This Is Reformation!

Sunday, October 29, 2017 – Reformation
Christ Lutheran Church – Manchester, PA
John 8:31-36

This is Reformation Sunday! Today we celebrate the 500th anniversary of the reformation – as the ELCA tagline proclaims, 500 years of God’s grace in action. 500 years that we celebrate that we are freed and renewed in Christ. 500 years ago the actions of an Augustinian monk in Germany would forever change the course of history. Martin Luther was growing increasingly angry over specific things that the Catholic Church – of which he was a member – was doing. Among them was the sale of indulges – papers and prayers that stated if you paid a certain amount of money your sins would be forgiven. Further, they claimed that when you die you go to a place called purgatory where you would not be allowed to enter heaven until indulgences were paid and your soul could then leave. This and other false teachings or practices of the church – like saying the mass in Latin, which hardly anyone could understand – are what compelled Luther to write the famous 95 Thesis. These were 95 complaints against the church, which he posted to the church door in Wittenberg, Germany on October 31, 1517.

Luther didn’t do this to start a new denomination, but as points of discussion to reform the church and make it better. Luther was acting on the truth that he discovered through the reading of Scripture – in particular, the letter from St. Paul to the Romans that we just heard, “A person is justified by faith apart from works prescribed by the law.” This was revolutionary to Luther. It opened his eyes. It opened his heart, and freed him from being a slave to the guilt of his own sinfulness, which he struggled with his whole life. He tried so hard to do the right things, but suffered because he couldn’t be perfect. If we’re honest, haven’t we all felt like this way at one time or another? This letter from St. Paul to the Romans showed Luther that it was not Luther’s good actions that would save him, but it was the actions of Christ. Luther was set free! He felt like an new person – set free from guilt, fear, worry, and shame. As a result he was set free to live a life of gratitude for God’s amazing gift of grace, and this motivated him to tell others so they could experience this life-changing truth themselves.

It’s the same truth that Jesus spoke about in John’s gospel. He said, “The truth will make you free,” and “If the Son makes you free, you will be free indeed.” What wonderful life-giving words! What a gift of hope and promise! Jesus spoke these words to the people whose descendants were slaves in Egypt, and wandered in the wilderness for 40 years until they reached the promised land only to be conquered by other lands over and over again. You’d expect they would have received these words of truth from Jesus with enthusiasm and joy, yet the truth that Jesus spoke caused them to feel uncomfortable and even angry. They responded with, “What do you mean by saying, ‘You will be made free?” They were on the defensive because they didn’t want to hear what Jesus had to say. They wanted to remember the past as if it was “the good old days” rather than the hardships that they endured. They certainly didn’t want to hear they were slaves to anyone.

Jesus’ words of truth are hard for people to hear today as well. It’s hard to hear the truth sometimes, especially if it points out our own sinful behaviors. It’s hard to hear that we are by our human nature enslaved to sin. Jesus reminds us that “Everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin.” That includes all of us. We are a slave because we can’t free ourselves from sin’s hold on us. Like a mouse lured into a trap who once in can’t get free, so we too can’t free ourselves. Someone else has to set us free, no matter how much we think we can do things on our own. Only Jesus can release us. “So if the Son makes you free, you will be free indeed.” Jesus has set us free from being trapped by sin and death.

Because of this truth, today we don’t just celebrate 500 years of God’s grace in action; we celebrate an eternity of God’s grace in action. Since the beginning of creation God’s grace has always been active. Since the first humans decided to disobey God and brought sin into the world, God was working on a way to set them and us free. God made covenants or sacred promises to God’s people over and over again despite them breaking those covenants. We hear God’s covenant language throughout the Old Testament whenever we read, “I will be their God, and they will be my people.” God continued to be faithful to this covenant throughout the generations until God spoke this covenant into being through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, the Christ. God’s covenant continued to be realized through reformers like Martin Luther who despite threats to his own life was compelled by the power of the Holy Spirit to make the truth of Christ’s saving power known to all people. God continues to speak these covenant words to us in our baptism sealed by the Holy Spirit and marked with the cross of Christ forever. God’s covenant is made known to us through the sacrament of Holy Communion when we receive the real presence of the living Christ. God speaks these covenant words to us when we affirm our baptism – through confirmation, and today as Mark Pisco becomes a member of this congregation. God says, “I will be your God, and you shall be my people.” This is God’s promise to us. This is reformation – being re-formed in Christ’s image.

