Monday, October 30, 2017

Reflection on Romans 3:19-28

On the edge of the city was a small hill of death. It stunk of death and caused those entering the city to quicken their step.

It was the place where you would put someone in order to make certain they were forgotten. But, not forgotten in the “put them away in a dark corner” sense. Rather, it was the place where you would stick them on a cross so that everyone who was coming in or out of the city could see.

And, with that striking sight and smell of death, people would quickly avert their eyes, cover their noses, and promptly disregard anyone hung there to die.

When you were hung on a cross, you were actively forgotten by the world in full view. Friends would run away, nowhere to be found. People would weep at a distance…a long, long distance. It was as if you were hung in hell, forgotten, alone. The Romans liked it that way.

The apostle Paul makes the bold claim in his letter to the Romans that this stench ridden place of death and forgotten souls is the true center of the temple of God. Golgotha, the place of the skull, is the true holy of holies in the center of the temple where the high priest would come once a year to make atonement for all the people that they might be forgiven.

But, do you want to know the only high priest who dared enter this rotting holy of holies? Jesus.

Jesus lays himself on the altar, otherwise known to us as the cross, and sacrifices himself as if he were a goat or a lamb, in order to atone for the sins of the world. The stench of his death rises to the heavens as incense. And, in an instant, hell of earth had been transformed from the most reviled place on earth into the most beautiful temple of salvation that one has ever seen.

We still construct monuments to its beauty even today in our churches. The cross of Christ, an instrument of death, was transformed from something terror inducing into a symbol of hope and central devotion.

God can transform any rotting hill of death into something beautiful. God can transform your rotting hill of death into something glorious.

That is what Paul is claiming anyway. Paul wants to convince us that if God can transform Golgotha into the mercy seat of God, then God can take a group of Godless, idol worshiping, depraved gentiles, and make of them a glorious people through faith.

Those who think otherwise can shut their mouths, Paul declares, because they are no better than those depraved gentiles.

After-all, everyone has sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. No one follows the law of God as they should. Everyone holds to a false God in one way or another. Everyone fashions an idol in their own image in some way. Everyone deserves death. Everyone has wandered into the place of the skull, the place of death, Golgotha.


Now, I understand that today we do not despise the gentiles, because most of us are gentiles. We know that we have been saved. We know that we have been included in God’s salvation history. Most of us no longer feel like the outsider, desiring to get in.

But, there are those out there who do. There are those out there who feel forgotten, abandoned, and hopeless.

There are those who struggle with substances for instance. The shame of the struggle makes them feel as if they were sitting in the place of death where everyone walks by without a glance.

There are those who do not have their citizenship papers and feel as if they must hide out in the place of death for their own safety. Will anyone care about them; the stranger in a foreign land?

There are those who have lost contact with someone they love, because of something stupid they did a million years ago. They too sit alone in the place of death.

There are those who have the wrong skin color to be included in the good things in life. They were hauled into the place of death and just left there.

And, there are multiples upon multiples of us who have been deformed or mutilated by this thing that we call life, and we hide secretly in the place of death, hoping no one will see us or our pain. We pray to be promptly ignored so that we never have to see the face of pity thrown our way.

There is so much pain and struggle in life. Some of it is self-inflicted. Some of it is thrown upon us. All of it stinks…it just stinks of death.

Paul has something to declare to those people this morning.

Paul has something to declare to you this morning.

God can take that pile of stench, stick a cross in the middle of it, and transform it into a place of salvation.

The place of death that you think is the end can be transformed by God into the place of a new beginning. The cross after-all is the place where the old dies once and for all so that something new can rise up.

Whatever you fear; whatever your struggle; whatever your sin; whatever holds you captive has died a real death on the cross with Jesus Christ, and God is now transforming your hill of struggle into a hill of strength and salvation. Your hill has a cross, and it is a thing of beauty.

What about those who point to you and bring you down again? What about those who point to you and tell you to work harder and harder though you have worked harder; to be better though you have struggled to make things better; to save yourselves because no one else will come to save you.

Paul says that those people can keep their mouths shut.

They are no better than anyone else. They too live in a pile of stench that needs to be transformed by the cross.

What if that voice of accusation is your own conscience?

It too can keep quiet.

All have fallen short of God glory, therefore all of us rely on the grace of God to make us right again. In the end, all of us trust in God’s mercy and in God’s ability to create something great out of something that is not.

I, therefore, declare to you once again that your hill of pain, sin, and shame has a cross in the middle of it. And, because it has a cross, it will be transformed.

