An Un-American Tale

Inspired by Matthew 20:1-16

Raise your hand if you believe that we are called to love others in our world. Raise your hand if you believe that love sometimes requires sacrifice. OK. I just wanted to make sure we were on the same page before we continue. As Americans we pride ourselves on our independence, on our ingenuity, on our industrious nature, on our innovative spirit, and on our zeal to live life to the fullest.

These are some of the characteristics of what it means to be an American, either according to ourselves or those looking in to our American world. And whether those are accurate characteristics is another question altogether but we pride ourselves on these nonetheless. And when life’s got you down, an oft heard word of advice is, “You gotta pull yourselves up by your bootstraps.” Nothing more American than that right?

It’s an odd phrase. Not just because, for many of us, boots and especially boot straps, are not part of our everyday life, but because the phrase gives Americans this otherworldly, mystical, almost superhuman nature. Let me explain. Imagine a cowboy boot. The loops on each side of the top of the boot are the bootstraps. Now imagine them on your feet. Now imagine yourself pulling yourself, your body, your whole body, up by those bootstraps. Impossible!

Maybe not for Superman, but for us, it would defy the laws of physics. Funny thing is, that phrase hasn’t always been a compliment. It started out as an insult. It’s a very old phrase. The first appearance of it in print occurred in 1834. At that time it was used to describe people who were foolish enough to believe that they could do the impossible.

It wasn’t until almost a hundred years later, in 1922, that the phrase begins to be used to describe an admirable quality, rather than a dig. And where do we find it? In a good ol’ American newspaper headline, in Kansas to be more exact. Doesn’t get more American than Kansas right? And so, from then on, pulling yourself up by your bootstraps, took on a new meaning, and became a quality that was admired—even though, it remains just as physically impossible today, as it did in the early 19th century. So why this little history lesson? Other than the fact that you have a pastor who is fascinated by history and especially linguistics, there is a deeper reason why this phrase is on my mind. But first, let’s take a look at our Gospel story.

Here we have another parable, the second of five straight weeks of parables from the Gospel of Matthew. If this parable were written today, the setting would probably be in front of a Home Depot—where the day laborers gather hoping, praying for work. One thing that is important to note from this story is why the landowner is finding so many standing around doing nothing. It’s not because they’re lazy. It’s because no one will hire them. Why? The story doesn’t say. Now there have been some ideas thrown out there over the centuries. One of them is that they were Gentiles, and that’s why they weren’t being hired, and that Jesus was teaching a lesson of inclusion. I’m not sure how much water that one holds.

But I’m not sure it really matters why they weren’t being hired, point is they weren’t, and they wanted to work. And I’m actually glad that Matthew doesn’t explain why because it gives us a chance to take a look at our own society, seemingly far removed from Biblical times, and see who wants to contribute to society, who wants to contribute to their family, what simply wants to work, but isn’t, and why. But for now, let’s get back to our story. The landowner has a master plan in the works. And I don’t think we should be so quick to assume that the landowner is God. And if you’d like to find out why please join us for our Wednesday evening Bible study. But the plan has already been set in motion.

He hired his first group of workers, outside the Home Depot, first thing in the morning, and agreed on a full day’s wage. And then goes on to hire people at various times of the day, agreeing with all of them to pay whatever is right. Notice that not only does the landowner not specify how much they are going to get paid, but the workers don’t even ask. They are just happy to have some work. Even if it’s not going to be a full day’s wage, at least it’ll be something. Even for those workers that got hired at five o’clock! They’re probably thinking, well, maybe I can at least make enough to buy a loaf of bread for my family tonight.

Being a day laborer in Jesus’ day was much like it is today. It’s a precarious position to be in. Scholars say that you’d probably be better off as a slave in that day, than a day laborer. At least as a slave you’d eat every day, and have a roof over your head, and be protected as someone else’s property. None of those things were a guarantee for the workers in this story, nor today.

