Friday, February 24, 2017

St. Matthias (Acts 1:15-26)

“And they cast lots for them, and the lot fell on Matthias, and he was numbered with the eleven apostles.” Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord and our Savior Jesus Christ, Amen. The text for our sermon this commemoration of Saint Matthias comes from the Epistle lesson read a few moments ago from the first chapter of the Acts of the Apostles. Dear friends in Christ: as we at Good Shepherd have had the opportunity to commemorate the saints of old during our Wednesday night services, you have certainly heard this phrase before: ‘We don’t know much about so and so…” For every Peter, James, and John, we have a Simon the Zealot, for every Matthew or Thomas we have a James the son of Alpheus. And for every Paul, we have a Matthias. Saint Paul is the addition to the apostles, one untimely born, and the book of Acts is as filled with his deeds as the New Testament is filled with his writings. Saint Matthias filled the number of the disciples, giving the New Testament Church the number of the Old Testament Church—twelve—and then is never mentioned again. All we have is a name—one name, mind you, not three, like the other guy, “Joseph called Barsabbas, who was also called Justus.” Some of the disciples were probably thinking, ‘A guy with three names? We know that Jesus liked to give us nicknames, but that’s a little much. Let’s just keep it simple.’ And God gave them Matthias. Just Matthias.

Even in our text today, we learn more about Judas than we do about Matthias. In fact, that’s who Peter and the apostles spend most of their time talking about. “Brothers, the Scripture had to be fulfilled, which the Holy Spirit spoke beforehand by the mouth of David concerning Judas, who became a guide to those who arrested Jesus. For he was numbered among us and was allotted his share in this ministry.” Judas was placed into the very same office that Peter held, the same office that John and Matthew occupied, the same office for which James the son of Zebedee lost his head. Judas was a disciple, he was an apostle. Jesus wasn’t tricking Judas when He called him, He wasn’t secretly calling Judas to the office of ‘betrayer’ when He summoned him to leave his other vocations to follow the incarnate Son of God. Judas held the unique office of the Twelve, he had his share in their ministry; in Matthew chapter ten, he too was given authority over unclean spirits and the power to heal disease, then he was sent out with the others to the villages ahead of Jesus, to prepare the way for Him. Judas presumably even performed a miracle or two in Jesus’ name; he was an apostle, and even as Satan was working on his heart, he fulfilled the tasks of his office in the stead and by the command of Jesus.

But he vacated his office; he turned aside from the office to which Jesus had called him and went, as the Eleven said, “to his own place.” Jesus had called Judas to follow him, Jesus had taught Judas for three years, Jesus had given him authority over demons and disease, and Jesus sent Judas out on vicarage, preparation for the time when Judas was to go forth into all the world with the message of his Lord’s death and resurrection. But Judas turned aside. Instead of bringing the Gospel to the world, he spoke of Jesus to those who wished to kill him, instead of driving out Satan, he invited him in; he did lead others to Jesus, but only so that they could arrest Him and put Him to death. And when he had done his wicked deed, Judas went “to his own place,” he could find no grace, no forgiveness in the temple, and so he dealt with his sin himself, at the end of a rope.

Now his office must be filled. “For it is written in the book of Psalms, ‘May his camp become desolate, and let there be no one to dwell in it;’ and ‘Let another take his office.’” It’s surprising, when you think about it, that the office that Judas held was not dissolved by his shameful betrayal of that office and His Lord. We wouldn’t have been surprised if the apostles had left his place open, if they had become the Eleven from now on, if they would’ve decided that Judas had so corrupted and poisoned his office that no one could now take it. We place much more of a focus on the man, whether wicked or boring on the one hand, or charismatic and friendly on the other. But that is not the way the office that Christ has established works. Whether it is occupied by Saint John or wicked Judas, the office of apostle and pastor does not depend upon the man. It doesn’t even depend upon his faith. The betrayer of Jesus held this office because Jesus put him there, and Judas cannot corrupt the office, no matter what he does, just as no occupant can make it efficacious. It is Christ’s office, His gift, created by His mandate and institution, and as He lives, never to die again, so His office will endure until He comes again.

