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the sermon for

the Fourth Sunday after Pentecost

02 July 2017

Matthew 10:40-42
There is no faith... without Jesus!

07022017It's one of those words that, pretty much, shows up only in Matthew. The word, of course, is 'reward.' 'Reward.' It's used by Matthew ten times. The first, we came across was back in January, on the Fourth Sunday after Epiphany. "Rejoice and be glad," Jesus says, "for your REWARD is great in heaven!" Three weeks later, we read it, again, once more spoken by Jesus. "For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have?" Ten days after that, on Ash Wednesday, it shows up four more times. "Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them; for then you have no reward from your Father in heaven." Finally, this morning, in today's gospel, three more times in as many verses! Reward! Reward! Reward!

Like I said, it's an important word. For Matthew and, to be honest, for us, as well! Because 'reward' is one of the few words in the bible, that we get! We don't need anyone explaining it to us! We hear and we understand. Naturally. Automatically. This is how our world works! There's no such thing as a few lunch! You don't get something for nothing! Everything has a price! Sure, people tell us, "The best things in life are free!" But it doesn't take long for us to realize that most things, though, come only at a cost. If not in dollars and cents, then... in blood, sweat, and tears... in effort and energy... in time and trouble... Reward!

It's nice to hear, when we gather as the church, that god daily and abundantly provides! That god gives daily bread even without our prayer! But maybe not all that down deep, we know better. We know better. The sweat of our brow! The strength of our own two hands! Shoulder to the wheel! Nose to the grindstone! These are the things that really, truly mean something to us! And given a choice – between work and faith – nine times out of ten, we'll choose work! And now, this morning, Jesus himself seems to be reinforcing our decision...

Whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me. Whoever welcomes a prophet in the name of a prophet will receive a prophet's REWARD; and whoever welcomes a righteous person in the name of a righteous person will receive the REWARD of the righteous; and whoever gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones in the name of a disciple—truly I tell you, none of these will lose their REWARD.
The gospel of the Lord. Praise to you, O Christ!

Only one, small problem... That's not the gospel of the Lord! That's not the gospel of the Lord! Not even close! Not even if – not even when – it's printed in big, red letters! It's, simply, a pietistic expression of sin! It's selfishness, plain and simple! Doing something solely for what YOU get from doing it! After all, that's what a REWARD is all about! Trading one thing for another! Bartering one good work for a blessing! Face it! That's what religion's been from the very beginning! Doing one thing to make the rain fall! Doing another to make the sun shine! Religion has been our attempt of gaining a little control in a chaotic world. A cause for an effect! An if for a then! And love... love has nothing to do with it! It's business, pure and simple! It's all 'ex opera operato', as the reformers described it! Out of the work worked! Out of the deed done!

You see, that's the problem with believing in REWARDS. You don't need god! And you, certainly, don't need Jesus! All you need is you! I think that's why the church here in the U.S. of A. is the way it is, nowadays! I think that's why life is such a struggle! So uncertain! It's anchored, rooted, in work! It's anchored and rooted in work and we don't need a savior! All we need are taskmasters! Slave drivers! At the very least, cheerleaders or coaches! Someone who keeps us on track! Who keeps us focused! Someone who, on one hand, is a stick... and the other, a carrot... Try harder! Do better! But a savior? Someone who loves us? Someone who rescues us? Someone who is moved deep, down inside, at the center of their being? No.

'Ex opera operato'! Out of the work worked! From of the deed done! Welcoming prophets! Welcoming the righteous! Giving a cup of cold water! Do that and you will be rewarded! Just think of some of the most successful preachers! An estate in the country! A private jet in the hanger! A rolex – or whatever – on the wrist! And Jesus... Jesus has nothing to do with it! It's all him... or her... or you... or us...

Run the church like a business! That's what REWARD is about! No conversion! No transformation! All you have to do is be who you already are! Become what you have always been! Punch the clock! Put in the time! Make the effort! Meet the quotas! And you will be REWARDED!