So evening comes, it’s time to pay his workers, and that’s when the landowner drops a bomb on them. The landowner pays everyone the same amount, a full day’s wage. No matter what time of day they started working, they all got the same amount. And the group that got hired first thing that morning was livid! Why? Because that’s not fair! Like an adult baby throwing a temper tantrum they cry “That’s not fair!” They grumble and they complain about the heat. Whah, whah, whah! Maybe I’m being too hard on them. In their defense, they’re right! It’s not fair. But how many times has a parent told a child, “Who said anything about being fair? Where is that written? Life isn’t fair.”

As baptized children of God, we are not called to be treated fairly. We are called to love, and that love, many times, requires sacrifice, as we all agreed at the beginning of this sermon. And that sacrifice, is often our own ego. Let me give you a modern day example. Raising the minimum wage to a more livable wage, I would say living wage but let’s not get crazy here right, is a hot topic these days. Now, I’m not inviting debate about this but what strikes me are some of the arguments against such a minimum wage increase, this one in particular. I have heard countless times people say, “Well, if they get an increase does everybody get an increase? What if their increase makes them almost equal with me!” And I think to myself, really?

If the minimum wage was increased, some people would be able to work less, and by work less I mean they’d maybe be able to go from working 80 hours a week to 60. And they might be able to do things like have time to help their kids with their homework or go to one of their performances or take them to soccer practice, things that many of us take for granted. And people wanna be big adult babies and throw a temper tantrums crying “That’s not fair!” Really? Look, people are poor for a wide variety of reasons, being lazy is rarely one of them, and I don’t want to even get into the racism and sexism and other isms that are at the root of poverty today but I really think they should think twice before playing the fairness card!

We are not called to be treated fairly. We are called to love, and love requires sacrifice. Scripture teaches us to take care of the poor. How is that fair to have to share what we earned with a bunch of strangers? Scripture teaches us to take care of widows and orphans. How is that fair to have to take care of them, it’s not our fault that their husband or parent died? Scripture teaches us to treat immigrants as if they were one of our own. We didn’t tell them to come here how are they our responsibility! How are any of those scenarios fair? They’re not! We are not called to a life of fairness, we are called to a life of service, because we are called to love, and love requires sacrifice. If it ain’t cost’n you noth’n, then you ain’t do’n it right.

We will never know why the landowner was generous to those groups of workers that couldn’t get hired. For some reason, his heart went out to them. What we do know is this, they needed some help, they needed a helping hand, and that got one in that generous landowner. But what they also could have used, was a community that was supportive of that helping hand. A community that wasn’t resentful of it. A community that valued life over fairness. A community that celebrated the good fortune of others over their own interests. Because together, we are stronger. Together we can make it through the tough times. Together, we can lift each other up. No boot straps needed. Thanks be to God. Amen.


What Forgiveness Is and Is Not

Inspired by Matthew 18:21-35

Today begins five Sundays in a row of parables from the gospel of Matthew. And in this first one, we get a lesson from Jesus about forgiveness. But I want us to go even further than Jesus did in this lesson. I think this lesson on forgiveness was Jesus way of getting us started. In other words, this isn’t going to be a sermon on why we should be a people known for our forgiveness. Nor is this going to be a sermon trying to convince you to forgive others.

I mean, after 2000 years of existence, the church should be past that right? If I have to get up here and convince you to be forgiving people, then we should probably stop and totally rethink why we are coming here week in and week out! But I don’t think I do. Think of it this way, Jesus teaching us to forgive was the baby food, the milk for an infant church. But at some point we grow up, and are ready to sink our teeth into something meatier, something deeper.

So, Jesus tells us to forgive, but doesn’t really tell us how. How do you get to that place when you can forgive? But before we can even begin to talk about how to forgive, we have to talk about what forgiveness is! Jesus doesn’t really tell us that either. And I think that trips us up. I think we often have a misguided sense of what forgiveness is, and that keeps us from being able to do it! So that’s what we are going to explore today. And let’s start with three things that forgiveness is not.

