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Monday, October 30 2017
John 8: 31-36; Romans 3: 19-28
Let me ask you a question. What are some of the things that you like to celebrate? Anybody? (Birthdays; anniversaries; holidays – Christmas, 4th of July)
Those are all good things. And like all good things, we have a special event that we are celebrating today – an event that took place 500 years ago – 500 years! – this Tuesday, October 31st. For it was on October 31st, 1517, that a single, solitary monk by the name of Martin Luther, challenged the teachings of the church. In a document Luther wrote and which we now call the 95 Theses, Luther challenged the church’s practices and beliefs. And all he was asking for by nailing these 95 theses to the door of the castle church – or so the tradition tells us – in Wittenberg Germany, was to invite leaders of the church to a debate based upon these 95 points. That event – and the movement that it sparked – is what we celebrate today. The Reformation – The Reformation of the Church.
It is a long story, and it can be somewhat complicated – but let’s just say that the church of Luther’s day was not open to being challenged by this upstart monk. Luther was not listened to, in fact he was labeled a heretic – and he was excommunicated. In other words, he was kicked out of the church by the pope.
But by then it was too late. The fires of the Lutheran Reformation could not be stopped. It spread across much of Germany, and later into the countries of Scandinavia. Other reformers – taking their cue from the boldness of Luther – and probably from the fact that Luther was not burned at the stake – well – that’s what the church did with heretics back then – other reformers and other denominations soon arose in various parts of Europe as well.
It is not just the person of Luther and his bold stand that reformed the church that makes me proud to be a Lutheran. More to the point, it is the contribution to our faith that Luther made. Part of my seminary education Included two years at a Roman Catholic seminary – and the Franciscan Friar who taught church history – when he taught about Luther and the Reformation summarized the lesson with these words – and I will never forget this – this Franciscan Friar – this Roman Catholic priest said, “Luther was right.”
So what was it that Luther got right? More than what we have time for today, let me tell you. SO let me try to keep this simple. There are five slogans or phrases that came out of the Reformation. Each one of these slogans has the word “alone” in it. So are you ready? Here they are:
To the glory of God alone.
The five alones. Or the five solas. Where sola is the Latin word for only or alone. And we start with Scripture alone because all of the other alones come out of the Scriptures.
Luther was a Bible scholar. Especially when it came to understanding the book of Romans. In a time when scripture and the tradition of the church ruled what the church taught and how people were to live – Luther taught us to go back to the Bible – back to the Scriptures – alone. Why? Because the tradition could not be trusted. The traditions were created by human beings – and where they contrasted to the clear teachings of scripture – Luther rejected the tradition. Luther had a Latin phrase for this. He called it “Sola Scriptura” or “the Word Alone.”
And much of what Luther discovered from the Bible – teachings that became obscured because of some of the traditions of the church – he discovered in the book of Romans. I love the book of Romans. One of our readings today is from the 3rd chapter of Romans – and what we discover here is the heart of the Gospel – the heart of the Good News – especially the very last line in today’s reading. Listen!
“For we hold that a person is justified by faith apart from works prescribed by the law.”
Look folks, there are a lot of big church words that we heard earlier in that complete reading from Romans 3. But let’s focus on just one of those words for a moment. The word, “Justify.” Listen. That’s just a fancy word to say that we are made right with God – not because we are doers of good deeds – not because we obey the 10 Commandments – like anybody could ever do that anyway – no. To be justified – is to be made right with God – through faith alone. Faith believes; faith receives; and faith trusts. So faith is simply believing – believing that you are made right with God through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. You are made right with God – you are made righteous – and your righteousness has nothing to do with what you have done, but what Christ has done for you. And it comes to you as a gift – received by faith. Faith alone.
By the way – raise your hand if you think you are righteous. Aww, every hand ought to go up. If you believe that in Christ you are declared to be righteous – and I know – we look at ourselves and we think, “Oh, Pastor Randy. If you only knew.” Well, I do know. I know that I am a sinner in need of forgiveness. And the righteousness that is mine is given to me as a gift. This is not something that I accomplished on my own. And I just accept that truth. I accept it by faith. I simply believe that what the Scriptures say about this true. To do otherwise would be to call God a liar.
Luther had a Latin phrase for this too. He called it “Sola Fide”– Faith alone. So now we’ve got the Word alone, and we have Faith alone.
And then there is grace alone. Grace alone. Those of you who have been here any length of time, you know what the definition of grace is that I like to use. So if you know it, say it with me. Grace is “God’s undeserved love and favor.” Say that again. “God’s undeserved love and favor.”
Ephesians 2:8 and 9 tells us that we are saved by grace through faith. In other words, we are saved from sin, death and the power of the devil by grace alone through faith alone. Luther called this “Sola Gratia.” Grace alone.
And since the Scriptures tell us that we are saved by grace alone through faith alone, what this means is that we are not able on our own – no matter how good we think we are or try to be – we are not able to save ourselves. And this is where the fourth alone comes in. All of this is possible only through the work of Christ alone. And yes, Luther had a Latin phrase for that too. Solus Christus. Christ alone. Only Jesus Christ – through his life – through his death – and through his resurrection from the dead – only Jesus can do this for us. Jesus is the only Savior, and only he can reconcile us to God.
