Come and Die

13th Sunday after Pentecost A 2017

In the name of Jesus, amen.

The story we read today in Exodus is one of my favorites in the whole Bible. It's just a conversation - not very much happens other than talking - but it's a framework for the center of who we are, who God is, and what God calls us to do. We can tell this because it is in the story itself, and so are the answers: we are the ones God sends, God is the God of our ancestors who goes with us, and God sends us go and proclaim to the people that God has come down to set them free. God calls us to be messengers of the good news to the people who cry out in suffering.

If you backtrack a few verses into Exodus, you see this clearly. God's call for Moses is the immediate action God takes upon hearing the cry of the suffering Hebrew people. God says exactly this, that the cry of the suffering has been heard, and that God has come down to deliver them. And to this end, God will send Moses. "Who am I, that I should go", he asks, and we might well ask it with him. God does not answer, except to promise, "I will be with you." And God tells Moses what to say: that God has sent him, that God has heard the cry of the people, that God will deliver them.

Now, Moses raises objections, a rare sign of sanity in a biblical figure. Worshipping on the mountain afterward is great, but what sign will the people receive to listen to Moses in the first place? God gives Moses abundant resources: a staff that turns into a snake; a cloak that causes and cures leprosy; a sign of turning water from the Nile into blood. Then Moses objects that he's a poor speaker, and God reminds us of who made mouths, and ears, the deaf and the mute, the seeing and the blind. Moses begs that someone else be sent, and God agrees: Aaron, Moses' brother, will go with him as the communications director. Sorry, Moses, no getting out of it: God will send you.

This is how those called by God react when they get a picture of what exactly God is doing. God is choosing the weak, the foolish, the poor, the suffering, and is sending the cowardly sniveling ones as the chosen messengers. Peter is no different: convinced that Jesus is the Messiah, he nevertheless satanically opposes Jesus' honest description of what God is about to do. The cross means death, means failure, means vulnerability and ruin not only for Jesus but also for Peter. Like Moses, like us, Peter wants out, but there is no getting out of it: God will send you.

God sends us. God sends us not to the mountaintops but down, down to where God goes. God sends us to the suffering and sick, the imprisoned and poor. God has heard the cry of the suffering and God has come down to deliver, to deliver by the cross. And God does not deliver by nice sentiments, by Hallmark cards, or by convenient commerce. God does not send us to our lives as they have been. God comes to call us, to transform us. God comes to give us signs and wonders, to give us words of promise to speak and open ears to hear the cry of those who are oppressed. God comes to empower us and lead us in resistance to empire, to war, to oppression, to death. God comes down and calls us as Moses was called, as Peter was called, to come and die.

Come and die, Moses, and no longer be a shepherd or a runaway murderer. Come and die, Peter, and no longer be fisherman or insurrectionist or flunky. Come and die, Church, because it is not in the things our lives have been built on that God gives life. Come and die, because our way of life will only lead to death. Come and die, losing your own sense of who you are so that you may at last hear who God calls you to be. Come and die, losing your idols at last so that you can learn the name of the God of your ancestors. Come and die, losing your schemes of success and power, losing your concept even of the Church, so that you may be called to the way of life. Come and die with Moses, who died without ever seeing the promised land after decades of hard labor and wandering, yet without whom there would be no Hebrew people in freedom. Come and die with Peter, who feared his death enough to deny Jesus not only in today's gospel but as the Lord was taken and beaten and tried and crucified, and yet lifted the cross above his own life and name for the rest of his days. Come and die with Jesus, who came down not to pacify those who do evil but to set free those held in bondage and to give up his life for our life.

Come and die, Church, with those who suffer from flooding and storms, giving up your comfort and security and expectations so that they may have life. Come and die, Church, with those who still suffer hate speech in our streets and our homes, giving up your plans and time so that they may be delivered from the bonds of fear. Come and die, Church, with those who have no faith or trust in Christians, giving up our righteous excuses and walled communities to share the good news of the cross.