That's what gave rise to the cult of saints, so popular in the middle ages! There were some people who lived their lives so well that their REWARD was above and beyond what they needed! Their excess could, then, be shared with those who fell short! It was REWARDS that led to fasts and to pilgrimages and to collecting relics and to all the rest! It was REWARDS that would lead, eventually, to the selling of indulgences! The blatant buying and selling of forgiveness for cold, hard cash! 'Ex opera operato'! Out of the work worked! Out of the deed done! Just do it, and god will react! God will reward! And as you can see, it was the whole idea of REWARDS that brought us to the Reformation! As Luther and his colleagues looked at REWARDS and said, "No more! Enough!"

Faith isn't about working! It's about god! And faith isn't about REWARDS! It's about Jesus! Because faith – if it is about anything – is about love! First of all, being loved! And then, loving just as we've been loved! And that is its own REWARD! Loving others NOT for what that loving brings us, but loving others, simply, solely, for their sake! No ulterior motives! It's not out of works worked that's important! It isn't, even, the believing that matters! It's the love loved! The love loved! For that, god is necessary! For that, Christ is essential! It can't happen without either!

So REWARD is an important word. For Matthew! More important for him than for any other New Testament author! Ten times he writes it down, putting it in the mouth of Jesus! And it's an important word for us, as well! In fact, by the end of summer, we'll have read the word REWARD, all ten times it was written! But please... please... despite its use, know this... Life isn't a payment... and it's not a reward... Life isn't something we either earn or deserve... It's a gift! A gift! Given out of the goodness and the greatness of god's very own heart! Faith isn't a condition to be met, our if to god's then. It's god's since and god's because and our therefore! Since god loves... Because god loves... so do we! And that, my friends... That is the gospel of the Lord! Praise to you, O Christ!

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the sermon for

the Third Sunday after Pentecost

25 June 2017

Matthew 10:24-39
The one thing the world forever fears... is love!

06252017You may remember, it was a crazy time! Back at the turn of the new millennium! Y2K they called it. And everybody who was anybody was concerned. How would the computers react to the change not just of years, but of centuries. Gloom and doom was prophesied. Global catastrophe. Armageddon. On the more hopeful side, however, were all those lists. The top innovations of the past ten centuries. The top accomplishments. But the one that caught my eye – especially, as a Lutheran pastor – was the list of the most influential people of the last thousand years! And Martin Luther's name was always there, hovering somewhere among the top then. And he was in some pretty impressive company.

There were articles about him, everywhere! Written about one part of his life or another. But there was one reporter, in particular, that I recall... There were so many articles about the good doctor being written, he wanted to do one from a different angle. He wanted to write an article about the church names after Luther. And nearly two decades later, I still remember his frustration. "If Martin Luther was so exciting," he said, "why? Why are Lutherans so damn dull?" His word, not mine! "If Luther was so exciting, why are Lutherans so boring?" And you have to admit, he has a point...

We're so plain, so ordinary. Unexceptional, really. We are so moderate, so middle of the road, we just blend into the background. But you know, there was a time... There was a time like the scene I just showed! A time when we stood before emperors! A time when we changed the world! It was the last scene from the movie Luther that came out about a decade and a half ago and was coproduced by Thrivent Financial! It imagines an event that occurred on this very day in 1530! Martin Luther has already nailed the theses to the church door. He's been excommunicated. Declared a heretic. Condemned as an enemy of the state. He's put in his time at the Wartburg. Translated the bible into German.

Among his first supporters was a man by the name of George. George, margrave of Brandenburg-Ansbach. A prince, of sorts. That's his picture at the beginning of the sermon. He was at Wörms that day in 1521 when Luther was asked – commanded – to take back everything he believed, everything he taught, everything he written. He heard the reply. "I cannot... I will not... God help me. Amen." It was the printers who would add the words, "Here I stand!" Anyway, George listened to the sermons. He read Luther's bible. He, even, corresponded with the reformer himself. George initiated the reform in his own territory and he became an advocate for reform throughout Germany. All the time, rejecting armed resistance against the emperor, even in self-defense. George the Pious he was called.