And that brings up the fifth alone. All of this is for the glory of God alone. Soli Deo Gloria. For the glory of God alone.
Listen! I know that I am giving you a lot of information today. And information is important. But far more important than information – is transformation. Preaching that imparts information is merely a lecture. Real preaching leads to transformation. It is my hope that you are being touched today by the things – the same things – that transformed Luther’s life. By the things that transform every believer’s life. These five alones – Scripture – faith – grace – Christ – the glory of God – these are the things that I trust you are taking to heart – because these are the things that lie at the heart of the Gospel.
And the Gospel – the Good News of Jesus Christ – leads to transformation – the transformed life in the here and now. We start with the understanding that there is a great divide between us and God. We start knowing that we are sinners – sinners in need of forgiveness. But at the heart of the Gospel – at the heart of the good news – is an understanding that if we will allow God to do His work through us – our very lives will be transformed. We will be changed. And we will turn away from those things that tear our lives apart, that separate us from each other, and keep us separated from God. The heart of the Gospel reminds us that we are not sufficient in and of ourselves to overcome these separations.
There is a story that goes like this. “A man approaches heaven’s gate. St. Peter asks, ‘What’s the password?’ The man quotes John 3:16. Peter says, ‘Nice try, but wrong.’ The man quotes John 3:17. Peter says, ‘Nice try, but wrong.’ The man recites the 23rd Psalm. Peter says, ‘Nice try, but wrong.’ Helplessly, the man blurts out, ‘Well, then, I give up!’ And Peter says, ‘That’s it.’ Peter extends his hand to the man and welcomes into heaven.”
Folks, that’s grace. That’s a picture of God’s undeserved love and favor. Someday we too will be taken by the hand and led into heaven itself. But grace also says that we are saved now – from our slavery to sin now – when we simply give up trying to get into heaven on our own. When we give up and realize that it is by God’s grace – in other words – it is by God’s undeserved love and favor – alone – received through faith alone. It’s not because of what I’ve done, but because of what Christ has done. Not because of who I am, but because of who Christ is. This is the truth, as Jesus tells us in our Gospel lesson today – this is the truth that sets us free.
Earlier I said that I wanted to keep this simple. I don’t know if I have done that or not. But hey – you even got a Latin lesson thrown in too! And today, I’m giving that Latin lesson away to you as a freebie!
So on this 500th anniversary of the Reformation – what was true for Luther is still true for us today. We are Christians first – and in our understanding of what it means to be a Christian – we have a rich heritage – a rich Lutheran heritage – that I for one, am proud of.
It is a heritage based on the Scripture alone that tells us we are saved through faith alone, by grace alone, through the life, death and resurrection of Christ alone, for the glory of God alone!
Monday, October 23 2017
Joshua 3:1; 5-6;14-17; 2 Corinthians 9:6-13; Matthew 22:15-22
Today is our Consecration Weekend – and for those of you who are here for the first time today – or you are new to this church – Consecration Weekend is something we do here just once a year. This is a day that we consecrate ourselves to the church – we consecrate ourselves to the work of the church – but most importantly – we consecrate ourselves to Jesus Christ – the Lord of the church.
I know that there are many ways one might want to consecrate one’s self to the Lord. But today I am going to talk about consecrating ourselves to the Lord in one specific way – and that is through our finances. Later on in our service we will have the chance to do just that when we declare what our financial commitment to the work of the Lord at Zion Lutheran Church will be for the coming year – 2018. Again – that will be coming later on in our service.
So if you are a guest with us today, you can relax. Again, this is something we do just once a year. And this is something we ask only of those who are members of this church. And I would say that maybe it’s a good thing that you’re here today. So you can see that this is how we deal with giving – this is how we deal with money – and since it’s only once a year – no one can accuse us of being a church – no one can accuse me of being a pastor – that is always asking for money.
Now, we’ve been doing this once a year thing for I don’t know how many years now. And you know that we’ve been calling it Consecration Weekend for just as many years. And it just so happens that I was reading one of my devotional books this week, and I came across this passage from Joshua chapter 3 that we heard read to us just a few moments ago – which got me to thinking about that word, “consecration.” Kind of a big church word, isn’t it! And since it’s one of those big church words, we don’t always know what it means. SO I got to thinking about this word consecration, and it occurred to me, in all these years we’ve been talking about consecration – I don’t think I’ve ever explained just what that word means! I mean, maybe I did, but I just don’t remember.
What does it mean when the Lord asks us to consecrate ourselves to him, and to consecrate ourselves to his church, and to consecrate ourselves to the work of his church? You see, I don’t think it was coincidental – well maybe it was. Let’s call it a holy coincidence that the Lord placed this particular reading from the book of Joshua in front of me this week.
Joshua chapter 3. Joshua is talking to the people of Israel. They are about to cross over the Jordan River into the Promised Land. In modern times we would call this the nation of Israel, and the territory inhabited by the Palestinians. And if you know the story, you know that the priests carry the Ark of the Covenant – by the way, this is the same ark that today is stored in some warehouse somewhere here in the United States. That’s if you believe what you saw in that first Indiana Jones movie. But anyway, the priests step into the Jordan River with the Ark of the Covenant and the water of the Jordan is pushed back so that all of the people of Israel can go across on foot on dry ground.