And the Church has the mandate from Christ to fill this office. It’s surprising that Jesus didn’t fill the office of Judas before His ascension into heaven. Instead, He leaves it to the Church, assembled together. Before, Christ Himself directly called men into the office; from this point forward, the Church will be His instrument, and we will follow the pattern set forth by the apostles in Acts chapter one. The first act of the apostles is a call meeting! Peter begins by declaring the qualifications: “So one of the men who have accompanied us during all the time that the Lord Jesus went in and out among us, beginning from the baptism of John until the day when He was taken up from us—one of these men must become with us a witness to His resurrection.” The entire Church hears the qualifications set forth from Scripture, and then using her God-given wisdom puts forth qualified men. “And they put forward two, Joseph called Barsabbas, who was also called Justus, and Matthias.” With the choices before them, the Church prays. “You, Lord, who know the hearts of all, show which one of these two you have chosen to take the place in this ministry and apostleship.” After prayer, the choice is made. “And they cast lots for them, and the lot fell on Matthias, and he was numbered with the eleven apostles.”

Through the Church, Christ fills His office, as He will for century after century, even until this very day. We still follow this pattern, and we should, with a few differences. Matthias was called to the unique, once-in-history office of apostle, as one of the Twelve. Therefore, the qualifications were a bit different: pastors today are not required to have witnessed the resurrected Lord. And the means of choosing is different: the Church never cast lots again; instead with prayer the Church used its God-given wisdom to choose between qualified candidates. But what is most important remains the same. Matthias, like every pastor since, is called by Jesus through His instrument, His bride, the Church. Matthias is, like Judas, given his share in the ministry of the apostles.

It is not the man, but the office. Who is Matthias? All we have is a name, and that’s just fine, because through Matthias and his companions, his fellow office-holders, we know all about Jesus. It doesn’t ultimately matter whether you have Judas or Matthias, Peter or Matthew, James or John, even Preus or Poppe, Meyer or Maronde, as long as the office is being fulfilled. What matters is whether the Word is rightly taught, and the sacraments rightly administered. Flee false teaching, but do not think that the power of the Word, or the efficacy of the sacraments, depends upon men. Faithful pastors are interchangeable, and the Word they preach, the sacraments they administer, do not depend upon them—thanks be to God! They depend upon Jesus, who gives these gifts to His Church. They depend upon the One who was handed over by the betrayal of Judas, the One who suffered and died at the hands of sinful men, the same One who rose again from the dead victorious over all of your enemies. The forgiveness proclaimed from this pulpit, the forgiveness splashed upon you at this font, the forgiveness placed into your mouth at this altar depends not upon the man who gives it. Pastors simply distribute the good gifts of God. The goodness of the gift doesn’t come from the pastor but from Christ, the giver of every good gift. They are His gifts, and it is His office; His office to fill, and His office to work through, to the ends of the earth. In the Name of Jesus, Amen.

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Septuagesima (Matthew 20:1-16)

“So the last will be first, and the first last.” Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord and our Savior Jesus Christ, Amen. The text for our sermon this morning is the Gospel lesson read a few moments ago from the twentieth chapter of the Gospel according to Saint Matthew. Dear friends in Christ, you are a Christian, you have faith, because you have been called by Jesus. He came to you in the marketplace of this world, and He hired you to labor in His vineyard. He called you through the preaching of His Word, He hired you in the precious waters of Holy Baptism, He made you a laborer in His vineyard, and then put you to work. Some of you were called at the very beginning, promised your denarius when you were only an infant. Some of you were called at the third hour, when you were a child, as a grandparent or friend brought you to God’s house and His Word. Some of you were called at the sixth or the ninth hour, as young adults or in middle age, perhaps through the prodding of a spouse or child. And some of you were hired at the eleventh hour, toward the end of your time on this earth, having spent a lifetime idle in the marketplace; perhaps you were one of those called to work in the first hour of your life, but then left the vineyard for years, even decades, before you were hired again, with the gentle rebuke of our Lord, “Why do you stand here idle all day?” You joined those hired at the first, third, sixth, or ninth hours, fully aware of how you squandered your life chasing after the things of this world.

All of you are called to work, to labor in the vineyard, producing the fruit of love toward God and love toward your neighbor. Your work is not easy, for life as a Christian is not easy, you bear the burden of the day and its heat: the burden of dying to yourself in repentance every single day, the heat of persecution. You face the hatred of the world, you face the resistance of your own sinful nature, that Old Adam who needs to be drowned day after day. With great struggles, you seek to keep yourself from the fleeting pleasures that this world offers, and when you fall, you go to your knees in repentance. Your labor has been hard, and for some of you, it has been long. So long, and so hard, in fact, that you who were hired first, even those hired at the third or sixth hours, have begun to forget just how things work in the kingdom of God.