Come and die, Church, because God has come down to deliver the world and given us good news to declare. The good news is that God hears the suffering cry out and will act. The good news is that God sides with the poor, the displaced, the immigrant, the stranger, the abandoned, the imprisoned, and the sick. The good news is that God understands power and glory not as control and selfishness but as service and suffering for the poor ones. The good news is that God sees and knows the evil all around us, and God overcomes evil with good. God has come down to judge, to avenge, to save; and the good news is that God now calls and sends you.

Come and die, because that is the story of God's people. We go down to the depths, and God raises us up. This is the story that Moses told the Hebrew people, that God comes to save. This is the story Jesus told, the story he rooted in the story of Israel, that God comes to save. This is the story that Peter told, that Paul told, that for two thousand years Christians have told; this is the story of our God, who loves us and brings us from death to life by making us new. We die in baptism, and we are raised up in baptism. We die in confession, we are raised up in forgiveness. We die in the Lord's Supper, where who we were is destroyed so that we may be raised up as disciples of Jesus, as the Church of Christ.

This is the meal where God's fire consumes us and renews us. This is the mountain where God meets and speaks to us. This is the place where God gives us our call and our message. Come, now, and receive God who will be with you as you go. Then let us go into the world to serve God with gladness. Be of good courage. Hold fast to that which is good. Render to no one evil for evil. Strengthen the fainthearted, support the weak, help the afflicted, honor all people. Love and serve God, rejoicing in the power of the Holy Spirit. And the peace of God, which is beyond all understanding, will keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus, our Lord. Amen.

This sermon was preached on the Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost, September 3, 2017, at The Evangelical Lutheran Church of the Atonement in Asbury Park. The readings were Exodus 3:1-15; Psalm 105:1-6, 23-26, 45b; Romans 12:9-21; and Matthew 16:21-28. 

 Community of Forgiveness

14th Sunday after Pentecost

In the name of Jesus, amen.

On the heels of describing the community of his disciples as a community of forgiveness, Jesus is confronted by the harsh reality Peter presents. There must be a limit to forgiveness. There must be some line, some measure, some point at which forgiveness is no longer an option. Our Lord’s response is in many respects terrifying. He seeks to clarify for Peter, and for us, what should already have been clear from the fifth petition of the Lord’s Prayer: “Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us.” In forgiving us, God makes us a community of forgiveness that forgives each other. Jesus points out that we cannot have our cake and eat it. If our debts are cancelled, we have no right to cash in the debts owed to us; we are the forgiven community, so we are the community that forgives.

And yet Peter’s objections are not silenced so easily. He seems to have a point: forgiveness cannot simply be enabling someone as they continue to hurt us. We cannot simply fake it until we make it. To gather every week and ‘forgive’ our parent, or brother, or sister, or child, or spouse, or pastor, while we continue to hurt and be hurt is really no forgiveness: it is slavery. It is no less slavery than our addiction to sin, no less slavery than the Hebrews were enslaved in Egypt. There can be no freedom without the destruction of slavery, the breaking of chains, the end of the oppressor. There will be no freedom from our slavery if we simply write blank checks for our neighbor to hurt us. We must be freed.

This freedom is what God does in the water. God brings us, as God brought the people of Israel, through the killing waters on dry ground, and the oppressor is drowned in the waves. God knows that we must be freed to forgive, and so God frees us. God knows that we must be forgiven to be forgiving, and so God forgives us. God knows our hearts of stone must be changed before our actions can be changed, so God drowns our addiction, death, slavery, and oppression in the waters of baptism.

God frees us as God freed Israel. And every week, those words that may seem simple bring us again to the waters where we are drowned as slaves and emerge as a forgiven community. “We confess that we are captive to sin”, and “we hear your word of love freely given to us, yet we expect others to earn it”, and that means we are unable to forgive. We cannot do what is required of us, what we ought to do, for God or for each other. And yet, “in the mercy of almighty God, Jesus Christ was given to die for us, and for his sake God forgives us all our sins.” Yes, “God hears our cry”, the cry of slaves in captivity, “and sends the Spirit to change us and to empower our lives in the world. Our sins are forgiven, God’s love is unconditional, and we are raised up as God’s people who will always be made new.”