In other words – those priests weren’t afraid to take a chance – even if it meant getting their feet wet.
Well, one verse stands out in that passage. It’s verse 5. Listen to it again. “Joshua told the people, ‘Consecrate yourselves, for tomorrow the Lord will do amazing things among you.’”
And that’s what the people did, and the very next day they crossed into the Promised Land on foot through the Jordan River on dry ground. And what the people of Israel saw was that God did indeed do an amazing thing!
Folks, I believe that God still does amazing things when God’s people consecrate themselves to him, and to his church, and to the work of his church. I believe God will do amazing things through people who aren’t afraid to get their feet wet.
So what is consecration? What does it mean to consecrate oneself to the Lord – to the church – and to the work of the church? Consecration is simply this; are you ready? Consecration is a complete surrender to the lordship of Jesus Christ. It’s what we mean – if we really mean it – when we pray, “Your kingdom come, your will be done.” It’s a simple statement of trust and faith that says, “Jesus, be the Lord of my life. Your Kingdom come, not mine. Your will be done, not mine.”
And that surrender to the lordship of Jesus Christ includes a surrender of everything we are, everything we have, and everything we hope to be. And that includes our finances as well. Consecration means we turn everything over to the lordship of Jesus Christ.
If you’ve ever asked yourself, “Why SHOULD I consecrate myself to Jesus Christ and the work of his church?” If you’ve ever asked yourself that, let me tell you why. It’s because of all that Christ has done for you. Jesus isn’t waiting for us to consecrate ourselves to him first – and then he’ll forgive us. No! Already all of your sin has been transferred to Christ’s account, and God cancels that sin debt. Already your sins are gone. Already YOU are forgiven. And it’s all because of the love and the grace and the mercy of our heavenly Father – freely given to you. That’s what happens first! And then we are bold to consecrate ourselves to the Lord of the church.
SO the call to discipleship – the call to come and follow Jesus – means we consecrate ourselves to him. Everything we are. Everything we have. And everything we hope to be. Jesus gets control.
And this includes my finances. And maybe most importantly my finances. How – and where! – I spend that portion of my money that I spend. How and where I save and invest that portion of my money that I save and invest. And how and where and to what causes I give to the work of the Lord through his church. I am simply doing what Jesus tells us when he says, as he says in our Gospel reading today, “Give to God the things that are God’s.” It’s God’s money, and I am simply giving back a portion of what he has already given me.
Listen! I say this every year. I am simply offering you the opportunity. I’m not telling anyone how much I think they ought to give. I have never done that, and I will never do that. I am simply extending to you the invitation not only to benefit from what God is doing here in this place – but to take part in what God is doing here in this place with your financial tithes and offerings. And quite frankly – I wouldn’t be doing my job if I didn’t invite you to do that.
If you believe that all you have is a gift from God – then what better way is there for you to say, “Thank you,” to God? You are giving thanks to God for all that God has done and is doing for you – AND that you believe in what your church – this church – is doing in the name of Jesus – and that you want to be a part of it. I am extending this invitation because I don’t want you to miss out on the joy of giving. I firmly believe that there is something deep down inside the heart of every man, woman and child – that deep down inside there is a fundamental need to give. What you are doing is investing in what God is doing here in this place.
When you give – I know what it represents. It represents your time – your skill – your sweat – and your labor. I know that what you give represents a part of you. It’s a part of who you are. But here’s the wonderful thing. When we give it’s a wonderful thing to watch – to watch and to experience what God is able to do with what we give. And God is able to do amazing things!
I mean, just look around. Look at all the kids we have in worship – in Sunday School – in confirmation – in youth groups. We have a great staff to lead these ministries in Elaine and Chris. Great music ministries with great musicians. Look at the variety of worship opportunities we have each weekend. Look at how the members of this church are cared for. Look at the outreach to the local community, nationally and internationally.
So let me ask you how it is that you personally have benefited from being a part of God’s Kingdom here in this place. How have you grown? How have you changed? What does this place mean to you?
I just want you to know that your gifts do have an impact. You are investing in what God is doing here in this place. Touching hearts. Changing lives. Making a difference. In the name of Jesus Christ.
Every year I talk about percentage giving – giving a certain percentage of your income to the work of the Lord here at Zion. With the hope that you would grow one step each year – you know – half a percent or one percent – with the goal of moving towards what the Bible calls the tithe – or the giving of 10%. It’s not a law. It’s not a commandment. It’s not a rule. It’s a goal. My beloved wife Nancy and I are at 15%. And quite frankly, we have never lacked for a thing. And even though she is now retired, and not bringing in much of an income – we agreed to stay at 15%. And still we do not lack for a thing – because we continue to put our trust in the Lord to provide for our needs. It’s just one of those amazing things that God is continuing to do.
It is my hope and prayer that you have been thinking about and praying about what your financial contribution to the work of the Lord will be in 2018.
God is extending to you today an invitation – an invitation to take part in what God is doing – an invitation to get your feet wet – an invitation to consecrate yourselves to the Lord this day – and to the work of the Lord here in this place – and see what the Lord can do.
God is still in the business of doing amazing things.
