit that Wal-Mart understands what people are looking for in today’s market place.  So we live in a Wal-Mart world – where we can get what we want – what we need – at a price to fit most budgets.  

    So how do we do church in a Wal-Mart world?  It seems to me that we can learn a few things from Wal-Mart.  After all – Wal-Mart isn’t the only saving place.   When you walk through our doors, you’re greeted by friendly greeters, just like Wal-Mart.  And since time is precious, I try to keep the service to under an hour.  Most Saturdays/Sundays, anyway.   Parking is convenient – unless you’re talking Christmas Eve or Easter.  People get their needs met.  They come in.  They get out.  And they go on their way.  And once again, we’ve done church, right?

    Wrong.  The Wal-Mart model works for Wal-Mart, but when it comes to our lives as disciples of Jesus Christ – we can’t let this Wal-Mart world determine who we are as Christians.  We can’t let it define how we do church.  Christianity – being a disciple of Jesus Christ – cannot be gotten at bargain prices.  

    So what I’m going to say to you today will probably not make me too popular.  But then again, I didn’t become a pastor in order to become popular.  

     What I’m going to say today is tough stuff.  And if after hearing me out today, and you want to leave, that’s okay.  But I want to repeat to you what I so often say when I talk about what it means to follow Jesus.  I am not picking on anybody.  I’m not scolding.  I am not judging.  It is never my intent to judge or scold.  Because I need to hear this message – I need to hear and to think about what Jesus is telling me today about what it means to be his disciple as much as anybody else.  

So I want you to listen again to what Jesus has to say.  All it takes is one sentence. “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.”  Again, I know that these are not words you want to hear.  But we need to hear them.   
     Being a disciple – becoming a disciple of Jesus Christ – cannot be had at Wal-Mart prices.  Why?  Because it’s costly.  Discipleship is costly.  It cost Jesus everything he had.  His life.  His breath.  Every drop of blood.  

     Some of you may be familiar with the name Dietrich Bonhoeffer.  He was a Lutheran pastor in Germany during World War II, who was executed by the Nazis.  He was a man who stood up for his faith in the face of incredible evil.  In his book, The Cost of Discipleship, he talks about the difference between what he calls “cheap grace,” and “costly grace.”  Now I want you to know that grace – God’s undeserved love and favor – is yours as a gift.  In other words – it’s free!  But when Bonhoeffer talked about grace, he said things like this:

    Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, Communion without confession, absolution without personal confession. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross,… Costly grace…is the call of Jesus Christ at which the disciple leaves his nets and follows him. Costly grace…is costly because it calls us to follow, and it is grace because it calls us to follow Jesus Christ. It is costly because it costs a [person their] life, and it is grace because it gives a [person] the only true life. It is costly because it condemns sin, and grace because it justifies the sinner. Above all, it is costly because it cost God the life of his Son,…and what has cost God much cannot be cheap for us. Above all, it is grace because God did not reckon his Son too dear a price to pay for our life, but delivered him up for us. Costly grace is the Incarnation of God.

     Again – We live in a Wal-Mart world.  But being a disciple – becoming a disciple of Jesus Christ – cannot be had at Wal-Mart prices.  Discipleship is costly.  It cost Jesus everything he had.   Jesus took up his cross so that we might have forgiveness of sins, life and salvation.  And who doesn’t want – who doesn’t need – the love and forgiveness that is ours in Jesus Christ?  

     But when Jesus says, “Take up YOUR cross and follow me,” well – I think we just have a harder time with that.  Because now you’re getting personal.  You’re making me feel uncomfortable and squirm a little bit.  Now you’re talking about those six marks of discipleship.  And you sound like you’re really serious about them.  Pray daily.  Read your Bible every day.  Worship every week.  Develop Christian friendships.  Give.  Serve. That’s asking a lot.  You’re talking about self-denial. You’re talking service and sacrifice.  

    The thing is, we want Jesus, don’t we!  And what Jesus wants to give us.  But sometimes we’re not so sure about this cross thing.  I know.  I told you.  This is heavy stuff.  