Anyway, Charles the Fifth, both king of Spain and emperor of the Holy Roman Empire of Germany, called a meeting of the princes of the empire, in part, to deal with the consequences of the Reformation. It must have been a dramatic moment. Stakes couldn't be higher. The future of the reform hung in the balance. The Lutheran princes, for their part, hoped to be able to present their statement of faith. If only the emperor heard, surely he would understand. But there was no guarantee.

At the start of the assembly, Charles made three demands. The first was that there would be no Lutheran preaching. The princes refused. Second, no more reading the bible in German. The princes said, "No!" And finally, everyone was expected to take part in the Corpus Christi procession the next day, following a wafer from the mass – the Body of Christ – to the cathedral and take part in worship, as they said, "in the Roman manner." To this demand, the Lutheran leaders, also, said no. Now, whether it happened like the movie portrays, I couldn't find anything to confirm or contest. He may, very well, have kneeled and bowed his head. But it was George – George the Pious – margrave of Brandenburg-Ansbach who stepped forward and said to the emperor, "Before I let anyone take from me the Word of God, I will kneel and let him strike off my head."

"Before I let anyone take from me the Word of God,
I will kneel and let him strike off my head."

In the end, when all was said and all was done, the Lutherans were permitted to present their confession. The Augsburg Confession. That was four hundred eighty-seven years ago, today! For some, it's October 31st – the day Luther stood at the door of the church in Wittenberg with his theses – that marks the beginning of the Reformation! That's what we celebrate, this year, as the five hundredth anniversary! Other's, though, consider this day – the Twenty-Fifth of June – the day the Augsburg Confession was presented to the Emperor, as the real beginning! We might be dull, now. Even boring. But there was a time! A time when Lutherans were a threat! When Lutherans were a danger! When Lutherans changed the world forever! And the heart and soul of it all was grace! Free! Unearned! Undeserved! The heart and soul was charity! Love!

This week, as I read through the gospel for this morning, I couldn't help but think of George! Of George and of all our ancestors there in Augsburg, that day. The words conjured up their images...

What I say to you in the dark, tell in the light;
And what you hear whispered, proclaim from the housetops.

The foundation, the cornerstone, of the Confession, of the Reform, is there in Article IV, Concerning Justification. "Furthermore, it is taught that we cannot obtain forgiveness of sin and righteousness before God through our merit, work, or satisfactions, but that we receive forgiveness of sin and become righteous before God out of grace for Christ's sake through faith [- out of grace for Christ's sake through faith - ] when we believe that Christ has suffered for us and through for his sake our sin if forgiven and righteousness and eternal life are given to us."

Grace! Charity! Love! That's the Reform, in a nutshell! It's all a gift! A gift from the goodness and greatness of god's own heart! Pure, fatherly, divine goodness and mercy, Luther calls it! And that is what caused all the uproar! That's what shattered the church for generations, for centuries, to come! That's what George the Pious was willing to die for! That's what George the Pius was unwilling to live without! And when you get right down to it, not much has changed in the half-millennium since then!

God still loves us! Loves us with all god's heart and with all god's mind, with all god's strength and with all god's being! God still loves us without limit and without measure! God still loves us without apology and without excuse! God still loves us no matter and in spite! And it's that love... that love spoken in the dark... that love whispered through words, and water, and bread and wine... week after week... Sunday upon Sunday... It's that love we still tell in the light and shout from the housetops! It's still that important! It still matters that much!

So remember that final scene from the movie... the one in Augsburg... June 25th... 1530... And remember those words! Those calm, confident words... "Before I let anyone take from me the Word of God, I will kneel and let him strike off my head." My friends, that is who we, once, were! But, even more, that is who we still are! Threatening! Dangerous! Changing the world! For you see, we, still, believe god loves!

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