You have begun to forget that the Master hired you, that He promised you a denarius when the day was over, that He made you a laborer and promised you the wage before you had worked for one second in the vineyard. You take your eyes off the Master, and begin to look at yourself, you begin to examine your fellow workers. You have worked so long and so hard that you have begun to think that the Master owes you for your work. No longer are your eyes fixed on the Master, trusting His promise, the denarius that is coming, but they are fixed on yourself, as you evaluate what you deserve to receive from Jesus, and on your fellow workers, as you evaluate whether they deserve the same wage. You are no longer thinking of the denarius as grace, but as justice, Jesus giving you what He owes you, His repayment for all your work.

You who have been hired later perhaps have a different perspective. You too have let your eyes stray from your Master, you also are looking at yourself, and at your fellow laborers. You are all too aware of the life you led before, the time you wasted idle in the marketplace, chasing after the pleasures of the flesh, perhaps knowing the kind of labor that went on in the vineyard and wanting nothing to do with it. You are painfully aware of how you have stumbled and fallen since He hired you, seemingly every day. You look at your fellow laborers, your fellow Christians, and to you they all seem to be much more deserving of a denarius than you. If you could read their minds, if you knew that those who have labored all day feel entitled to their denarius, you would probably agree. You don’t feel entitled at all, you feel completely undeserving, and you have a sneaking suspicion that when the day’s end comes, the Master won’t have anything for you at all. You’ve come too late, you were idle too long; the Master will have nothing left to give.

So there is fear and there is confidence among the workers as the Master makes ready to pay the wages. “And when evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his foreman, ‘Call the laborers and pay them their wages, beginning with the last, up to the first.’” The last will be first, and the first last. As the decisive moment comes, eyes are finally all fixed on the Master. “And when those hired about the eleventh hour came, each of them received a denarius.” A denarius! You cannot believe what you hold in your hand—a denarius! The denarius of heaven, the denarius of eternal life, given to you called so late, you who were idle so long, you who have such sin in your past, you who have stumbled so often. A denarius for you, and you go your way rejoicing.

There is certainly some rejoicing among you who stand farther back in line, a smattering of applause. Your Master certainly is generous, as you who have served Him the longest know best. And now your expectations are through the roof. Yes, you’re glad that the Master has something left over for those who were idle for so long, but you are the ones who have put in all the work. “Now when those hired first came, they thought they would receive more, but each of them also received a denarius.” A denarius? You cannot believe what you hold in your hand—a denarius? The same denarius given to those who were idle, those who despised the Master’s call for so long, those who have so much sinful baggage that they might as well drive around in a U-Haul? A denarius? “And on receiving it they grumbled at the master of the house.”

Your cause is just, your argument is sound. Every other worker on this planet would agree with you. “These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.” What was the point of laboring so hard, what was the benefit of working so long? You have made him, you have made her, equal to me? Don’t you know what they’ve done, don’t you know what they’ve done to me? Mission work around the world is just fine, and we feel very good about sending our dollars overseas, but when it comes to extending the call of the Gospel to those we know, or think we know, we are less enthusiastic. We know what they’re like, and we know they don’t deserve any grace, at least not as much grace as we deserve. Does the town drunk deserve a denarius? How about a drug addict? A sex offender? A murderer or a thief? But we don’t even have to be so extreme. What about the ones who have lived much of their lives not caring what God says? What about those you see on the street that you would rather not see in your church? What about those who have sinned against you, perhaps quite terribly? Do they deserve a denarius? That is really the question: do those hired at the eleventh hour, those who hear the call of the Gospel after having lived a life of sin, or having sinned against me, or having stood idle in the marketplace, deserve the denarius at the end of the day?

Not in comparison with me. You know how I’ve worked, Lord, you know how I’ve toiled, you know the sacrifices I’ve made, the pleasures I’ve foregone to labor in your vineyard. I’ve been an elder, I’ve been on altar guild, I’ve been here every week, I’ve volunteered at every event. I’ve…yes, there’s the problem. We’ve taken our eyes off of the Master, and we’ve been looking at ourselves, we’ve been looking at our fellow laborers. If we had fixed our eyes on our Master, it wouldn’t have mattered what anyone else received. The Master chides us, “Friend, I am doing you no wrong. Did you not agree with me for a denarius? Take what belongs to you and go. I chose to give to this last worker as I give to you. Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or do you begrudge my generosity?” It was evil in our eyes that our Master was good, so good in fact that He gave to every laborer the same wage; He treated every repentant sinner the same. Do you feel entitled to a denarius? Do you look down upon your fellow laborers, do your eyes stray from the Master to them? Repent. Repent and rejoice that the Master has grace for every sinner, hired at every hour, even you.