Tuesday, October 17 2017
Vicar David Sivecz
Matthew 22:1-14 “Don’t Miss Out”
Tiffany and Brian were a young couple. They were in love and enjoying wedded bliss. Their fifth wedding anniversary was around the corner and they were so excited. Believing this was a special occasion, they decided to throw a party. It was going to be joyous and fun.
So, they picked out their favorite Italian restaurant, found the best pianist, and had the money to pay for it. They also wanted to invite their closest friends and family. These were people who supported them and cared about them since they got together.
Over the next couple of days, Tiffany and Brian got on the phone and called each person. To show their excitement and enthusiasm they really tried to sell it. Thinking people would be happy for them they thought plenty of people would come.
The first person they called was Tiffany’s Maid of Honor. They really thought she would be the first to come. But when they asked she said, “Umm, well, my brother-in-law's friend's father's grandmother's sister's aunt's turtle died, and it was a tragic death. I simply cannot go into the details! But, I’m unable to be there.”
A bit surprised by the response they continued to call others. The next person was Brian’s brother. He turned around and said, “I promised to help my wife clean the toilet at that same evening. She doesn't like doing it alone; she gets nervous that she will fall in! Some kind of toilet phobia. But I’m unable to be there.
A little shocked, they called Tiffany’s close cousin. Again, with excitement in their voices, they invited her. “It’s going be an awesome party. Dinner and drinks are on Brian and me. You don’t want miss out!”
Her cousin turned around and explained, “I am observing National "Don't Go Out at All Week". Haven't you heard of that yet? It’s becoming really popular in Amsterdam!” I’m unable to be there.
As Brian and Tiffany kept calling and inviting people the responses they received became odder and odder. The next person stated, "I need to double check all of the expiration dates on my milk. You can never be too sure. And I love my Cheerios in the morning!
Another person explained, “Unfortunately there is a disturbance in the force, and it is not with me right now. I never go anywhere without the force, Skywalker strongly advises against it.”
The final person even mentioned, “The president is coming over tonight for some tea and crumpets. At least that is what his text stated. And like they say, never ditch the President, he likes his tea time!”
Why miss out? Why miss out on a free dinner and drinks with close family and friends? Why miss out on something so fun, and incredibly joyful? Better yet, who came up with these reasons to miss out on such an invitation?
There’s even a greater invitation that God doesn’t want us to miss out on. It’s an invitation that completely changes our lives for the better. It’s an invitation that can make impact on us on a day-to-day basis. This invitation doesn’t just alter our individual lives, it touches the lives of everyone around us. The invitation that we don’t want to miss out on, is found in our parable for today.
For the third week in a row, we receive a parable, or a story Jesus shared to illustrate a certain point. In our Gospel lesson, we heard about a king who gave a wedding banquet for his son. He sent out his servants to invite others to be a part of this joyous occasion. When his servants came back they informed him that those who were invited didn’t want to come. Why miss out?
After one rejection we would probably just give up. We would be mad but do our best to move on without those people we invited. Yet the king didn’t just move on. Again, he sent out more servants. For a king to do this would be the equivalent of him getting on his hands and knees and begging. This was unusual behavior for someone of this stature. Still, the king wanted these guests to attend his son’s wedding banquet.
This time, when he sent his servants out, he tried to make the party even more enticing. He gave them a glimpse of the menu. He wanted to give them something to look forward to at this banquet. He explained he was going to provide his best food. It was his oxen, fatted calves, and all the sides. Why miss out?
More importantly, in those days, eating was considered to be one of the most important contexts for social relationships. It was not just a time where people were physically refueled but it was their entertainment, their time to build relationships, to relax, and find solace. Dining together was intimate; it was where people shared a meal and conversed with one another.
Apparently, this wasn’t enough to entice those invited. As we heard, they gave an abundant amount of excuses. They wanted to work and they wanted to tend to their farms. Some were so adamant on not coming they mistreated and killed the king's servants. Why miss out?
Do we ever do this? Do people invite us to a birthday party, anniversary, graduation and we say we can’t make it? Or, do we ever just completely avoid answering them? Is it because we have better things to do? Is it because we are overbooked? Is it because we haven’t set our priorities straight?
What about being a part of a Christian community? What are some of the reasons we, or others, don’t want to participate in one? I did some research, and here are a few reasons some gave. “I already asked Jesus in my heart; what else do you need?” “I have children.” “I don't have to go to church to be a Christian but I have to go to softball practice to be on the team.” “The preacher preaches too long.” The last one, "I already went last week.” Why miss out?
This is where our parable can make us uncomfortable. It might hold up a mirror. After those who rejected the invitation, the king sent out his military to wipe out those people. There’s no easy way around it. Talk about your wedding drama. Then the king went and invited everyone off the streets.
He invited both the good and the bad. The people who were invited by the king weren’t the first chosen; rather they were just common folks. Some of them were ordinary people who took life day by day. They probably were peasants who didn’t have money. The others were considered outcasts we wouldn’t expect to find at this wedding banquet. They could’ve been tax collectors, prostitutes, Gentiles, as well as other marginalized people.
Among those, who the king invited, there was one in particular who was called out for not having a wedding robe. How was someone, who was brought off the streets, expected to have the proper attire? In those days, even when people were invited to a wedding they were given a garment to cover up their daily attire. Why didn’t he take the attire? Why miss out?