Number one, forgiveness is not a feeling. Like love it is an action. But unlike love, forgiveness is not both a feeling and an action, it is solely an action, something we do or not do. Now, there may be feelings associated with forgiveness. Running alongside the action of forgiveness but those feelings should not be confused with the actual act of forgiveness.

Two, forgiveness is not easy. Like I tell my kids all the time, good things usually are not! Jesus knew that! He didn’t tell us to forgive thinking that it was going to be something easy for us. Like he flipped some spiritual switch in us that somehow made forgiveness easy! We have this strange tendency as humans to assume that when things are hard or unpleasant then they it must be bad for us. That may be the case for some things but forgiveness is not one of them. It is always hard—and not just hard, but the painful, gut-wrenching, choke-on-your-ego kind of hard. Yuk! You know what I’m talking about. It may be one of the hardest things we are called to do as children of God. But, I think we may be making it harder than it needs to be, so let’s keep moving.

Three, forgiveness does not mean we allow ourselves to be abused. And I don’t mean just the physical kind of abuse, but also the emotional, spiritual kind as well. God does not call us to remain in abusive relationships. I cannot stress that enough. God does not call us to remain in abusive relationships, of any kind: whether it’s with a spouse, parent, sibling, friend, coworker, any kind. That is not what forgiveness looks like. Here’s the thing, you can forgive someone and know that you need to make a clean break from them, no matter the kind of relationship it is.

Ok, so if forgiveness is not a feeling, or easy, or allowing ourselves to be abused, then what is it? Here are three truths about forgiveness. The first is this, it is about redefining a relationship. It is not about getting rid of the hurt feelings or the anger, you can forgive someone and still be angry and hurt, but forgiveness is making the decision that this is no longer going to define our relationship. Whatever wrong was done, whatever needs forgiven, that is no longer going to be the lynchpin of our existence together. Because when there is a wrong that has not been forgiven between us, then many times that is all there is between us, it can be that all-consuming. So, it’s an acknowledgement that we could be so much more, which leads me to my second truth about forgiveness.

It opens up a future that was not there before. When you finally come to the conclusion that your lack of forgiveness is holding you back, is keeping you from being all that you were created to be, you long to be set free from those shackles. And sometimes that means that the relationship can now become what it was meant to be, but in the case of two people needing distance, a separation if you will, then it may mean that each individual can now be who they were created to be. The point is, forgiveness opens up a future that would otherwise not be there, without the act of forgiveness.

And my last truth about forgiveness is that it takes practice. It’s not something that you try one time and so now you know how to do it. No, it takes practice, it takes repetition, over and over and over. The most depressing thing about that is that we have lots of opportunities to forgive people every day! Think about it, is there a day that goes by when you don’t have to say to yourself, I’m just gonna let that slide, I am not going to allow that stupid thing that he just said to me ruin my day or our relationship. And to be fair, most times it’s little things. It’s not like we suffer a major betrayal every day. But if we can make good on forgiving others on those little everyday things, when the big ones hit, at least you’ve been practicing!

Here’s what I want to leave you with, especially because this forgiving business is a daunting topic to cover. This is more a truth about our God, than forgiveness. We cannot forgive the way God does. We just are not capable of that kind of forgiveness. And God does not expect that of us. That’s why God is God! After all the practice that this world gives us, we are never going to get it perfect. And that’s ok. It’s ok, because we have a God who has perfected it. We worship a God who has said that our wrongs will not define our relationship with God. We worship a God who has opened up a future for us like no one can. We worship a God whom we give countless opportunities to practice forgiveness on us. And God never fails to deliver that forgiveness. Thanks be to God. Amen.


You're Here Too?

