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A sermon preached at Trinity-Mount Rainier on the Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost (LSB Proper 23A), October 15, 2017

All Are Welcome?
Matthew 22:1-14
(Other Readings Appointed: Isaiah 25:6-9; Philippians 4:4-13)

The Parable of the Wedding Feast, found in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke, is often seen as a story in which Jesus speaks of the open invitation to one and all to come into the joys of eternal life. In it, we see that there are those who do reject this invitation, and in response to this rejection, the one giving the feast tells his servants to go out and invite everyone. This is a wonderful sign to us that all are welcome by God to come into His kingdom, if they but only hear this invitation and receive it for what it is, answering it gladly.

All of this is true and is cause for joy. Yet, as we hear Matthew’s telling of this parable, the story is a little bit different from what we seem to remember. The general outline of the story is the same, yet we are met by a couple of things which are both different and perhaps a little disturbing. The one doing the inviting seems to act in ways which seem unwelcoming, and we are left trying to figure out if the invitation to come and be a part of God’s kingdom is as open and welcoming as we thought it was. To help us understand what is going on here in Matthew’s telling of Jesus’ parable, we need to look at some of the details Matthew wants us to see which tell us about why things are happening the way they did in this story and what we are to learn from it.

The first detail is to be found in who prepares this feast and who issues the invitation. In Luke’s telling, we are told that the feast is being held by “a man”. But in Matthew’s telling, it is “a king” who prepares to give “a wedding feast for his son.” Why this is important has to do with the response given to those who rejected his invitation. In the story from Luke that we seem to relate to more, the man whose invitation is rejected is hurt by the rejection but goes on to then invite everyone he can to the feast in spite of those who said that they could not come. But here in the parable we heard today, the king, having received the rejection of those whom he first invited, punishes them severely by putting them to death and destroying their city.

In many ways, this parable continues the theme of judgment which we heard last Sunday in the Parable of the Tenants in the Vineyard, where those who killed the owner’s son were destined to be put to a retched end. Those who were invited to the king’s feast also rejected and did harm to the king’s servants who brought the invitation to them. But then to hear that this king would then utterly destroy people who refused to come to a wedding feast seems a little too harsh of a response to something which seems but a trivial matter. I mean, how many of us would feel that put out about and put off by someone refusing to come to an event we invited them to?

But again we are reminded who is the one who gives this invitation. The invitation comes from “the king”. Having enjoyed watching some period dramas lately, I have been reminded of a fact that is sometimes lost on those of us who have lived in monarch-less freedom all of our lives. An invitation given by a king is not so much of a statement of “you’re welcome to come and join us if you can make it.” When a king gives an “invitation”, it is actually his command to you that you will appear according to the king’s orders. And any rejection or non-compliance with this order is done at one’s own peril, because to do so is not only to reject the “invitation” but also to reject the one who gives the invitation, thus being in open defiance against one’s ruler.

Placing these things in the light of knowing that this parable is about God and His invitation to the world to come and to be a part of the kingdom of heaven, we may rightly find it hard to see God in the person of the king spoken about in this story. And yet, we should be able to do that. We do know that there are those who have indeed rejected God’s invitation to come and to live under His reign and rule. We see this in the religious leaders to whom Jesus first spoke these words to. We see it in those who do indeed even in our own day choose to reject the Lord and His Word to follow their own devices and desires. Their rejection of the call to them is not only a refusal to receive what has been offered to them, it is also a refusal to and denial of the very One who has called to them. For this, they stand under judgment and will receive eternal punishment as long as they continue to reject this gift from God to them.

So we see clearly that this is a case of God being God, especially in regard to His being just towards us. And yet as we come to the second half of the parable as Matthew tells it, we may start to wonder how just God really is. After receiving the rejection of those who would not come to the wedding feast, the king orders his servants to go out and “invite to the marriage feast as many as you find.” So far, so good. The king seems to be acting in the way we think that he should act—being open and welcoming, throwing wide open the doors to his banquet hall so that all may come in. Yes, that’s the way that the kingdom of heaven should be.

But then the story takes yet another turn. The king walks into to his banquet hall that is now full of guests. This should bring the king much joy and satisfaction because this is the way he wanted it to be. Yet as the king surveys this scene, “he saw there a man who had no wedding garment”, and the king demands to know from this man how he was able to get in without one.