Instead of trying to come up with a reason on the spot, he had no response. He didn’t give an answer or excuse. It is though he is caught red-handed and feels ashamed. With no sympathy, the king throws him out.
That’s the challenge of this parable. It’s the challenge of being a disciple of Jesus Christ. We are not only invited to God’s heavenly wedding banquet but are given the attire of being one of God’s children. This is not about what happens after we die. Entering into the kingdom of God, right here right now, means we can’t remain the same. As God pulls us into this new way of life it’s impossible not to be transformed. That’s the challenge. That’s the challenge of being a Christian. Maybe that’s why people want to miss out.
That’s what Emily missed out on for many years. Emily for the longest time didn’t consider herself to be much of a Christian. Her family only went to worship on Christmas and Easter, but outside of that they weren’t involved. When she got older she entered in the world and worked as an engineer. She had to fight for everything she earned. Many times she had to overcome sexism just so she could earn what she believed to be rightfully hers.
Full of strife, hyper-vigilance, and a constant battle to protect herself from the world, she did everything to put herself first. Around every corner, she believed was a moment full of potentially unknown dangers. If anyone crossed her she made sure there was a consequence for every action.
Because of this battle, she grew not to trust anyone. It was a lonely life and typically pushed away her loving, caring extended family and great friends. For as much as she tried to hide her fears and anger, one of her close friends, Diane, finally approached her one evening. She sat Emily down and asked her if she was alright. Of course, Emily put up a front. Then her friend came straight-out and told her, You seem to have a “free-floating anger around you.”
After this, she broke down. She didn’t know where to go or what to do. So, her friend invited her to church. Emily responded with laughter. “Church! That’s not me. I’m not a goody-goody.” I don’t see myself as a church-goer.” Diane didn’t push anymore but just left the invitation open. A few months passed and Diane checked in with Emily one more time. Again, Emily declined. After a year of trying to figure out how to let go of her anxiety and anger Emily finally gave church a try.
What difference did it make in her life? Through time she learned to let go of everything she had been holding onto. She was free righting every imagined, or real, wrong done to her. She was free to be the person God wanted her to be. She was free to find the joy in each day. She even was free to accept the kindness of others and friendship at face value, without consideration of possible ulterior motives. She became free to know and accept that even though her path would not always be clear and smooth, she knew she was never alone. Why miss out?
Perhaps, we are missing out because we’re looking at the Christian community, whether here at Zion or somewhere else, like all the events we partake in throughout the week. We come, absorb, and leave. What if we didn’t look at being part of a Christian community in this way? What if being part of a Christian community was a separate entity that we can’t find anywhere else in the world? What if it wasn’t about what we “get out of it”, what we “do”, or who we “are?” What if it’s just about being a disciple of Jesus Christ.
So, why would we want to miss out? Yes, being a disciple of Jesus Christ is challenging. It does require something from us. Sometimes it can difficult. Other times it can be extremely difficult. Would we want to take the easy way out? Do we want to make excuses and avoid it? Do we want to place our hope and trust in ourselves? Do we rely upon earning God’s love?
If we are, then we’re missing out on the new look that’s a life filled with grace, mercy, and acceptance. We’re missing out on becoming a deeper child of God. We’re missing out on being transformed from the old way of life into a new being. If we don’t miss out that also means we get to be free from caring about how others judge our parenting, careers, grades, or whatever else. We get to live without the anger, the fear, the selfishness that controls our lives. We get to live without feeling unworthy, lonely, or hopeless. So, don’t miss out. Don’t miss out being wrapped in the God-given garment of mercy. Don’t miss out eating at God’s grace-filled heavenly banquet.
Tuesday, October 10 2017
Vicar David Sivecz
Not another one! On Monday I was flying back from Atlanta, Georgia. Because of a weekend wedding, I was a little detached from the real world. Consumed with family and meeting new people I was in my own little bubble. Then that bubble burst when I walked into a restaurant for some dinner during my layover. I was in the Baltimore Airport late at night. A few people were in the hustle and bustle of getting to the planes. As I sat down, there it was on four television stations. Each of them covering the same story. It was another mass shooting. All I could do was shake my head and say a prayer.
Not another one. I often wonder are these mass shootings are getting worse, or are we just more aware of them? Have these types of events always happened? Or, because of twenty-four news coverage are we able to watch the events unfold live? Yet, it doesn’t stop there. Whether it’s mass shootings, terrorist attacks overseas, tensions between North Korea, earthquakes, hurricanes, or other catastrophic events, the same question keeps coming up. That question is, “Why?”
“Why did Stephen Paddock shoot at all those people?” “Why were Hurricane Irma and Harvey so devastating?” “Why are there so many diseases that infect people?” “Why are conflicts on the rise between countries?” “Why?” That’s a question all of us ask and want to know the answer. We ask “why” because we desire to know the motive. We can speculate, we can assume, and we can guess, yet most of the time, if not all of the time, we don’t receive an answer.
But why do we want to know it? Will knowing the motive help us cope with the tragedies? Will it help us understand? Will knowing the motive elevate the feelings of anger, fear, and sadness that lie underneath the surface? Will it, in any way, make us feel better.