Inspired by Matthew 18:15-20

Maybe it’s just me but, it seems like it is becoming more and more common for people to correct other people, about anything: saying the wrong thing, supporting the wrong cause, having the wrong belief, eating the wrong food, shopping at the wrong place, whatever people want to correct you on, it just seems like it’s a free for all these days! And then sometimes I think, maybe it’s always been that way and I just didn’t notice. Maybe it’s because I’m getting older and have less patience these days. Maybe it’s the internet’s fault! Oh lord, two days after my birthday and I’m complaining about the internet! Is this how it begins—the road to crabby old man?

Seriously though, I really do think the internet has played a part in this. And I’m not alone, many scholars much smarter than I have written about this. The internet has brought with it a false sense of anonymity. And with that false sense of anonymity, comes a growing ease in correcting other people online, typically on social media. One of my biggest pet peeves is when people feel it necessary to correct my spelling or grammar. I had one person tell me, I can’t help it I used to be a teacher. I said, OK, and I dropped out of her class, which means I hit that unfriend button. I know, that sounds harsh, but to be fair I do give people a warning, sometimes two depending on how benevolent I’m feeling that day.

But it really does seem like this growing ease with correcting people is bleeding over into the physical world as well. At the conference that I went to last month in Atlanta, it was a conference just for pastors and deacons, I know, I must be glutton for punishment, but I’m sitting in one of the sessions and this pastor sitting next to me is correcting the speaker or adding information that he felt should have been said by the speaker. And he’s doing this out loud! On what planet is that acceptable behavior? He wasn’t speaking to anyone in particular, just to anyone who was stupid enough to listen to him instead of the speaker, ie me.

Ok. Rant over. My point is, we live in a world where at any given time you could be corrected about any number of things—and Jesus seems to know that in this great passage from Matthew this morning. It’s one of those passages that makes you think, this should be required reading for all Christians. I mean, the Bible is pretty big right? We can’t expect people to remember the whole thing! So if there was a list of passages that summed up some of the most essential teachings of the Bible, this passage should most certainly be on that list! Trouble is, I think we use this passage incorrectly many times. See! Here I go about to correct us on our use of this passage! You can’t even escape being corrected at church! Someone should talk to your pastor about that!

Here’s the thing, this passage seems to provide a very clear formula for conflict resolution. Someone does you wrong, go directly to them. If that doesn’t work, bring a friend along. If that doesn’t work, involve your church family. If that doesn’t work, well, to hell with them. Literally! Jesus says to treat them as they would a Gentile or tax collector, people that they traditionally saw as unfit for the kingdom. Now, like I said, all of that seems to fit into this nice neat little formula for conflict resolution. Cut and dry, no questions asked. But, I don’t think it’s that simple. Do I wish this formula were used more by us. Yes, of course, but as long as we use it in the context of the entire passage. Because, though this is great for conflict resolution, I don’t think that was the point Jesus was trying to make.

Jesus merely uses this formula to get to the whole point of this lesson which comes in that last verse, “where two or three are gathered in my name, I’m there with them.” As the reader, we’re supposed to be like, “Oh…wait…what? You’re going to be there too Jesus? That was not part of the formula you just gave us! You said that if someone does you wrong, go directly to them. If that doesn’t work, bring a friend along. If that doesn’t work, involve our church family.

If that doesn’t work, then, to hell with them. You didn’t say anything about you showing up! We were fine with the formula as is! You know what Jesus, you’re a busy person. You have billions of people to tend to, what with the whole God on earth, Emmanuel thing. No need to change the formula on our account. We’ll take it from here. You just go do, whatever it is that you do. We got this.”

I imagine Jesus just shaking his head and sighing. Because the whole point of this formula, the whole point of conflict resolution, the whole point of living together as a community of the body of Christ is for Jesus to be with us—whether we want Jesus there or not, as he reminds us in this passage. He didn’t say, when two or three invite me. No, when two or three are gathered in my name, I’m there with them. Trouble is, we don’t always want him there.