That is what grace is; a gift, not earned in any way. The laborers do not work to earn their denarius, they are given a denarius because they have been called, they were hired, it was promised to them the moment they were called to the vineyard. Not the way you would run a business, but the kingdom of heaven rarely gives a good pattern for making money. Jesus isn’t in the business of justice, He is all about grace. Justice would mean no calling, no hiring, and no wages—for anyone. Jesus doesn’t owe you, or anyone, anything. But in grace He loves you and welcomes you into His kingdom, His vineyard, by having justice done upon Him. Those hired first complain, “You have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.” Jesus could’ve replied, “No, I have made you and them equal to me, who actually has borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.” We are sorely mistaken if we think it was our labor that earned the denarius; it was the labor of Jesus, His bloody, tortuous, deadly labor on our behalf that earned the denarius for each one of us. Justice for us was death and hell, but Jesus suffered both in our place. Justice was exacted from Him, grace is given to us.

Grace by its very nature, by its very definition, is a gift undeserved, unearned. The Lord rewards those who don’t deserve it, and every laborer in His vineyard doesn’t deserve it. Yet, He still gives, He gives abundantly, He gives in overflowing measure, He gives to you. The last will be first and the first last, and we rejoice, for we were all last, and we all, together as members of the body of Christ, in every age, in every generation, called at any hour of the day, will be first. We will all receive what Christ has promised us: the denarius of forgiveness, life, and salvation. Our Master is good, He is gracious, He gives us what we do not deserve—thanks be to God! In the Name of Jesus, Amen.

Thursday, February 2, 2017

Fourth Sunday after the Epiphany/Sanctity of Life Sunday (Romans 13:8-10)

“The commandments, ‘You shall not commit adultery, You shall not murder, You shall not steal, You shall not covet,’ and any other commandment, are summed up in this word: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’” Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord and our Savior Jesus Christ, Amen. The text for our sermon this Sanctity of Life Sunday is the Epistle lesson read a few moments ago from the thirteenth chapter of Paul’s letter to the Church of God in Rome. Dear friends in Christ, the Law is fulfilled by love, the love of Jesus for you. In love, Jesus came to keep every Law, every command, every statute perfectly, then He died the death deserved by those who didn’t. In love, Jesus fulfilled every one of the Law’s demands, and endured every one of the Law’s punishments. Christ shows love to His friends, His companions, those who love Him and follow Him, the members of the body of Christ. Christ shows love to the other, the ones who are different, shunned by the world; His compassion is especially poured out on the poor and downtrodden. Christ shows love to His neighbors, whoever they are, in the Church or still outside, all those in need. That is how He defines the term ‘neighbor’ for us in the parable of the Good Samaritan: the neighbor is the one in need. The disciples and Peter, the thief on the cross, a world trapped in the bondage of sin, you and me: we were all in need, and Christ showed love to us, He helped us, He saved us; His life was laid down in love to fulfill the Law for us.

We were bleeding and dying in the ditch, cast there by our own sin and rebellion, and Jesus did not pass us by. He laid down His life for His friends, but more than just His friends, His enemies as well, indeed every person who ever has lived or ever will live. “Love does no wrong to a neighbor, therefore love is the fulfilling of the Law.” He did no wrong, but He loved, He forgave, He saved. His love fulfilled the Law, perfectly and completely, and now the Law has no more penalty to execute upon us, it has no more threats to make against us. The Christian is now set free to love one another as God has commanded us. The Law is fulfilled in love born of faith; the Law is fulfilled when believers, when Christians, love others. We love because Christ first loved us. Our love flows from His love, our love mirrors His love. We love as we have been loved, seeking to do no wrong to the neighbor, but freely giving of ourselves for the good of others. We love by laying down our own desires, by placing others in front of ourselves, by not seeking our own needs but the needs of others.

We love because every command God has given is fulfilled by love. We love because it is our obligation as Christians; yes, Lutherans, you heard me right, or, rather, you heard Paul right. He says, “Owe no one anything, except to love each other, for the one who loves another has fulfilled the Law.” The Lutheran Confessions say that Scripture uses such expressions “to indicate what we are bound to do because of God’s ordinance, commandment, and will.” Not to earn righteousness, not to become a Christian, but because we are Christians. Love for the neighbor is the Christian life, toward all people.

