Trapped

Sermon – Sunday, October 19, 2014
Lower Bermudian Lutheran Church – East Berlin, PA
Matthew 22:15-22

I started pounding on the door and then yelling for help. I couldn’t get out. I was on the third floor of the office building and there was no escape. At first I tried to stay calm as I tried to unlock the door, but it was stuck. The door wouldn’t budge. It was Friday, and everyone had gone home for the weekend and soon my calm reserve turned to panic. I started yelling – louder and louder – wondering if I would be stuck in the bathroom all weekend. Suddenly, someone was still in the building. They heard me and opened the door. I was free! And I was ever so grateful!

For anyone who has ever been trapped – in an elevator, in a room, in terrible relationship or situation – you know exactly what I am talking about. Minutes seem like hours and panic eventually prevails. Eventually, you do whatever you have to in order to get out of the situation. Being trapped is not a place anyone wants to find themselves in and Jesus was no different.

Over the last few weeks we’ve heard in Mathew’s gospel how the Pharisees are becoming increasingly more agitated with Jesus. His parables are hitting a nerve with them. When Jesus told the parable of the wicked tenants Matthew says the Pharisees “wanted to arrest Him, but they feared the crowds, because they regarded Him as a prophet.” Jesus was becoming a trouble maker in the eyes of the Pharisees and the other religious leaders. They felt he had to be stopped. And so in today’s text we hear that the Pharisees and the Herodians plotted to entrap him.

This is an interesting alliance that is important not to overlook. In Jesus’ time, the Pharisees and Herodians were not friends. They had strong differences of opinions, particularly about taxes. The Herodians supported the rule of Herod, who was given authority by the Roman rulers and cooperated with them. The Pharisees on the other hand were the legalistic Jewish leaders who believed in obeying their own interpretation of the law. The Pharisees didn’t support the paying of taxes to the emperor. The annual payment of this tax to Rome was a painful reminder of being in lands occupied by foreign powers who worshiped false gods. The tax could only be paid with Roman coins which were not just legal tender but also pieces of propaganda. The coinage with the emperor Tiberius Caesar’s image on it along with the title of divinity – son of a god, was considered idolatry by the Pharisees. Yet as Jesus so honestly pointed out, the Pharisees themselves paid into the system that they so adamantly criticized. Despite these differences, these two groups had one common enemy, and his name was Jesus.

The Pharisees and Herodians felt that if they trapped Jesus they would be able to arrest him and stop him from causing any more trouble. Jesus was preaching a new way to live and worship and this was a threat to both the Jewish religious leaders and the Roman government. If Jesus responded that they should pay the taxes, then He could be accused of promoting allegiance to the Roman Emperor who proclaimed himself as a god vs. the true God whom the Jews and early Christians worshipped. If Jesus responded not to pay the taxes, then the Roman authorities could arrest him for being a subversive and encouraging people to fight against the government. Either way, Jesus was trapped.

Jesus however did not respond to this entrapment with panic. Jesus did not respond in anger. Jesus responded with a wisdom that flowed from the Father and the Holy Spirit. “Show me the coin used for the tax,” Jesus said. While the Pharisees and other Jewish religious leaders proclaimed to worship only one God, they in fact were using these Roman coins and proclaiming with their actions differently. They were, as Jesus pointed out, hypocrites. And no one wants to be exposed as a hypocrite. Their plan was to trap Jesus, yet Jesus revealed that they were the ones who were really trapped, yet they didn’t even realize it. Do we?

We today are trapped as well; trapped in a multitude of ways. Some are trapped in poverty and as hard as they try they can never seem to get ahead – lack of health insurance and rising costs are leaving people either bankrupt or homeless. Some are trapped in isolation. In a culture that is more connected online than ever before via social media, people are feeling more and more isolated from one another. Others are trapped in fear. The recent outbreaks of diseases like ebola and the violence in our own country and around the globe instill fear in thousands of people. And there are many fears we cannot see or even name. Silent fears we keep to ourselves. We often feel trapped with no way to escape.