We are the forgiven community who do what God has done for us as we sing praise on the safe side of the sea. We gather first in the waters where God drowns our captivity, our fear, and our false selves. We are destroyed in those flooding waters, for we are Pharaoh and his chariots. We are those who do not forgive, who torture in prisons and who abuse the poor and vulnerable. We are those who must die so that God’s people may be free. God must put to death our evil and unforgiving hearts. And so God gives us new hearts, new lives. God knows we cannot forgive without first being forgiven, and so again and again the waters drown us, wash us, awaken us, renew us, restore us in God’s promise of mercy.

Now we are the forgiven people. Now we are the free people. Now we are the holy people. Now we do not fear each other, for we do not live to ourselves and we do not die to ourselves. Now we forgive, for it is not we who forgive but God who forgives in us. Now we free others, for it is not our work but the work of our Father in heaven to set the captives free. Now we abandon our claims and forgive our debtors, because all our claims and credits are left in the water with our crimes and our debts. Now we belong to God, who forgives all sin, whose mercy endures forever. Now we come again to the waters to be made new. Now we come again to forgive and be forgiven and to say to each other as Christ has said to us, “Peace be with you”. Now we gather to again pray, “Forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who sin against us.”

This is the clean heart that God creates in us, this is the right Spirit that God renews in us, and this is the forgiveness of the forgiven people. We may live or die, but we do it to the Lord and not ourselves. We have no need to be right and force our neighbor to be right as we are; it is the Lord who judges, not us. It is God who will correct, God who will teach, God who will drown us again in the endless fountain of forgiveness. We have no time for the speck in the neighbor’s eye; we are too concerned with the log in our own. We have been forgiven for so much, and so we can begin to forgive each other. God gives us new hearts, precisely so we can do as Christ commands, and forgive our brother or our sister from our heart.

This is the forgiven community. This is what it means to be made new. This is the people who do what has been done for them. This is the Holy Spirit, who brings us through the flood that drowns our sin and yet rejoices with us on the safe side of the sea. This is the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church, who has received Jesus Christ and now shares him in every corner of creation. This is the communion of saints, who gather together to forgive as we have been forgiven in the one baptism we all share and the one peace we are all given. This is the forgiveness of sins, offered by God in Jesus Christ, offered to each other in Jesus Christ. This is the resurrection of the body, where our physical lives are renewed as we are freed to be in relationship with each other without cutting off, without running away, without fighting, without slavery, without oppression. This is the life everlasting, come among us in the Spirit of the risen Christ, who gives us faith to pray: “Forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who sin against us.”

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, amen.

This sermon was preached on the 15th Sunday after Pentecost, September 17, 2017, at The Evangelical Lutheran Church of the Atonement in Asbury Park. The readings were: Exodus 14:19-31; Exodus 15:1b-11, 20-21; Romans 14:1-12; and Matthew 18:21-35.