Perhaps what we are truly asking underneath the question “why” is “where.” Where is there a place we can find some solace and peace? Where is there a safe place where we can acknowledge our grief? Where is there a place we can put our hope and trust that one day these events will cease to exist?
The one place where we can find hope and trust is in God’s kingdom. This is the place where we can find solace and peace. It’s the place where we know God won’t giving up on us. It’s the place where can find assurance in God’s unending mercy and grace. It’s the place where we can grieve in the loving arms of God’s persistent love.
That’s what we heard in our Gospel lesson for today. What we heard, through this parable, was Jesus telling the crowd about the persistence of God’s love. That might be difficult to see. At first, it might seem like this story isn’t pretty. This parable seems ominous, violent, and even threatening. Yet underneath we find a place where there is hope, assurance, and mercy like no other.
It began with a landowner who planted a vineyard. In those days, it was common that only a few people possessed a significant amount land. The average person didn’t even own an acre. The few who did buy up the land, as we heard in the case of the landowner, would often move to a faraway land. Before they left, they would make improvements and then lease it to a few tenants. These tenants would then watch over it, care for it, and in return for payment, receive part of the harvest. This was common.
Sometimes it would be a long time before the landowner would come to check it. Because there was such an excessive amount of time in between hearing from the landowner, the tenants would often take over the land. This was before the days of text messaging, phone calls, or emails. We often get concerned when someone doesn’t respond to us in a day or two. So, imagine not hearing back for months or even years. So, these tenants might have assumed the landlord died or forgot about them. As a result, they believed the land was now theirs by right of being it’s caretaker. Again, this was common.
The tenants were no longer caretakers of the land, but now they believed they possessed it. They weren’t just tenants anymore but landowners. They were no longer peasants but had money. Their whole identity could’ve been transformed. Their whole mentality possibility changed.
Depending on where we’ve come from, many of us have the mentality that if it doesn’t belong to us, we don’t take care of it. I noticed this during this past weekend. As I said, as I had to travel. This meant buying a plane ticket, renting a car, and getting a hotel room. Especially, when it came to the car and the hotel room my mentality changed. I didn’t have to worry about cleaning my room. I could be messy, didn’t have to make the bed and could throw towels on the floor. My mentality was different. Why would I have to take care of if it wasn’t mine?
Even when it came to the car. Since it wasn’t mine and I had the companies insurance, I didn’t have worry about it. I could’ve spilled something in it or got into an accident. Ironically enough, it just so happened that someone put a massive scratch on the side of the car. Outside of filling out a couple of reports, I was able to leave the car there and slept soundly that night.
However, when it comes to our own possessions we take pride in them. They reflect who we are and how we function. They are the first impression others perceive of us. Although we are taught “not to judge a book by it cover” this is a reality. Whether we like it or not others perceive us based on outward visuals and experiences. So, our identities often become based on our possessions. This is common.
That’s how the tenants could’ve seen the land. At first, they didn’t take care of it. But, when they realized it belonged to them they could’ve put in extra effort. It became part of them. It was part of their identity. Then one day, they received some unexpected visitors. They were the landowner's servants. They came to collect his return on investment. As we heard, rather than handing over the land, the tenants beat one servant, killed another, and stoned another. For as much as this would shock us, again, this wasn’t uncommon.
Since their possessions were being threatened, their identities were also being threatened. Think about what happens when our possessions are threatened? What happens when others question how we parent, our career paths, or our hobbies? How do we react when others make negative comments about our houses, social circles, or our children? We put up a resistance. We tend to horde what we possess. We are less likely to open up or give it to others. The tenants resisted and hoarded when the landowner tried to collect his produce. Again, this was common.
In order for the landowner to retrieve his land, we might expect that he would send an army. He would use force against force. Yet, that’s what the landowner didn’t do. The landowner sent more servants. Still, the tenants treated them the same way. Again, the tenants continue to resist and horde. Now, at this point we might assume, the landowner had enough and finally would wipe them out. But, he did not.
This was not common. That’s the odd part of this parable. That’s what’s so surprising. As the tenants continued to resist, hoard, and be violent, the landowner continued to reason with them. He didn’t stop working with them. He was so persistent he even sent his son.
After everything the tenants did, what would cause this landowner to do this? Why? What was his motive? We don’t know. But what we do know is that the landowner was persistent. He was persistent in not giving up on the tenants. More importantly, he was persistent in making sure the vineyard produced fruit.
That’s the persistence of God love. God is so persistent in loving the world, especially during these times, that God won’t allow anyone or anything to stand in God's way. Even when we horde God’s gifts for ourselves, when people are killed, when we don’t know where to turn, God is persistent in bringing about God’s kingdom. This is the uncommon place where we don’t look in the midst of these horrific events. We don’t look for the places where God is persistently bringing peace, hope, and assurance. Even when we are threatened by mass shootings, terrorist attacks, and natural disasters there are places where God is persistent in bringing fruits.
Even when we are searching for it in all the wrong places, when we want to use violence, God right there and doesn’t stop loving us. When we question, doubt, and are in disbelief, God is so adamant to bring about this kingdom that God endured the violence God’s self. We know this because we find this through Christ’s death on the cross.