We are a people who carry crosses. But, our crosses are not heavy burdens. Far from it; the cross is a thing of freedom and new life. We carry our crosses so that God might heal and make new everything and everyone we encounter.

It is as if we were all priests, who carry the hope of God wherever we go.

It is as if we were all priests in our schools, in our places of work, in our homes, on the soccer, football, and baseball fields.

It is as if we were priests who carry crosses of grace everywhere we so that no one might be left out.

It is “as if” we were all priests, because we all are priests.

All of us carry crosses, just waiting to put them down onto people’s hills of death and struggle wherever we go.

All of us are priests who carry God’s grace to everyone we encounter on the road.

I do it with a collar. A teenager may do it with a backpack. Another may do it with a joke. I know one guy who does it on a motorcycle and still another who dies it in a semi-truck.

It does not matter how we do it, we all carry of the joy of the truth: we have been saved by grace and it is a gift from God to us who once resided on a hill of despair, but now reside on a hill of salvation.

Reflection on Matthew 22:1-14

It helps to put on the clothes. 

“Now that was sort of out of left field,” you think.  “Where is he going with this?” 

Where I am going with this is to address this weeping and gnashing of teeth in the outer darkness that happens when that one wedding guest in the kingdom shows up to the wedding banquet lacking an appropriate wedding gown. 

I think that I have been that guy before.  When I was a teen, I was invited to a nice wedding during a period of time that I owned almost no nice clothing.  My dad was going back to school and my mom was working the till at a drug store.  Needless to say, we did not have any money. 

I went to Goodwill and did the best that I could.  I found some “kind of nice” pants.  You know, the type that pretend to be nice, but are made of a fabric so stiff that they actually do not need a person sporting them to walk around and show them off. 

I found a “kind of nice” shirt also.  It was as if the shirt was once nice, but seemed to have degraded to a point where the owner decided that it was time to discard it.  And, when I say “it was as if” I mean, that is literally what happened. 

After that $5 splurge, I did not have any money left over for shoes, so tennis shoes would have to do. 

At the wedding, I felt very self-conscious.  I hid in the corners of the wedding, hoping that no one would notice me.  I was present, but my shame did not allow me to participate as much as I would have liked.  There was no dancing, no working of the crowd, nothing.  For the longest time I stood in a corner drinking my exotic Hawaiian Punch and 7up mixed drink.  One old woman saw me in the corner and mentioned off hand that the least I could have done was wipe my tennis shoes clean.  I was so glad that I showed up!

All of this is to say that it helps if you can put on the clothes.  I would have felt free to dance and talk and participate in the wedding if only I had the option of wearing appropriate clothes.

Anyone who has acted knows that something magical happens when you wear your costume for the first time.  You can study and practice what a character sounds like, moves like, and feels like all you want, but it is not until you put on the costume that you can finally let everything else in the world drop away and be that character.

The current pope talked about experiencing a similar thing.  Before he put on the robes of the papacy, he was just a church administrator…a pastor…in other words, he was just himself.  But, once he put on the robes he was suddenly the hope of the poor and an apostle to the world.  Once he put on the robes he felt the need to bless to suffering, love his enemies, and live simply as Jesus lived.  It helps to put on the clothes.

Now, I have to say here, that my underdressed teenaged self would have probably been just fine in that wedding banquet from the scriptures.  Remember that the banquet was originally held for the elite of the town, but when the elite decided that they were too busy to honor the king, people from the streets were invited to come. 

I can imagine that some of these poor dug out their best, which was not so best-ish.  One had an old wedding gown from his father, found in an old box.  Another found an old one in the ruins of the city that was just recently destroyed.  Yet another taped one together using newspaper and duct tape.  OK, they did not have newspapers or duct tape at the time, but you get the idea.  All of these people were fine coming to celebrate at the king’s banquet because they wanted to be there and wanted to participate, no matter how meager their participation may be. 

I would have been just fine in my Goodwill clothes, because the king had called me and I showed up as best as I could.

The weeping a gnashing of teeth stuff does not happen to the humble and poor, the weeping an gnashing of teeth befalls the guy who showed up at the king’s banquet, but had no intention of participating.  He had no desire to put on a wedding robe and be one of the guests.  He had no desire to actually be there. 

Why did he even come in the first place?  For prestige?  For improving his social standing?  Was he a future politician who wanted some social points?  Was he just there for the free food but not the celebration of the king? 