The very systems of justice in our society set up to help us often add to our problems; they trap us. Our society seeks vengeance instead of reconciliation, war instead of peace, hatred instead of love, and ultra-independence instead of community. Different forms of media bombard us with a gospel of greed, materialism, and consumerism. The more we obtain, the happier we will be – at least that’s what we are told. While it’s true that extreme poverty is a crime against humanity and is something that must be overcome, an overabundance of wealth will not make us happier or more secure either. We are trapped by the systems of our own societies and we are a part of those systems.

Money itself can entrap us. Money is a gift from God, yet we, like those in today’s story have made money itself our very god. Instead of using money to help bring about God’s kingdom on earth – to feed the hungry, to free the poor – money has become a symbol of what we worship – a false god. There is a danger in wanting to hoard it instead of using it for the work of Christ’s mission on earth.

We too are guilty of idolatry, and like the Pharisees in Jesus’ time either we don’t realize it, or we no longer care anymore. We have become trapped by the false idols we lift up. We, as a society are obsessed with sports, and celebrities, and status and they can become idols. Even our church buildings can become idols if we are not careful. These trappings slowly cause us to forget who we are and to Whom we owe our allegiance. Yes, as our own confessions claim, we are in bondage to sin – trapped – and we cannot free ourselves.

But there is a way out. There is a way to freedom and it is through our Savior, Jesus Christ. Through our baptism, we Christians, have been made children of God. We have been sealed by the Holy Spirit and marked with the cross of Christ forever. It is not the images on our American coins, or our bank accounts, or our clothing labels, or our status that defines us. It is our identity as children of God that defines us. And we have the promise that God will be will us forever. “Nothing can separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus.” And if we are not yet baptized or know others who are not, the Holy Spirit invites all to accept this gift of grace and forgiveness. It is this inclusion into the family of God that will bring us lasting peace, not the peace promised by fleeting things.

In Jesus’ time, the Roman government promised peace – the Pax Romana. They promised peace if people would pay their taxes to Caesar. They would be allowed to practice their own religion as long as they did not cause any trouble. As long as they did not upset the status quo. But Jesus challenged the status quo then and He challenges us as disciples to challenge it today. We must stand up against these false idols, these false gods that try to entrap us. They lure us into a false sense of security and peace, but the only true peace is found in the one true God. The God who cares so much for all of creation that the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us. Jesus died so that we might be free. He died so that we would not be held captive to sin and death. And He is risen!

When Jesus said to give to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s and to God the things that are God’s, He is asking us to think deeply about what things are God’s. What things belong to God? The answer is everything. Everything and everyone belongs to God, the Creator of all things. Understood in this light we no longer are trapped by trying to own things. We cannot own what is not ours. All things and all people are God’s.

And the good news is that if all things belong to God, then God will work all things together for good. Even Cyrus, the king of Persia, in our first reading from Isaiah was used as an instrument of God to set the Israelites captive in Babylon free. He may not have known that God was using him, but God uses even the most unsuspecting people to bring about good. Evil will not ultimately triumph because God has already won the victory.

We may at times feel trapped, but there is a way out. Christ is the Key and He has set us free and through the power of the Holy Spirit we have nothing to fear. We may not see where the future leads us, but we know Who is guiding our future.

Let us pray, “O God, you have called your servants to ventures of which we cannot see the ending, by paths as yet untrodden, through perils unknown. Give us faith to go out with good courage, not knowing where we go, but only that your hand is leading us and your love supporting us; through Jesus Christ our Lord.” Amen.

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Too Far

Sermon – Sunday, October 5, 2014
St. Luke’s Lutheran Church – Felton, PA
Matthew 21:33-46 & Philippians 3:4b-14

“You’ve gone too far! This time you’ve just gone too far!” Have you heard these words before? Was it as a child when your behavior got out of control? Maybe you didn’t listen when your parents told you to stop and something happened. Perhaps you fought with a brother, sister, or friend and a lamp broke, someone got hurt, there was blood, then crying, then…..your parents showed up and you heard the words, “You’ve gone too far!”