    When Charles Swindoll was a young boy, he was greatly influenced by this remark from an old Texan: “The problem with the Christian life is that it's so daily.”

    Yeah.  It’s so daily.  And you’ve heard me say this before, being a Christian is more than just going to church on [Saturday] [Sunday].  It’s a lifestyle.  It’s a way of life – a way of being.

     And quite frankly – it is also a joy.  I can’t think of a better way of life.  I can’t think of a better way of living.  

     And since I’m running out of time here – and yes, I am trying to keep this worship service to no more than an hour – I want to share with you what Paul has to say about what this way of life – this “so daily” understanding of what it means to be a disciple of Jesus Christ looks like.  It’s in our reading from Romans.  And the last time I included this reading from Romans 12 in a sermon, I gave you a challenge.  And I’m going to give you that challenge again.  And I’m going to do this too.  I want you to make this a daily reading.  Remember?  One of the marks of discipleship that we practice around here is “Read the Bible every day.”  So I’m going to give you this challenge – to read this section from Romans every day this week.  Romans 12: 9-21.  If you want to get an idea of what it means to take up your cross and follow Jesus – these are just some of the words and practices that we just need to learn.  By the way, ther first verse you’ll hear is from verse 2, but it fits my message.  So listen.  

     Do not be conformed to this world. [In other words, let’s not let the Wal-Mart world we live in define who we are.] Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; love one another... serve the Lord.  Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering,...persevere in prayer...Contribute to the needs of the saints…Extend hospitality.  Bless those who persecute you;...Live in harmony with one another;...Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.

     I would encourage you to read the entire chapter, but verses 9-21 will do.  And I want you to do this because – I like to think of us as being Romans 12 Christians living in an Acts 2 church.  And if you need to be reminded of what I mean by saying we are an Acts 2 church, then read Acts chapter 2, verses 41-47.  Go ahead and do that too.  

     So you’ve got homework to do.  Read Romans 12:9-21 every day this week.  And if you want extra credit, Acts 2:41-47.  Take your bulletins home with you. The chapter and verses are listed there.  Read it to yourself.  Read it to your family around the supper table, or before the youngest child in your family goes to bed.  

     Because what Paul is saying here– and what Jesus is saying – is, “Be this.”  Be this.  If you want to be a disciple of Jesus – if you want to take up a cross – then be this.  Notice I didn’t say, “do this!”  I don’t want you to get hung up on the false understanding that, well, if I just do this and I don’t do that, I’ll be okay.  Because following Jesus is not a system of do’s and don’ts.  Being a follower of Jesus Christ – taking up one’s cross to follow him – is a way of life – it’s a way of being.  As someone once said, “Don’t just go to church.  Be the church.”   

     And yes, it is so – daily.  Jesus did not say “Take up your cross and follow me to church on Sunday morning, then you can do whatever you like the rest of the week.”  No.  But neither did Jesus come into the world to ruin your weekend – especially this Labor Day Weekend celebration here in Clarence Center.  [And by the way, I’m going over to the Labor Day Fair right after worship.  If you’d like to come with me tonight, feel free to do so.  I’m going – well – how can I say this genteelly?  I’ve discovered I run into some of our folks from Zion down there – who don’t even come on Christmas or Easter.  And you know what I’ve told you how some people have said to me.  “Pastor, why is it when I see you I feel guilty?”  With some folks you’ve got to start somewhere – so I’m going down there tonight for some fellowship – AND to stir up a little guilt.]
     Listen! Christianity is not a philosophy.  It is not about ideas.  It’s not about do this, don’t do that.  It’s about Jesus Christ.  It’s about a cross.  The cross of Christ – and the cross that he asks everyone of us to take up in order to follow him.  It’s about who we are at the core of our being.  

     Folks, the grace that God gives to us in not a cheap grace, but a costly grace.  But the good news for us is that it’s free.  

So – “Don’t just go to church…
R: …be the church!”
Yeah.  I think we’ve got this.  Amen

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Zion Lutheran Church
9535 Clarence Center Road

PO Box 235
Clarence Center, NY 14032
Phone: 716-741-2656

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