Think of it this way. Remember when you were a kid, and you got into a fight with a sibling or a cousin, or a friend? All one of you had to do was say, I’m gonna go get my mom. Now the one who said that was usually the more injured party right? And what would the other say? “No, no, no, wait, just wait a sec. Let’s not be hasty. We can settle this without getting the boss involved.”

Because when the boss is involved, all of sudden the accountability factor goes through the roof right! When the boss is involved you gotta mind your p’s and q’s. When the boss is involved you do things by the book, no pun intended. When the boss is involved you settle things a little more fairly, you are reminded of all the other lessons that the boss has taught you, and when Jesus is the boss, you remember lessons about love, compassion, love, justice, love, sacrifice. Did I mention love? And remember, Jesus doesn’t need an invitation. Jesus just shows up! And it might do us a world of good to acknowledge his presence more than we do.

Image by David Hayward, nakedpastor.com
In a quarrel with your spouse? It could do you a world of good to remember that Jesus is in the room before you open your mouth! Is a family member about to pluck your last nerve? Might do you a world of good to acknowledge that Jesus is in the house! Has a fellow church member offended you for the last time? Might do you some good to remember that Jesus is there! Let’s think bigger! Are you at a church budget meeting? Might do some good to acknowledge that Jesus is at that meeting. Making a tough decision on council? Might do some good to pause and say prayer.

Can we think bigger? When trying to decide how we can make sure all means all when we say we welcome all? Might be a good idea to acknowledge that Jesus is in that conversation. When trying to decide how we can best serve those whom Jesus urged us to serve: immigrants, poor families, homeless veterans, children and youth, the aging, the LGBTQ community. Might be a good idea to acknowledge Jesus’ presence in those decisions. Can we think even bigger than that? Whether we can  or cannot, Jesus’ promise to be present remains. Whether we want him there or not. Thanks be to God. Amen.

A Kingdom of Death

Inspired by Matthew 16:21-28

Today marks the one year anniversary of the death of our beloved dog Katie. And a week ago we got our new puppy, Pearl, named after a character from one of our favorite TV shows, Spongebob Squarepants. She’s a 15 week old Great Pyrenees. Yeah, she’s gonna be a biggin. So, we took her to her first vet appointment on Monday, and I knew it was gonna be a rough time for us because the last time we were at this particular vet we were saying goodbye to Katie.

And as we were sitting in the waiting room I was thinking to myself, don’t take us to the same room, don’t take us to the same room. And what did they do? Took us to the same room. I wondered for a moment whether or not I should ask them for another room but then I thought, what if I’m the only one that remembers which room we were in! I don’t want to remind them if they don’t remember. Silly me. Of course they remembered, as I learned afterward.

So we walk into the room and sit down to wait for the doctor, and it dawns on me, that we are all sitting in the same spot as a year ago when we said goodbye to our Katie, Sara and I in the same chairs, Grace and Jesha in the same spot on the floor. And in my mind’s eye I can see us all sitting there a year ago. And superimposed over that image is this new image of us all in the same place except, instead of Katie taking her last breaths with us, it’s this youthful, energetic, joyful puppy.

Now of course we’d love to have never lost our Katie. We never want to lose our loved ones. If we could have had her forever we would have, no question. But, as I sat there with my mind playing with those two images, I couldn’t help but acknowledge that we wouldn’t be experiencing all this puppy awesomeness, without Katie dying.

Whew! Ok, I got through that first part of my sermon. Moving on to our gospel story for today. Thanks to this story, my wife and I implicitly call each other Satan on a regular basis. Whenever we tempt each other with something like desserts or snacks that we shouldn’t be eating we will just say, “Get behind me.” We don’t even have to say Satan, we know what we mean by that.

In our story, Jesus scolds Peter, calls him a stone that’ll make Jesus stumble, notice the irony there, last week he called him a rock, part of the foundation of the church, and now he’s a stumbling stone. But why he calls him that is what really caught my eye, because Peter was not thinking like God, but thinking like a human! And I thought, well of course he is, because he’s not God, he is a human! Cut him some slack! But maybe that was just my way of saying, “Cut me some slack.”