That’s the most uncommon place where we don’t often look in the midst of these tragedies. We don’t look to the cross of Christ’s suffering as a place where God has brought, is bringing, will bring peace. We don’t realize that in Matthew’s Gospel the whole point of God’s persistent love is to bring a kingdom where all this fear, anger and sadness will cease to exist. The best part is that we don’t have to wait. It’s right here right now. There are places where we can find God persistently working. God has given us to gifts to partake in it.
As we would read earlier in Matthew’s Gospel, “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.” God summons us to use the gifts we have to help bring about this kingdom where everyone can find peace. This isn’t just limited to church ministry it can be done in our day to day lives.
Especially, in the midst of Las Vegas shooting, there was no place more evident where we see God’s persistent love than in the uncommon place of a former Western New Yorker’s business. Maybe some of you saw his story. His name is Chris Palmeri, who lives Las Vegas. He’s been the owner of “Naked City Pizza” for the last fourteen years.
On Sunday, less than a mile from Palmeri’s apartment, when at least 59 people were killed and hundreds more wounded, he decided to step in and help. He wanted to do something to help his new home, the victims, their families, and first responders.
He looked around and saw he had some extra dough. Instead of keeping it for himself he took action. He sent a message out through Facebook saying his business would provide free pizza for first responders, families of victims, and people waiting at the hospital.
His plan was to deliver to basically anyone who was suffering, and hungry. As he said, “I realized we had an extra palate of dough, we had sauce, we had cheese, so we figured people had to eat. By the end of the day, we were literally dropping off 20 pizzas. It just kind of caught on. It’s really cool to see what I’ve known for awhile, but for other people to see us come together and take action.”
He had volunteers call in wanting to help from around the country too. At the end of the day, Naked City had served about 600 free pizzas throughout the area. He was a businessman, not a church program, not someone who shouted his faith. Rather Palmeri simply mentioned if people wanted to help, that could go to the “Go-Fund-Me” page, and send help to the Las Vegas Catholic Charities.
Through all the tragedies, through all the natural disasters, through all the fear, God’s love is persistent. Whether it’s through us or through the uncommon places through people we wouldn’t expect, we can find healing in God’s persistent present kingdom. It doesn’t give up, it’s not dismayed, it doesn’t stop. The persistent love of God’s kingdom is where we can find hope and trust. It’s through the persistent love of God’s kingdom where we can find solace and peace. It’s also the place we where can find the assurance in God’s unending mercy and grace from now until the end of the age.
Tuesday, October 03 2017
One day God was looking down at earth and saw all of the rascally behavior that was going on. So God called one of his angels and sent the angel to earth for a brief time.
When he returned, he told God, “Yes, it’s bad on earth; 95% are misbehaving and only 5% are not.”
God thought for a moment and said, “Maybe I had better send down a second angel to get another opinion.”
So God called another angel and sent him to earth for a time. When the angel returned he went to God and said, “Yes, it's true. The earth is in decline; 95% are misbehaving, but 5% are being good.”
God was not pleased. So He decided to e-mail the 5% who were good, because he wanted to encourage them, and give them a little something to help them keep going.
Do you know what the e-mail said? No? I was kind of hoping someone could tell me, because I didn’t get one either.
Most of you know that I love to tell a good story. I like to work stories into my preaching. You know, just like Jesus. I don’t know if Jesus ever told bad jokes, like the one I just told, but he did tell stories. And he told stories in order to get his message across. And that’s why I like to tell stories. Everyone loves a good story – especially if they tend to be memorable.
The story that we have from Jesus today is the story of the father who had two sons. And let me tell you. I suspect it’s a story that some of us can relate to. And I know for certain that it is a story that the people of Jesus’ day could relate to as well.
And the story goes like this: Once upon a time, there was a man who had two sons. He went to the older of the two, and said, “Son, I need you to go to work in the vineyard today.” But this older son, said, “No way, not today.”
Sound familiar to anyone? If you have children, did any of them ever say something like that to you? “No way. Not today. I’d rather go outside and play.” However, this older son later repented, and went out and worked in his father’s vineyard.
In the meantime, the father also went to the younger son, and he said the same thing to him. “Go and work in the vineyard today.” And the younger son said, “Sure thing Pop! I’d be happy to.” But the day passed, and the younger son never made it into the vineyard.
After telling that story, Jesus asks, “Which of the two did the will of the father?” And of course the obvious answer is the one who said no, but who ultimately repented and later on went to work in the vineyard.
Listen! When Jesus tells a story, he almost always leaves it open-ended. That’s just another way of saying that you and I are invited to step into the story in order to see where we fit in it. So when Jesus asks, “Who did the will of the Father,” the teaching moment then becomes, “Are you like the older son? Or are you like the younger son?”
But you see, here’s the challenge. Neither one of these sons is the ideal picture of what it means to be a disciple of Jesus Christ. Neither one of them!
Now, when Jesus originally tells this story, he’s directing it to the chief priests and elders – the religious leaders of his day. Among them would be those who were known as Pharisees. And the thing about the Pharisees is that they were known to think highly of themselves because they thought that they kept God’s Law almost perfectly, if not perfectly. Most of them just thought that they were better than everyone else.