Or maybe it was an idea you had that got out of hand like the owner of the vineyard in today’s difficult story. He built a lavish vineyard filled with prize vines that would grow the best grapes in the valley, installed a state of the art wine press that would make the work easier, dug a strong fence to keep out intruders of all kinds, and a watchtower to make sure everyone on the property was safe. The landowner spent a lot of time and money to prepare this, and more importantly, a lot of love. He wanted it to be a place where everyone enjoyed coming to work. It wasn’t just another vineyard. It was the vineyard. It was the place to be.

So why did he go away? Where did he go? That’s the question on my mind as I read this challenging text, a text that I wouldn’t have chosen to preach on, but maybe one that needs to be heard. After all that hard work, the landowner leased it out to other tenants to run it for him. Granted, I’m sure he chose tenants carefully, but how could he leave such a place in the hands of someone else? He must have trusted them a lot. How could he have ever known that these tenants whom he trusted would go too far in their thirst for more. All he wanted was what was rightfully his. How could he know that they would turn on him like this? He must have thought they were out of their minds. Surely it was an accident that they killed the servants. They wouldn’t be so cruel. They wouldn’t do this to their owner’s servants, he must have thought to himself. And so he sent more servants, but when they treated them the same way he knew it was no accident. Something terrible had seized them. And so the landowner decided to send his son because they would respect him and he would get to the bottom of what was going on.

But what was the landowner thinking? If someone kills the people who are working for you why on earth would you send your own child? It’s easy to see that the tenants had gone too far. Their greed for what was not theirs had spiraled out of control. They wanted more than their fair share. They wanted it all, not just their portion. They wanted the whole vineyard. They had gone crazy with greed. They were obsessed, trying to satisfy their craving for more and more wealth. And like an addict, they couldn’t stop anymore. Greed had taken control of them. There’s no rationalizing with someone in that state. Yet this is why it is unfathomable that the owner would send his son! You can hope all you want, but then there is reality. The owner thought the tenants would come to their senses and realize what they did was wrong. They’d realize that they had gone too far. That’s a wonderful hope, but sometimes hope is not enough. And I can’t help but feel that the owner himself had gone too far. Maybe he shouldn’t have left the vineyard in the first place and then none of this would have happened.

Oh how many times have we said that very thing to each other when we are dealing with a painful situation. We blame each other when things go terribly wrong. “If you were here this never would have happened.” Or “If you didn’t do this or didn’t go there, then the person I love would still be alive, we wouldn’t be facing this problem, we wouldn’t be suffering.” It can get down-right ugly when we go there – down the road of blame.

And God is not exempt from this. We hear it in the Psalms, the deeply honest and heart felt laments to God. The pain they express is tangible, as in today’s psalm (80). “Why have you broken down its walls so all who pass along the way pluck its fruit?” It’s as if God is reveling in their suffering. The psalmist wants to know why God caused the catastrophe to happen. And other psalms like psalm 10 ask “Why O Lord do you stand far off? And even Jesus echoed the anguish of the psalmist from psalm 22, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Sometimes it seems that God has abandoned us and we cry out, “You’ve gone too far! This time God, You’ve just gone too far!”

The cries of the psalmists are our cries today. I’ve uttered these words myself many times to God. “Why did you take away the person I love? Why did you let someone I love suffer? Why didn’t you do something about this situation? Where are you God?” Sometimes it seems like God has abandoned us like the owner of the vineyard. And we cry out to God that if God were here none of it would have happened. It’s a dark place to be in. And I know that we’ve all been there at one time or another. In fact, sometimes it seems that the bad news keeps raining down on us like acid rain and it burns and it doesn’t let up.

And to add to our personal pain we are surrounded by news reports of evil gone too far out of control in our communities and around the globe. Reports of murder, rape, homelessness, and poverty are increasing. There is fear and even panic as we look for someone to blame…the government, terrorists, foreigners…and soon even innocent people become suspects and enemies. It seems at times that God has abandoned this beautiful vineyard, this world created out of love, and we are left to fend for ourselves. Evil has gone too far, just like the evil acts by the tenants in today’s story.