God’s life-giving words of saving grace began from the moment God breathed life into us and that promise, that covenant, will remain forever. This is the gift we celebrate today. This is the truth we lift up each and every time we continue God’s grace in action through living lives of faith and commitment to the truth of Jesus Christ, the Word made flesh. This is Reformation! We have the gift and responsibility to carry on the work of the reformation – the work of God’s grace in action – every day of our lives. We do this when we hear Jesus’ truth, repent, allow him to change our hearts and set us free – free to live, and love like Jesus.

Today we celebrate not just 500 years of the reformation, but an ongoing reformation that begins with each one of us – in our hearts, where God’s covenant is written. One person’s voice and actions can make all the difference in the world. We saw that in the life of Martin Luther and many other reformers, and our best example is Jesus who has set us free! Through our baptism into his life, death, and resurrection we are re-formed into his image. Every time we repent, every time we forgive, every time we show compassion and mercy, every time we choose patience over anger, faith over fear, love over hate, every time we walk the way of peace ….This is reformation! Amen!

 

 

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In the Image of God

Sunday, October 22, 2017
Christ Lutheran Church – Manchester, PA
Matthew 22:15-22

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 Jewish religious leaders who strictly followed the religious laws. They 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. In fact, the coins themselves bearing the image of the emperor Tiberius Caesar’s stated his title  – son of a god – meaning that he himself was considered divine. This was considered idolatry by the Pharisees because it violated the first commandment, “I am the Lord your God; you shall have no other gods before me.” Yet as Jesus pointed out, by carrying these coins and paying into the tax system, the Pharisees themselves were breaking the very commandment they professed to uphold.  Despite these differences between the Herodians and the Pharisees, these two groups had one common enemy – Jesus.

You might wonder how Jesus could be anyone’s enemy. Yet, the Pharisees and Herodians felt threatened by Jesus who was preaching a new way to live and worship. 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, they felt that they had Jesus trapped, but they were the ones who were actually trapped only they didn’t know it.

While the Pharisees and other Jewish religious leaders proclaimed to worship only one God, they were in fact proclaiming otherwise through their actions of using these Roman coins with the image of the false god Caesar. When Jesus looked at the coins he asked the Pharisees and Herodians, “Whose head is this, and whose title?” The literal translation from the Greek is “Whose icon or image is this?” It’s the same word used in the first chapter of Genesis 1:26, when God said, “Let us make mankind in our image, in our likeness.” Like artistic icons, it is said that if you look into them they will give you a glimpse into eternity. What Jesus was asking them – and us – is do we remember in whose image or likeness we were made, and what glimpse of eternity do we see?  When we don’t remember in whose image we were made, we too are hypocrites, which literally means pretenders or ones who put on false appearances. When we forget that we are made in God’s image, then it is easy for us to act in ways that are against God. We turn inward – what Luther called sin – and we put ourselves, our wants, and our desires first – rather than putting God and God’s kingdom first. Instead of kindness and mercy, we can find ourselves being quick to anger and resentment. Instead seeing others through the eyes of love, we seek only to have our own way. It can cause us to team up even with those we normally don’t agree with– like the Pharisees and Herodians did with each other – in order to protect our own interests and make a scapegoat out of someone else like they did with Jesus.

The children’s story, Snow White, illustrates how quickly people can turn against someone. The evil or wicked queen was lured by the false god of her own ego. She only wanted to hear that her image was the most beautiful one of all. She too was what Jesus would call a hypocrite – someone who had taken on a false image or likeness. She was trapped by her own need to be the most beautiful and the most powerful, and she clung to false truths that fed into her own wants and desires. Eventually her need to be number one would destroy her.