But Jesus – when he tells this story – is comparing these religious leaders to the son who said, “I go father,” but then, did not go. You see, Jesus knew that for all of their religious trappings – they otherwise neglected one very important part of their faith practice. In other words – they were more concerned about keeping manmade rules and rituals than the things that God is really interested in. Things like loving one’s neighbor. That part is what they missed entirely.
The tax collectors and prostitutes, on the other hand – those that repented of their sinful ways – Jesus said were like the son who said, “I will not go,” but who later repented, and went into the vineyard.
Now – fast forward some 2000 years or so. It’s [Saturday, September 30] [Sunday, October 1] 2017. And here we are – gathered here in this place. Where are we – where are you – going to step into this story? Because – both boys show reluctance to go to work in their father’s vineyard. And I gotta say – that there are times – when all of us – and I include myself in this – when all of us have acted like one son or the other. When the Lord calls us to do something – to make a difference in the lives of others for the sake of Jesus Christ – it’s quite possible that we have been like one son or the other.
Now – having said all that. I would also say that much more often – as I have known so many of you for so many years – I would say that we can also be like the third son that Jesus doesn’t mention here. Yes – I’m adding one more son into the story. And that is the son who says, “Yes,” to the father’s request to work in the vineyard, and actually does what the father in this parable asks.
One of my seminary professors once said that the people in the parishes where we will be serving try so hard to do their best. And I would agree. We do try so very hard to be disciples of Jesus Christ. And when it comes to being a disciple, I think the best we can say – at the end of the day – “I tried my best to be a disciple of Jesus Christ.”
Not because we want brownie points for being disciples – not because we want to earn God’s favor because we can’t. Not in order to prove ourselves worthy. Can’t do that either. But simply because we are grateful for all that Christ has done for us. He’s forgiven us – given us new life both now and in eternity – and blessed us in so many different ways.
You see, being a Christian is more than just believing certain things about God. Being a Christian is more than just going to church on [Saturday] [Sunday]. It is a way of life. It’s a way of living.
And because it is a way of life and living – when the Father – when God our Father – calls us to go and work in his vineyard – it is in order to make a difference. And when Jesus talks about God’s vineyard, you know he’s not talking about a place that grows grapes. No. He’s talking about those places where we find ourselves every day.
Now – let me be clear. You might not always be successful. In fact, the seeds of faith that you plant might not take root for years or even decades. But what I hear in this parable that Jesus tells today is that God loves it when we take the Good News of Jesus Christ with us wherever we go. That we represent Christ to others wherever we go. Sometimes we will see results. Sometimes we might not know just what kind of impact we are making.
That’s the point a man by the name of William Tarbell was making years ago when he was explaining about “light traveling 186,000 miles per second. He said that if that is too hard to imagine, think of it another way: the starlight shining in your window left the star about the time Shakespeare was writing his plays. The light has been traveling all that time to reach you and provide its light.”
Well, it’s obvious to me that Mr. Tarbell was not a scientist. The light from those stars were generated not hundreds of years ago, but millions, maybe even billions of years ago. But the point he was making is still valid, and that is that:
“The work of the 1st Century disciples still influences you. Centuries ago, men and women were commissioned to make disciples of all nations. Although they have been dead for almost two thousand years, the effect of their work has traveled through history and touched us. It is felt in our lives and in our churches today.”
And that’s why it’s so important for us to say “yes” to work in God’s vineyard. Because you just never know who it is on whom you will have a lasting impact.
Someone once did a study of Thomas Edison and Henry Ford to determine what it was about these two men that had made them the great men that they were. These two men through their inventions left a lasting mark on the world. Word like “genius” and “brilliance” have often been used to describe the secret behind their success. But the man who made the study determined that neither genius nor brilliance were the secrets behind their success. Rather it was tenacity – persistence – determination. You know, they didn’t give up. When they failed, they started over again. These were the things that caused Ford and Edison – and others like them – to make a difference.
You know what this tells me? You don’t have to be a genius – you don’t have to be a super saint – to make a difference. You just have to say yes, and then be persistent.
A handful of people 2,000 years ago turned the world upside down. Why? Because they were brilliant? Hardly. Those 1st Century disciples of Jesus were simple fishermen. One was a tax collector. Someone once called them “hillbillies form Galilee.” Well. Whatever.
Whether reluctantly at first – or whether they said yes, and went immediately – when the Lord called them to go and work in the vineyard – they went. And they showed persistence and determination. These folks turned the world upside down – and made a difference for Jesus Christ. And we can too!
Our heavenly Father is calling us to go and work in his vineyard. To love our neighbor even as we love ourselves. To reach. To teach. To comfort. To share our goods with those in need. But I think most of all – to share the Good News of God’s love in Jesus Christ. Here in this place – and in the world out there – beyond these four walls. Not to draw attention to ourselves – but to go and make a difference for Jesus Christ.
Let’s go back to the parable for a minute, because I just want to remind you that neither of the sons in this parable represents the ideal disciple. So why don’t we agree – right here – right now – to be a different kind of son – a different kind of daughter. When the Lord call us to go somewhere or to do something – let’s let our yes be yes.
And then, once we say yes, to be persistent. Touching hearts – changing lives – making a difference in the name of Jesus.