Again, this seems strange to our “modern” ears. Having been to formal occasions, we know that there are dress codes which determine what is “acceptable” yet give freedom for “self-expression” within appropriate limits. What we hear of in this parable though is what seems like a very different type of “dress code”—one where everyone is to be in conformity with each other, and where one “sticks out like a sore thumb” if your dress is different. It was not uncommon that when kings invited guests to dine at court, garments would be provided to them, as a way of showing honor and giving a special dignity to the guests. In essence, the wedding garment was part and parcel of the invitation.

As this man comes invited to the wedding feast, he somehow refuses the garments which are a part of it. And this seems strange to us as we apply this parable to the invitation to be in the kingdom of heaven. It is strange because we tend to believe that our God invites us to be with Him and that he welcomes and accepts us just as we are. But in reality, our thinking is only partly right. Yes, our God does invite us to come and to be with Him. Yes, He does welcome us and He does accept and receive us. But, He does this not as we are. He does still seek to change us. His desire is to take us and our sinfulness and rebellion against Him—the filthy rags of our sin that we wear—and replace them with the clean garments of salvation that have been won for us by the holy and perfect life, the innocent suffering and death, and the glorious resurrection of His Son Jesus Christ. We are called to come into the wedding feast of life not wearing the garments of our own making, but to receive the garments that God has fashioned for us so that we may eternally eat and drink in His holy presence.

The invitation to this feast is one which we do not accept on our own terms. Instead, it is an invitation which we receive, knowing that not only the feast to which we are invited to share but also the invitation itself is all a great gift to us from our King who desires nothing more than our being with Him, enjoying the bliss and joy of His Kingdom, clothed in the righteousness that He gives to us. As we hear this invitation, which indeed goes out to one and all, let us all receive it gladly as the gift it is, receiving all that it gives, so that we may remain His honored guests, called and chosen by Him to be His both now and forever. Thanks be to Christ! Amen!

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A sermon preached at Trinity-Mount Rainier on the Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost (LSB Proper 22A), October 8, 2017.  This Sunday also marked the 86th Anniversary of the Founding of Trinity Congregation.

Building a Vineyard
Isaiah 5:1-7 and Matthew 21:33-46
(Other Reading Appointed: Philippians 3:4b-14)

Today, our Trinity Congregation celebrates the 86th Anniversary of its founding. Given the fact that this is a joyous occasion, one might question this Pastor’s decision to use the ordinary readings appointed for this Sunday. If one reads especially the Old Testament and Gospel readings, one discovers not a joyous or a hopeful word, but a word of judgment. It is interesting that the same is to be found in the context of the historic text which then Vicar Edwin Pieplow chose for the first sermon preached at the first service of our congregation. As he preached on Genesis 7:1, “Come thou and all thy house into the ark”, he proclaimed a gracious invitation from God, but it was still an invitation that was given to flee a coming judgment, namely the flood.

So, what “positive” message are we to find in these readings we have heard proclaimed to us today? In a town known for “spinning messages”, perhaps it is for this preacher to turn what sounds negative into something positive. Well, to do so may put this proclaimer into some trouble if he tries to change the message that we already find here. And perhaps it is we who need to listen better to these words so that we come to realize what this message is all about, that at their heart is not simply a negative message of judgment, but a message to encourage us to be the people whom our God intends us to be.

Part of the reason I chose to keep this Sunday’s readings for the commemoration of our Anniversary was because of the beautiful image which is found in both the Old Testament and Gospel lections—the Vineyard of the Lord. Interestingly enough, there is a painting in the City Church of Saint Mary in Wittenberg, Germany which uses this very image to contrast the work of the Lutheran Reformers with the Pope and the Roman Catholics. Yet, what this Biblical image is really all about has much to say to us about what we celebrate today and in this Reformation month, and who we are and what we are called to be about.

Both Isaiah and our Lord Jesus tell us today about a vineyard. And in both cases, we hear that this vineyard is a symbol of God’s people Israel. The story of this vineyard of the Lord then goes on to be applied to God’s people the Church. So from Israel to the Church, the vineyard is God’s people of all times and places, called to be His own and called to live according to His Word and will.