The Shepherd-King and the Great Failure

Christ the King Sunday, 

November 26, 2017

In the name of Jesus, amen.
Sitting on the throne, the nations gathered, the Son of Man divides them as a shepherd divides the sheep and the goats. And here is the big problem for Lutherans: if Jesus Christ saves us, what is this parable about? If works don’t save us, what is this about? If God is ultimately a God of salvation and not of condemnation, what on earth is this all about? Is God going to send us to fire, and how do we know? How can we bear the weight of God’s commandment? God alone commands, and God alone fulfills!
This is a serious question for us, because this saying of Jesus has been used so often to bludgeon us into good works. Do more good! Give more! Work harder! Don’t you dare miss even one of the needy, or God will put you in the fire! We have turned this text into a focus on human action. But here’s the problem: of all the parables in Matthew 25, only in this parable is everyone passive. The subject of the verb is the Son of Man. Jesus is the one doing the dividing, the separating, and the whole world is just being divided. Jesus is King, we are the subjects; Jesus is Shepherd, and we are the flock. This is not about us! God alone commands, and God alone fulfills!
It makes sense, of course, because Jesus is making a reference to chapter 34 of Ezekiel. Here the prophet speaks of the shepherds, the kings, and their failure; of the flock, the people’s, failure toward each other. The kings, the shepherds, have not protected the sheep; the sheep have trampled, harmed, and abused each other; the sheep have even ruined their own habitat! The whole situation is broken, and God is fed up. The experiment of human government has failed to produce mercy and justice for the least and the lost. And so God will care for the least; God will be king and shepherd; God will divide and protect and provide. God will do it all! It is not about us, it is about God! God alone commands, and God alone fulfills!
It must be about God, because God’s test doesn’t even make sense. Back to Matthew, what are the criteria? “One of these”, the Son of Man claims, makes all the difference. Well, I don’t know about you, but I fall into both columns. I can talk about the day I bought a beggar a sandwich, and I can talk about the day I walked right by the same man. I can talk about the Thanksgiving where I spent the day delivering food, and I can talk about the Thanksgiving I gorged myself without a thought for the least of these. Am I a sheep or a goat? I don’t know, because the criteria don’t make sense. And the sheep and goats don’t know, either; because this is not about us, it is about God! God alone commands, and God alone fulfills!
Those gathered to the right are confused at the explanation. When did we see Jesus at all? We don’t remember feeding or clothing anyone. We were actually pretty worried about this whole thing. “One of the least of these,” the King says, is all that matters. One?! There had to be more than one, and yet the King does not seem the least bit worried. And those gathered to the left are not having a better time figuring this out. When did we miss Jesus? When did we fail? We worked every Thanksgiving for charities; we gave a hefty percent of our income; we built houses, visited prisoners, volunteered in soup kitchens. When did we not feed, give, clothe, care? “One of the least of these,” the King says, is all that matters. We missed one, and no amount of care makes up for it. God alone commands, and God alone fulfills.
And so you see our great failure, the one the Lord raves about through the prophet. We have all failed completely, and so salvation is a gift. Being sheep or goat comes only through the King, not through works. We cannot do the dividing; only the Son of Man can do that. We cannot judge each other; only God can do that. We cannot save the world; Jesus has that under control. Because we cannot, God will. Because we fail, God saves. Because we are broken, God binds. Because we are loveless, God loves us. Because we are useless, God uses us. God alone commands, and God alone fulfills!
Now, brothers and sisters, we do not care for the least because we fear an eternal fire. The Son of Man will call those chosen into the joy prepared since the beginning of the world. Since the beginning of the world, God has known you who are being saved. Since the beginning of the world, God has sought the lost out, has brought low the abusive shepherds, has separated out the rowdy sheep from the wounded goats. Since the beginning of the world, when our great human failure began, God has decided to be our God, and King, and Shepherd. God will provide and heal and give and save. God will make all things new, will establish justice, will shower us in blessing, will give us mercy. God alone commands, and God alone fulfills!
It’s not about us, it’s about God. And God is about the least and the lost. God is about the men and women we feed here, and about those who provide the food. God is about the homeless whom we shelter and the lonely trapped in their homes, separated from community. God is about those who are in need. And while we wait for the Shepherd to arrive, while we hope for the King to come in glory and restore all things, while we look to God’s great mercy, we remember. We remember with the cup and the bread, with the water and the word. We remember that nothing we do can possibly make up for what we have not done, and that all that matters is what we do for the least of these, who are Jesus among us. It matters, not because it affects our salvation, but because the least of these matter. They matter to God! God alone commands, and God alone fulfills!
The poor and sick and needy are not points to be scored, or a list to be checked. They are the ones whom the Shepherd seeks to heal. They are the ones the King will save. They are the ones that Jesus counts as himself. We are not in a competition, and the least of these are not our currency. We are the ones acted upon; this is about God. God is the one among the least and the lost; Jesus is the one who lives with them. It is not about those who do a certain amount; it is about the God who became poor so that we might have food and drink, shelter and clothes, community and healing. God did all this in the Son of Man, so that we might become human at last. God will do it all, the working and the saving; God will do it all, the dividing and the judging and the laughing and the weeping; God will do it all, among the least of these, and invites us forever into life in the flock of the Good Shepherd. God alone commands, and God alone fulfills.
Come, Lord Jesus! And let the church say, amen.
This sermon was preached for Christ the King, November 26, 2017, at The Evangelical Lutheran Church of the Atonement in Asbury Park, New Jersey. The readings were: Ezekiel 34:11-16, 20-24; Psalm 100; Ephesians 1:15-23; and Matthew 25:31-46.