That’s what false gods do; they destroy. False gods can’t deliver on empty promises. And eventually we are left with the painful truth that the false image we were following brings pain and suffering rather than the new life found in Jesus Christ. In Jesus’ time, the Roman government promised peace – the Pax Romana. They promised peace if people would pay their taxes to Caesar. They were allowed to practice their own religion as long as they didn’t cause any trouble and go against the Romans. As long as they didn’t upset the status quo everything was okay, even if that meant not standing up for the truth.  Yet, Jesus wasn’t afraid to tell the truth. He challenged the status quo then and now. And he challenges us as his disciples to challenge it today. We must stand up against false idols that lure us into a false sense of security and peace if it is contrary to Jesus’ teachings. The only true peace is found in the one true God known to us in the person of Jesus the Christ.  Only Jesus can give us true security, joy, and peace. Jesus is our only Savior – no other person or thing or image.

There are many images in our society that portray a great many number of things, and promise much. Yet for we who follow Jesus, his image is the one that needs to be the focus of our lives. His image is the one that we need to call to mind in every conversation, every decision, and every action we take. Jesus’ image is the one that gives us the clearest glimpse of eternity. His image is the one that gives us the clearest image of God. Jesus says to give to “God the things that are God’s.” Everything is God’s. As we go from this place of worship this week, let’s remember that everything is God’s, especially each and every human being who are made in the image of God. Let us live our lives in such a way that Jesus’ image is seen through ours and that Jesus’ love is experienced through our actions. May we live lives of grace that give others a glimpse of eternity, and bring forth the kingdom of heaven. Amen.

Speechless

Sunday, October 15, 2017
Christ Lutheran Church – Manchester, PA
Matthew 22:1-14

When was the last time you were speechless? Can you think of a time when someone asked you a question and you just didn’t know how to answer it? Perhaps you were embarrassed to admit the truth of your bad behavior. Maybe you were afraid of their response and so you said nothing. Or maybe you didn’t answer because you were in shock, and you just couldn’t find the words. Jesus’ parable in Matthew’s gospel today pivots around a central question – a question that the person in the story didn’t answer for one reason or another – but it’s a question for us today as well.

This is another hard parable to read. It’s actually the fifth parable from Jesus in Matthew’s gospel about the kingdom of heaven. In each of the parables over the last five weeks Jesus has tried to tell us about the kingdom of heaven through these difficult and challenging stories. They began with Jesus comparing the kingdom of heaven to a king who forgave the large debt of one of his servants, but that same servant did not show that same forgiveness to someone else. The second parable in this kingdom of heaven series compared the kingdom of heaven to a landowner who went out hiring laborers for his vineyard and no matter how many hours they worked he paid them the same wage. The workers were angry at the landowner because they wanted more rather than being grateful for his generosity. The religious leaders were getting angrier at these parables and wanted to know by what authority Jesus was saying these things. But Jesus didn’t back down. He continued to try and teach them about the kingdom of heaven by saying that those who do things we may deem wrong, may actually get into the kingdom of heaven before those who always follow the rules. It all depends on motivation, and what is truly is one’s heart. These parables have been getting more and more challenging, and in last week’s parable Jesus compared the kingdom of heaven to a landowner who sent servants to collect the produce of the vineyard, but they beat and killed the servants, wanting the vineyard for themselves. Yet the king sent his own son because he continued to try and give them another chance, yet they even killed the king’s own son. This week, Jesus again compares the kingdom of heaven to a king who gave a wedding banquet for his son. And as we shall see more violence is involved in this parable.

These are not easy parables to hear. They aren’t easy parables to understand. They certainly aren’t easy parables to preach on. Yet, Jesus spends a great deal of time trying to explain the realities of the kingdom of heaven. Jesus’ words can’t be ignored or brushed aside, no matter how challenging they are to hear. So what is Jesus trying to tell us about the kingdom of heaven?