We first love our fellow Christians; indeed, Christ has placed us into congregations because our fellow Christians need our love. Love begins within the body of Christ. But our love doesn’t end inside these walls, simply with those who are in our church directory, or even with the wider body of Christ in this city or around the world. Paul says, “The one who loves another has fulfilled the Law.” We owe love to the other, to the one who is different, the poor and the downtrodden, the ones who cannot speak for themselves. We love those who are threatened, who are oppressed, who are subject to abuse and exploitation, the unlovable, the ones we would not love on our own. We love the children in the womb, helpless, without a voice, threatened by a culture of death that sees them as expendable, as less than human, as an inconvenience and a ‘choice.’ We love the girls being trafficked, without a home, trapped in a terrible situation, exploited by those who hold abusive power over them. We love the elderly and dying, often without a voice, viewed as a burden to those who should love them. We love the disabled and the infirm, who are different than us, often profoundly different, who are ignored, or exposed to ridicule and abuse. We love each and every person regardless of age, development, or any other factor that makes them different than us, because they are made in the image of God, because they are loved by God, because Christ died for them as He died for us.

If we learn anything from the book of Jonah, it is that we do not get to pick and choose who to show love to. Christians love all people, those in the body of Christ first of all, then all those in the world around us. We love those who have made mistakes, who are desperately searching for a word of hope. In a 2015 study, 65% of women facing a crisis pregnancy thought that church members were more likely to gossip about their situation than offer help. These women expected the church only to condemn, they expected members to simply talk behind their back, they expected no understanding. They expected the church to reject them because they are sinful, because they have committed that sin. And because they expect no help, no love, they so often listen to what the world offers, and what the world offers is death. The Sixth Commandment unconfessed, unforgiven, then leads to the Fifth Commandment unconfessed, unforgiven. The same women who feared to tell the church when they faced a crisis pregnancy now fear to tell the church about their abortion. 52% of Christian women who have had an abortion attend worship once a month or more, and more than half of them say that no one at their church knows about their abortion. “You shall love your neighbor as yourself,” Paul tells us. We love sinners; we love them enough to preach the Law which drives to repentance, and we love them enough to bring them Jesus, who forgives their sins.

But we do not stop with words, as Saint James exhorts us: “If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food, and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace, be warmed and filled,’ without giving them the things needed for the body, what good is that?” We love them in tangible ways, we love them so that the voices of death are left with nothing to say. We shower these women with love, not to ignore or excuse sin, but to forgive it, and then to help broken sinners deal with the consequences of sin. We do this with every other sin, every other sinner; that is what why the Church exists, and it is no different for sins of the Sixth and Fifth Commandments. In that same 2015 study, 54% of women who have had an abortion said that they would not recommend that anyone discuss their crisis pregnancy with a local congregation. Certainly many avoid the church because they are not repentant in the least and don’t want to hear the Law, but for many more, they stay away because they expect no love from Christians. Dear friends, the Christian church, this congregation, should be the first place that women can go when they have fallen into sin, when they face a crisis pregnancy, or after they have had an abortion. We have what they need: first and foremost, the free and abundant grace of God in the forgiveness of sins, and then a community of believers who will love and support them and their child. We love our neighbor, and as Jesus teaches us, the neighbor is the one who is in need. The unborn child is in need of our protection, his mother is in need of our love.

We love them because Christ loves them, because Christ loves us. Every command is summed up by love, it is only fulfilled by love; keeping a commandment out of fear of punishment or to earn brownie points before God is actually sinful. Only good works done in faith are good; the commandments are only kept by love born of faith. We do not love others for our own good; that is spiritual abuse, using my neighbor as a means for me to earn something before God or men. We do not love the unlovable so that others will be impressed, so that we will exalted in the eyes of others. We do not love our neighbor so that we can get into heaven or have a better place in heaven. We love them because Christ loves them, because Christ loves us.

The new man delights to love one another in the body of Christ, the new man delights to love the other who is different, indeed the new man delights to love any neighbor who is in need. But you do not only have the new man dwelling within you. The old man has love for no one but yourself. There are times when you have lived according to the flesh, when you have failed to love your neighbor, the unborn children of America, a child in your womb, or any other person. There are times when you have failed to show love to desperate sinners, but have callously let the woman in crisis remain in crisis, you have looked down upon one hungering for a word of grace. Repent, and hear the Gospel. If you have committed a sin, any sin, but especially the sins of the Sixth and Fifth Commandments, come to the waters of life, come to the forgiveness pouring from the riven side of Jesus, come to this place. Do not come clinging to your sin, seeking affirmation, but come in repentance, despairing of your sin. Come and hear the words which heal, the words which bring you the very love of Christ Himself: “In the stead and by the command of my Lord Jesus Christ I forgive you all your sins in the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, Amen.” Come and hear these words as often as they are proclaimed; call on your pastor to proclaim them to you one on one; the sin of abortion, as devastating as it is, is not unforgivable, and neither is any other sin. Christ’s love has fulfilled the Law for you; Christ in love has taken your judgment upon Himself, Christ loves you, and His love is eternal. In the Name of Jesus, Amen.