I do not know.  I do not really want to focus of that guy too much because he is uninteresting.  There are plenty of unremarkable people in the world who have no desire to put on the clothes of the kingdom of God.  They are normal, dull, and uninspiring.  They want the cake but not the dancing.  They want the party, but not the joy.  They want the grace, but not the sharing.

Dietrich Bonheoffer, one of the few German men who saw through Hitler’s schemes from the very start, put on the wedding gown of Jesus’ kingdom of grace and love, and wore it to the very end.  Even as he rode his final train ride to the location of his extermination, he comforted and preached God’s grace to those who also were counting their last minutes on earth.  Somehow they were held in the bondage of fear and hopelessness, but he was acting as if he was at the banquet feast of God…because he was. 

As the Apostle Paul reminds us, neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 8:38-39, NRSV).

He knew this to be true.  He lived it to the very end.  He wore the clothes of Christ and sang his Alleluias to the very end.  It helps to put on the clothes.

Do not get confused though.  The point of wearing this clothes is not to bring about some sort of moral perfection.  When you are found wearing the clothes of Christ, you are not somehow now a perfect being who will never fail. 

When pastors put on their holy robes on Sunday morning, you can still see the collars and shoes of their street clothes.  The sin and imperfection of the everyday does not disappear when you put on Christ.  Rather, Christ overcomes and overlies your sin and imperfection. 

Putting on the clothes of the kingdom is what imperfect people do when they have hope. 

It is what imperfect people do when they trust that they can have a new life in Christ. 

It is what imperfect people do when they desire to dance in the kingdom of God. 

It is what imperfect people do when they want to share all that Jesus has done in their lives. 

It is what the people of God’s love do when they have felt loved and accepted into a party for which they had no little good clothes. 

Welcome to the banquet.  Welcome to the kingdom.  It is all yours.  Come, put on your wedding robe and celebrate…it is good enough.  You are good enough.

Monday, October 23, 2017

Reflection on Matthew 22:15-22

So, in God’s kingdom, is it right to pay taxes to the government or not?
Most people say, “Yes,” assuming that they have answered as Jesus does, and just move on in life. So, is comes as a surprise to many that Jesus actually does not answer so simply. He does not give a simple “yes” in answer to this question, and the reason that he does not is extremely important to our faith.

But, before we get into that essential faith part, you should understand something about the context of the conversation first: a trap had been set for Jesus in this question.

When the Pharisees ask Jesus if it is lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, they have created an environment where they think that Jesus will most certainly fail. Their hope is that the mighty prophet will finally slip up a fall from on high.

If you look close at the bible text, you will see that they have invited the Herodians to be a part of the conversation. The Herodians are pro Caesar and pro Roman culture.
Therefore, should Jesus answer, “No, it is not right to pay the tax to Caesar” the Herodians are there to be offended and turn him over to the authorities.

There is good reason to expect that he might say “No” after-all. First, the poll tax was really unpopular with the people to whom he was preaching. Second, paying the tax could be seen as being tantamount to honoring another God, as Caesar claimed this title for himself.

I know that I promised an angle on this story that is essential to your faith, so bear with me as I give you one more bit of background. It is important.

On the other side of this perfect set-up to take down the mighty prophet Jesus is what would have happened if he would have answered "Yes." If Jesus had answered “Yes, you should pay the tax,” he would have incited a riot because, as I said before, the tax was really, really unpopular with the people to whom he was preaching. And, on top of losing his popular base, he could be accused of honoring a false God.

Whether Jesus answered “Yes” or “No,” he would lose. It was the perfect trap, except that Jesus is Jesus and he refuses to play along with our earthly games.

Telling them to take out a coin, which they had readily available, Jesus answers, "Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor's, and to God the things that are God's."
I do not know if you noticed, but this is not a straightforward “yes” or “no” answer. Rather than saying, “yes, pay your taxes,” or “no, do not pay your taxes” he makes his accusers stop and think about what belongs to whom. What truly belongs to Caesar? What truly belongs to God?

He makes them think about lives and their faith.

He makes us stop and think about our lives and our faith.
If you think about it, we ask these types of questions of Jesus all the time. Take this one. In the context of providing for our family we ask, “Jesus, is it right and holy for me to work all these extra hours away from my family?”

I imagine that Jesus' answer would not be a straight "yes" or "no" but would rather go something like: “Give to your employer what your employer deserves and give to God and family what God and family deserve.”

“That is no answer, Jesus!”

But, the answer does cause me to ask myself, "What does God expect of me? What relationship does my work have to my God and my family?"

After-all, in the end, God deserves it all right? In the end, everything is God’s and everything is done for God.