But the problems we face and the evil that continues to escalate are no more God’s fault than it was the owner of the vineyard. It’s sin. Sin is at the heart of these problems. And thought the Creator of the universe planted seeds of love, sin has corrupted it all and sown seeds of greed and hatred and violence. Sin has gone too far and so God sent Jesus so that sin would not destroy us. Jesus was thrust into the heart of violence in order to put an end to it. Yet like the son in the vineyard, sin killed Jesus and it seems as though sin and death have won. Ask anyone going through trial after trial. Where is the hope?

Hope is found in the midst of the darkness, in the midst of the anguish, when faith breaks through. We hear this faith through the words of Paul speaking clearly through the dark walls of his prison cell in Ephesus. Paul doesn’t feel God is too far, but right there with him. Once a persecutor of the faith, now Paul writes to the Philippians how he has been transformed by the saving power of the resurrected Christ. Because of Christ, Paul has abandoned his own righteousness, and clings to the righteousness of Christ. Because of Christ, Paul has abandoned his own desires toward greed, wealth, and power and given himself up for the call of Christ Jesus. Christ has made Paul His own and so Paul writes to the congregation in Philippi not to lose heart because he is away, but to be good stewards and bold proclaimers of the gospel. Paul urges the early congregation to do the work of the kingdom as the owner of the vineyard wanted the tenants to do. The tenants did not want to listen to the voices of truth from the servants, but Paul urges the early Christians in Philip to listen to his voice, a servant of Christ. He urges them to press on toward the goal of knowing Christ and the power of His resurrection and making Christ known to others.

It is both a privilege and responsibility to be stewards of what God has entrusted to us. We are to care for what God has entrusted to us for everything belongs to God. Nothing is ours, not even our own lives, for we belong to God. And we who follow Christ have been entrusted to be bold proclaimers of the gospel and examples of what it means to be like Christ. God is not an absentee landlord. God is not a distant parent. God, through the revelation of Jesus Christ, is here in our midst – Emmanuel – God with us. In the sacraments of water and word, bread and wine, we feel that most tangibly.

Yes, you could say God has gone too far. God has gone too far in loving us. The Pharisees responded that when the landowner returned he would punish the tenants severely. They said he would “put those wretches to a miserable death.” But that is the response from the depths of human sin and understanding. Human sin deals with retaliation and violence, but God deals with sin through extreme love and forgiveness. God went too far – too far from the glories of heaven to descend to earth to become human and to save us from ourselves. Why? All so we would inherit the kingdom. The tenants killed the servants thinking they had to in order to inherit the vineyard, but it was already going to be shared with them by the owner. They could not see what was right before their eyes. They were deluded by their addictions to greed and power and control. They wanted to hold on to what they wanted with all their might and take it by force if necessary. But when you hold on too tight you lose it all, sometimes even your own soul.

Paul urges the early Christians and us today to cling to Christ and the power of His resurrection. Through our baptism, we like Paul have been buried with Christ and have the promise that we will also share in Christ’s resurrection. And because of this promise we “forget what lies behind and strain forward with outstretched arms to what lies ahead.” We do not have to be paralyzed by the past or by fear. We do not forget what has happened but press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus. We do not already have this prize, but we are constantly focused on it.

When we feel like the journey is too hard and we have gone too far, we are reminded through faith that we have a God whose love has gone even further. For God too presses on toward the goal of drawing all people back to God through the power of the cross, the goal of raining down grace upon grace to those who don’t even deserve it because that is the God we experience in Christ. A God who goes too far – too far to show us how much we are loved and cherished. The outstretched arms of Christ cannot reach too far for a love that deep has no limits. It has no boundaries. It has no end. None of us are too far gone that God’s love cannot penetrate into our hearts and transform us through the power of the resurrection.

God has not abandoned us, but is with us and ready to transform us through the Word, the Sacraments, and the love we show toward one another. God’s gifts of grace and forgiveness are ready to restore us and give us the strength to press on toward the goal of experiencing Christ and the power of His resurrection. God has gone so far for us – too far to comprehend. And so in gratitude we keep our eyes on that prize and run with outstretched arms of love toward all sharing the gospel of love and mercy and grace, working toward justice for all, and daring like Christ to go too far. Amen!