But he doesn’t. Because Jesus knows that wrong thoughts, are not just thoughts in and of themselves, but thoughts lead to actions. But I’m getting ahead of myself, what was this wrong way of thinking that Jesus is referring to? Life without death. Opportunity without change. Gain without loss. Freedom without sacrifice. Resurrection without the cross. This was the kind of thinking that really rubbed Jesus the wrong way.

Of course, he had good reason to be salty about it, according to Matthew he knew how his ministry would end, in death, one of the brutalist kinds. Last week I talked about how following Jesus meant more than just a different way of thinking and believing, but it meant a different way of living. And then we get this story about what following Jesus looks like, and it looks like death.

The kingdom that Jesus keeps referring to is not just a kingdom of new life full of joys and opportunities and puppies! It’s first and foremost, a kingdom of death. Oh pastor that sounds so depressing! People aren’t gonna join our church if you’re gonna keep talking like that. People wanna come here to be uplifted and feel good about themselves! Well, that’s fine, as long as you’re ok with the fact that meanwhile, people are hurting, dying even, because we don’t want to face death, we just want to skip to the end with the daisies and puppies. And the death Jesus is talking about is not the physical kind, but the metaphorical kind. Let me give you some large scale examples.

In the years leading up to World War I and culminating during World War II, the Lutheran churches here in the states were faced with a bit of a dilemma. Up until that point in history, they carried their German heritage with great pride, to the point that many churches were still worshiping in the German language. But during the time of both world wars, being pro-German wasn’t something you really wanted to be known for. So they had to ask themselves, is this something that we need to distance themselves from? Is this something that needs to change in us? Is this something that needs to die in us in order for new life to emerge?

And they answered that with a resounding yes. If they hadn’t already done so they switched to worshipping solely in English and that is when you began to see American flags in sanctuaries. Now, there isn’t anything inherently wrong with our German heritage, or the German language, but they had to determine if their tie to it was worth the cost. Was this keeping them from spreading the good news that they were called to? Their answer was yes, and it ended up opening up opportunities that they could not have imagined.

Likewise, fast forward to 1970 when the Lutheran church in America was faced with the decision to ordain its first woman. It was not a popular move by any stretch of the imagination. It solidified the divisions already in place within the church as well as creating new ones. But again, the church had to question whether or not this was something that had to change within us, our views regarding women. Was this something that we were being called to allow to die within us, so that new life could emerge from it? Their answer was yes, and it ended up opening up opportunities that they could not have imagined. Some of the most life giving pastors in my family’s life have been women, without whom I may not be here today as your pastor.

Fast forward to 2009, when the ELCA had another decision before her, whether or not to fully include homosexuals into our ministry. It was not a popular decision by any stretch of the imagination. On one side there were people saying finally! And others could not even believe we were debating such a heresy! But the question before them was this same old question that Jesus had told them about 2000 years ago. Is this a moment when we are called to take up our cross? Is this something that needs to change in us, meaning our views against homosexuals? Is this something that needs to die in us, so that new life can emerge? And the church said yes, opening up opportunities that we could have never imagined.

Being called to the kingdom of God means being called to a kingdom of death. In our baptisms we are called to die with Christ in the waters of our baptism, so that we can be raised with Christ. And not just after we die, but here and now. Why? For the sake of the world. This same ancient question is still being asked of us. What needs to change in us, be transformed in us, die in us, in order for new life to emerge in our world? Another way to ask that is this, what are we being called to sacrifice in order for us to bring life into a world filled with so much death? If we are not willing to ask ourselves these tough questions of faith then we have to be prepared to say that Christ died for nothing. And I am not prepared to say that. Because Christ died to bring life into this world. And Christ brought us. Thanks be to God. Amen.