So, Jesus’ non-answer is actually brilliant as far as my faith is concerned, because it causes me to stop in the tracks of my busy life and consider if my work is contributing to the cause of God’s kingdom or not? Are the extra hours worth it? Do I act at work in a way that furthers all that God cares about? Does my work itself, help or hinder God's cause? What could I do at work that would show God’s love in word and action?

On top of all of that, it also causes me to ask myself if working so much causes me to forget some little children and a wife who God cares about also.

The answer that Jesus provides does not answer the question, but the answer does seek to draw me closer to God, draw me closer to my family, and draw me closer to caring about the things that God cares about.

So, what about those taxes? Do we pay them or not?
Jesus answers in essence, “Give to the government what is the government’s and give to God what is God’s.”

Again, everything in existence is all God’s, including the money. Therefore, Jesus’ non-answer causes me to wonder things like, “If I do pay my taxes, is it being used for the things that God cares about? Does it help the poor? Does it defend against injustice? Does it help improve and maintain people’s livelihoods through good roads and bridges and support of essential industry? Does it seek peace first?

If it all belongs to God, I am forced to get interested and involved in the politics of government so that the concerns of God’s kingdom are reflected in our very governments.

Beyond the tax question, we ask Jesus even more questions, “Jesus, is it right to devote so much time to my family?” “Jesus, is it right to take the new job and leave my old one?” “Jesus, is it right to continue in the relationship?” “Jesus, is it right to help my troubled son?” Jesus, is it right to stick by my good for nothing friend?”

In each of these cases, when praying to Jesus for guidance, Jesus is not going to give you an answer that sounds like “Yes, you should stick by your friend” or “No, you should not.” Instead, he will say something like, “Give to your friend what your friend deserves and to God what God deserves.”

In other words, Jesus is going to ask you to consider what God would desire. After-all, every situation in life, every decision, every movement, and every action you make belongs to God. It all belongs to God.

You belong to God. Your life belongs to God. The decisions you make belong to God.

Never forget, you were bought with a price: God’s very own son. If God gave up his son for you, how important and essential are you?

You are God’s own, you will always be God’s own, and, therefore, all you do belongs to God.

As the Apostle Paul indicates, your hands and feet…your whole body…belongs to God.
Even your sin belongs to God. Jesus takes them all to the cross and puts them to death. Jesus takes you to the cross, takes you through the darkness into the light of new life.

What I find amazing in Jesus' answer to the Pharisees is that Jesus’ answer does not rebuke those who would seek to destroy him. He could have not responded and dismissed them entirely as if they did not exist. He does not do that. Rather, Jesus invites them to think deeper. He invites them into a closer relationship with God that may lead to a better relationship and, thus, a better life.

Even those who would seek to destroy him are still God's own.

When those who seek to trap Jesus walk away amazed at his answer, do they see their lives differently? Do they see their lives free from the trappings of life and free to be who God desires them to be?

Do you?

Do walk away from this bible text free from the burdens of this life and free to serve God as God would see fit? Do you walk away amazed as one of God’s own children?

Monday, October 9, 2017

Reflection on Matthew 21:33-46

They do not want to hear it.

It is the time of year for the workers of the land to share some of the grapes that the land has produced with the one who owns the land, the land owner. The workers of the land just do not want to hear it.

They do not want to hear that the land is not theirs. They do not want to hear that they must share what they have produced. They do not want to hear that they are beholden to anybody but themselves. They do not want to hear it. They live in denial of reality.

When the land owner sends people to confront the workers of the land, they sink even further into their denial and harm those representatives. With cold hearts they beat one to a pulp, they outright murder the next one, and expecting yet more representatives to come and collect what is owned, the workers of the land dig a hole, throw a third representative into the hole, take boulders, and pummel him to death. They do not want to hear it.

The land owner is gracious beyond comprehension at this point, because after these first three atrocities the land owner still does not hire thugs to remove them from the land.

Instead, he sends more people to diplomatically speak some sense into those workers, that they might share the produce of the land. Again, they do not want to hear it, and they do the same to these newcomers.

Certainly, they would turn from their ways and share the goodness of the land if the land owner sent this own son, his own flesh and blood, to speak to them and get them to turn from their ways?

Instead of seeing this as a gracious opportunity to have a last chance to make things right, their greed gets the better of them and they kill the son so that they might steal everything that is the son’s to inherit.

This has stepped beyond just not wanting to hear it. Now, they want to take over.

That was then.

