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the sermon for

the Fifth Sunday after Pentecost

09 July 2017

Matthew 11:16-19 , Matthew 11:25-30
Not by law, but by love!

07092017"For John came neither... nor..., and they say, 'He has a demon'; the Son of Man came both... and..., and they said, 'Look, a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!'"

I have to confess, in the past, every time this passage came around, I've chosen to ignore it! To pretend it, simply, doesn't exist! On the surface, it appears so plain and simple. But I have to tell you, when you have to find something in it to preach... well, it has a way of complicating things! But this time... This time, I thought I'd rise to the challenge! And by Thursday, I had a pretty good introduction! Unfortunately, that's all I had and I couldn't figure out where to go from there. So, last night, I just went to bed! Call it a day! Trusting that sometime while I was sleeping, I'd come up with something! With anything! Not in a mystical, metaphysical sort of way. It's just that I learned, a long time ago, that your brain does its best work when you're not helping it! And I'm happy to say – I'm REALLY happy to say – when I woke up, this morning, I was inspired!

The message was simple enough. Just a couple of words. Two ways! Two ways of thinking! Two ways of believing! Two ways of living! That's what Jesus is talking about! There's John's way and there's Jesus' way! The baptist's way and the Son of Man's way! And they are mutually exclusive! As different from each other as night from day! That's where the flute playing and wailing enter in. The crowd knew there were two very distinct visions. And they couldn't decide which one was right. Which one to believe in! Which one to stake their life on!

John was all about dividing people into groups. The good, the bad. The righteous, the unrighteous. Sheep and goats. Grain and chaff. Wheat and tares. And the line was drawn not with the point of a sword, but with an axe at the roots and a winnowing fork in hand. Wrath. Retribution. That's what John proclaimed. Fire. Brimstone. It's what the crowd expected. What the crowd wanted. And then, there was Jesus. Forgiveness. Compassion. Patience. Understanding. No judgments. No lines. No separations or divisions. Only love. Only love.

Two ways. Two different, distinct ways. Each one, like I said, mutually exclusive of the other. But my problem, I realize now, is that I thought Jesus was saying they were both the same. John. Jesus. Somehow one was as good as the other. But that's where that final line comes in. "Yet wisdom is vindicated by her deeds." "Yet wisdom is vindicated by her deeds." Which is right? Jesus? John? Jesus says, "Only time will tell! Only time will tell!" That was then. But two thousand years, one hundred generations, later... We bear the name of Christ and not John! In hindsight, time has told! It's not the one who kept raising the bar... It's not the one who kept people out... the unworthy... the undeserving... It's the one who lowered the bar! Who let people in! It's the glutton! And the drunkard! The friend of tax collectors and sinners! For John, it's always about the few! For the Son of Man, it's the many and the all!

Frankly, I think that's why the United States is as divided as it has ever been. Popular religion, here in America, has more in common with John than it does with Jesus! We need – politically speaking – fewer prophets and more gluttons and drunkards! More friends of tax collectors and sinner! At least, metaphorically speaking! But I digress...

For John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say. "He has a demon!"
The Son of Man came doing both, and they called him a glutton and a drunkard!
A friend of tax collectors and sinners!
[A friend of the down and out, of the lowest and the least!]
Yet wisdom is vindicated by her deeds!

And time has, indeed, told! John, in and of himself, has no redeeming value! The only value he has had is that of pointing to Jesus! All the ranting, all the raving, all the finger-pointing and fist-shaking, has done nothing to bring the kingdom closer! Only Jesus has done that! Only Jesus does that! Simply, by loving! Loving the loveless! Loving the unlovable! And that has changed the world, forever! Forever!

"Bear fruit worthy of repentance!" That's the gospel according to John the Baptizer! "Don't just say you're sorry, show it! Show it or else!

"Come to me all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens and I will give you rest!" That is Jesus' proclamation of good news! "I am gentle and humble of heart!" That is something John would never, could never, say!

Two ways! As different as night and day! As distinct as east and west! They have nothing – absolutely nothing – in common! One is reward, the other gift! One command, the other promise! The one earned, the other undeserved!

For John, it's the law that's always important! More important than people! For Jesus, it just the reverse, just the opposite! People are always the bottom line! People are forever the last word!

For Jesus, it's not the austerity! It's not the ascetics! Self-denial for its own sake! It's taking up a cross – someone else's cross, a cross that's not your own – and carrying it so they don't have to! And that... that is altogether different!

John came neither eating nor drinking and he did it all for god. Jesus came both eating and drinking, and he did it all for us! Yes, on behalf of god! But for our sake, nonetheless! And it's been Jesus, ever since, who has changed lives! Who has made a difference! Wisdom vindicated by her deeds!

God doesn't love only the lovely, only the loveable! God loves the lovely, the unlovable, so that they might become, so that they might be, lovely! It's like Luther said, "God doesn't love us because of our worth. We are of worth because god loves us!" That good news doesn't come to us in the Wilderness from John. It comes only from Jesus on Golgotha! It's spoken only by that glutton, that drunkard, that friend of tax collectors and sinners!

So, on the surface, at face value, this passage, at first, appears pretty plain and simple! But the more you look at it, the more you think about it, the more you plum its depths... Well, that's how it remains! Plain! Simple! John is not Jesus! And Jesus... Jesus is not John! And of the two, of the two only one has any redeeming value!

John came neither eating nor drinking and they said, "Look, he has a demon!" Jesus came doing both – eating and drinking – and we say, Amen! This is most certainly true! Two separate ways! Two ways of thinking! Two ways of believing! Two ways of living life! And my friends, we have taken the one less traveled! We have taken the one less traveled and that has made all the difference! Time has told! Wisdom has, indeed, been vindicated!

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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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