First, the kingdom of heaven is not something that only awaits us after we die. Jesus said that the kingdom of heaven begins here and now. It is realized as we continue the work that Jesus began. It’s a kingdom – a new reality – that shows forgiveness toward others just as God – our king – shows forgiveness toward us. It is a kingdom filled with generosity. No matter how long we have known God, no matter who we are, God is generous with grace, and mercy, and compassion. There is no need to be jealous of what is given to others. God’s very nature is to be generous with love and grace and we are called to do the same.

To be a part of God’s kingdom requires commitment. The parable of the two sons – one who did the father’s will even though originally saying no is a story about commitment. When we are serious about following Christ and doing God’s will we show up and do what is required out of love for God and gratitude for all God has done for us. It’s not always easy to get out of bed and worship on Sunday mornings, but we do so out of our commitment for all God has done for us. It’s not always easy to do what Jesus wants us to do, and to treat others with love and respect, but we do so out of our devotion to him, and through the eyes of faith we acknowledge the Christ who also lives in them. We respect them because we are all God’s beloved children.

Jesus shows us that the kingdom of heaven is enveloped in the faithfulness of God who never gives up on us despite our sinful actions. Last week’s parable of the landowner who sent servants to collect the fruits of the vineyard, shows us an image of God who is relentless in giving us chance after chance to do the right thing. Even God’s own son Jesus, was sacrificed in order that we would have a chance at new life. Yet, we like those in the parable continue to reject Jesus when we focus on everything else but him. St. Paul tells us in his letter to the Philippians that we are to focus on “whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, …think about these things.” Our focus needs to be on Christ and living in God’s kingdom of grace.

In today’s parable Jesus shows us that the kingdom of heaven is filled with God’s grace. It’s like a great banquet filled with all the things we need. The Old Testament reading also gives us this image of God’s kingdom being a place where there is no want and no hunger. Even our psalmist paints the picture of how God prepares a table before us even in the presence of our enemies. God is always showering us with abundance, and when we open our hearts – as we do today with Harvest Home – this abundance of food that we share with others is a way that we grow in generosity, and show others a glimpse of the kingdom of heaven where generosity and love abounds.

This invitation to a new way of living – a new way of being – is what it means to be a part of God’s kingdom. Like the king in today’s parable, the invitation to be a part of the kingdom of heaven is offered to all people – both good and bad. It is up to us to embrace that invitation and the challenge. Yes, it is a challenge. Jesus was quite plain about that. At the end of our parable the king notices a man without a wedding robe and asks him, “Friend, how did you get in here without a wedding robe? And he was speechless.” So, the king threw him out. True, the man didn’t have the required wedding robe on, which normally would have been given to him by the host. But the king did invite everyone to the feast  – the good and the bad. We don’t know the reason, because….the man was speechless. He said nothing. And that is the problem.

Being a part of the kingdom of heaven requires accountability. It’s not just enough to be invited like the man in the parable or we through our baptism. It’s not just enough to show up at the banquet or at worship. We have to know why we are in God’s kingdom, not because of what we do, but because of what God has done through Jesus Christ and continues to do through the work of the Holy Spirit. We have to acknowledge that our presence in God’s kingdom requires action. It’s not enough to simply say we believe in Jesus; we have to follow Jesus, live like Jesus, be Jesus in the world. And that means that we can’t remain speechless. We have to speak our truth to God and to one another. We have to admit when we are wrong, and ask for forgiveness. We have to speak out against injustice in our communities and sometimes in our own congregations. Being a part of the kingdom of God requires action and not complacency. It requires the courage to live as Jesus’ disciples – to take up his cross and follow in his footsteps. We have the promise that “Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I shall fear no evil; for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me.” Working to bring about the kingdom of God is not something we have to do on our own. In fact, it can’t be done on our own. Our God walks with us giving us the courage we need to speak the truth of the gospel to all people- and that first begins with ourselves. We have to admit whether we are being true in following Jesus. We cannot remain silent. We cannot remain speechless.  Discipleship requires accountability. Are we living as faithful disciples in God’s kingdom? Jesus’ question in this parable today demands an answer. What is yours?  Amen.