That was the reaction of certain ancient people to God’s kingdom and the coming of Jesus. They ignored God and put Jesus to death.

Back then, they did not want to share what God had given.

Back then, they did not want to hear it when they were told that they were not tending God’s kingdom of love well.

Back then, they decided to turn to violence and bury the messenger so that they might continue to have all the power and do whatever they wanted to do with God’s gifts.

That was then. What about now?

How are we doing in tending and sharing the gifts of God in today's world?

How is the environment? Is it fit for a thousand more generations or is a quick buck the deciding factor i how we show our care?

How are we doing following Jesus' mandate to remember the poor? Do the poor share in the wealth of the land, or is it horded by those who have plenty?

How about love and forgiveness? Is it shared widely and showered upon even our enemies, or are we content to simply have forgiveness for ourselves?

How about support for God’s church? Does God’s ministry get the first fruits or does it get the leftovers…if anything at all?

How about violence? Do we hear criticism and change our ways, or do we respond by digging in our heels and killing the messenger through words or deeds whenever we are criticized and our old way of life is threatened?

In other words, are we willing to hear it? Are we willing to have a mirror placed in front of us so that we can stare at the ways we fall short of living out God’s kingdom of love and grace, or do we simply smash the mirror so that we do not have to change anything?

Did I catch you yet? Did one of my questions offend your sensibilities? Because I could go on and on if you like, and eventually I will strike gold. I am confident that, eventually, I will mention something that gets your heart racing and will compel you dig in your heals and fight back.

You know what we deserve? You know what ungrateful tenders of God’s kingdom deserve? They deserve to have their pride and their power smashed upon a huge stone. They deserve to have all the good gifts taken away. They deserve to have their temples torn down and their ways of life devastated. They deserve to have other, better tenders, take their place. That is what they deserve.

Maybe, that is what we deserve?

“It’s not like we don’t try,” we exclaim.

“No one can be perfect,” you we back.

The apostle Paul shouts with you in Romans 7:19:

“I want to do what is good, but I don't. I don't want to do what is wrong, but I do it anyway.”

As Paul admits, we may try and try to do it right. We may try to look in the mirror and change our ways, but somehow we always end up smashing it.

Who will save us?

Who will free us from this constant destruction?

Who will end the grief that is caused from our sin?


This parable of the bad tenants is not the end of the story. The end of the story of faith is not the complete destruction of the bad tenants, though they deserve it. The end of the story is God.

God is the beginning of the story, and the end of the story; the Alpha and the Omega.

Therefore, end of the story continues much like it did throughout the story.

In the story, the land owner was gracious in giving the land in the first place. The land owner continued this generosity by giving lots and lots and lots of warnings and second chances. The land owner even gave his only son. The end of the story is the cross where all of our mismanagement of God’s kingdom is put to death and forgiven. The end of the story is the resurrection and new life.

The end of the story is the possibility of yet a new story.

We do not save ourselves because we have somehow figured out how to make the world right. We have been at this project called the world for a long time, and we still have not gotten it figured out. Far from it.

We are not saved by our works and efforts.

Instead, we are saved from the destruction we create by the grace of God found in Jesus Christ. "For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God— not the result of works, so that no one may boast," from Ephesians 2:8-9.

We are saved because God loves us and wanted to save us, period.

This is a fundamental point of the gift of God that Lutherans are determined to share. We know that we cannot save ourselves. We know to our core that we are saved by God only because God wanted to save us. We did not earn a bit of this grace. We are saved by the forgiveness of the cross and the new life of the resurrection of Jesus Christ. This is all a gift. We do not deserve a bit of it.

That being said, it is precisely because we are convinced that we are loved and saved by God that we are free to simply be God's people. We do not feel like we have to earn a place in God's family. We know we are a part of God's family and we desire to live as one of God's family.

We are free to see hope where others see despair.

We are free to ask “what if?”

What if the land workers had realized just how generous the land owner was?

What if they had felt secure enough in that love…what if they had felt secure enough in God’s provision…that they would have felt free to share all that they had been given?

What if they felt so loved that loving others was not ever an afterthought?

What if forgiveness becomes our second nature because forgiveness is second nature to the one who created us?

What if the world truly knew that it was saved by God’s grace…by God’s love?

What if we reminded ourselves of that fact every morning while we wash our faces; reminding ourselves of our baptisms and reminding ourselves of the blessings that God has provided.

What if we realized that we are the people of God?

Because, you are.

Your are God’s people, who have been loved and saved. You are the tenders of the gifts of God. You are the tenders of God's kingdom.