We are the Vineyard of the Lord. Yet, the first lesson we must learn is that we do not come into existence on our own, nor do we do anything to create ourselves. In both Isaiah’s “love song” and in Jesus’ parable, the verbs connected with the vineyard’s establishment—dug, cleared, planted, built, hewed—all are directed at one person: the Lord to whom this vineyard belongs.

The vineyard is created by and for its Creator. Everything in the vineyard—from the plants to the workers—all exist because of the One who made this place for Himself. So it is also with the people of God that this vineyard represents. We are not the people of God because we somehow gather ourselves together and say that this is so. We are the people of God because God Himself calls us, gathers us, enlightens and sanctifies us, and blesses us with His gifts and Spirit. God is the One who builds this vineyard, and then it is He who places us into it.

After we learn this, the second lesson we must also learn is to know why and for what purpose this vineyard has been created. If we as God’s people are to be seen as the Vineyard of the Lord, then our purpose must be quite obvious: we are created to bear fruit. Yet as we listen to Isaiah and our Lord Jesus today, we see that there is a problem. “What more was there to do for My vineyard, that I have not done for it? When I looked for it to yield grapes, why did it yield wild grapes?”

As we hear here and elsewhere in the Scriptures when this vineyard imagery is used about God and His relationship with us His people, God’s expectation of us is that we will bear for Him good and abundant fruit which shows itself useful for Him and His purposes. What is interesting in our readings is that the vineyards are actually fruitful—they do indeed bear fruit, just the wrong kind. In Isaiah’s “love song”, God finds His vineyard bearing “wild grapes”—still grapes, but completely worthless and good for nothing. And in Jesus’ parable, these “wild grapes” are personified in rebellious and wicked tenants who desire what they want and not the will of the One who owns the vineyard.

The lesson for us here is not simply about knowing what we are to be about doing, but to know that we are called to do it according to God’s way. Being God’s people is not about us trying to accomplish what we want or even what we think God wants. God wants us to bear the fruit He has created us to bear for Him. He wants us to be people who are connected to Him and His Word which feeds, sustains, and nourishes us, and which more than this, creates us into being the very people He intends us to be. He calls us to live in His righteousness and to reflect His holiness and justice, being signs to the world of His life that dwells within us and which He desires to give to all. As we do this, not of ourselves but of God’s work in us, we show ourselves to all as God’s people and His “pleasant planting”.

So the final lesson for us to learn from these things comes from our asking the question, “How do we do this?” Remembering the first lesson that it is God who creates the vineyard that is His people, is where we also learn how we are to be the people God intends for us to be. As Jesus concludes His parable, He switches images from the vineyard to the construction of a building. He quotes the words of Psalm 118: “The Stone that the builders rejected has become the Cornerstone; this is the Lord’s doing, and it is marvelous in our eyes.”

With these words, we are reminded on what God’s vineyard—His people—is founded. It is our Lord Jesus Christ, the Chief Cornerstone, on whom God’s people are built. He is the very Source of our life and from Him we grow into the people He intends us to be. He is the soil from which we take root, and as we are sustained by Him we will always reflect His life in our own. Now, to be sure, we do not always do this perfectly. Yet, our God in love constantly calls us back to Himself so that we may hear His voice again and live that Word which calls us back to life that we may live in, with, by, and through His life.

In every place where God gathers His people—including this place—He has built a vineyard: a place where His honor and glory are shown as we bear the fruit of faith and praise which He desires us to bring forth. We are indeed the planting of the Lord, called to be the sign of His love and grace to the world, calling all to come and see what the Lord has done and can do as that love and grace has its way in our lives, working out God’s purpose for us and for all. Finding our life in Him, being always founded and rooted in Him, may God’s vineyard always show and declare His glory. God grant it! Amen!

A sermon preached at Trinity-Mount Rainier on the Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost (LSB Proper 21A), October 1, 2017

The Dependable One
Matthew 21:23-32
(Other Readings Appointed: Ezekiel 18:1-4, 25-32; Philippians 2:1-4, 14-18)

In any group of people—be it family, friends, work, even church—there can be a tendency to “classify” others by their characteristics. We sometimes know people as “the quiet one”, “the thoughtful one”, “the caring one”, and on goes an endless list of possible adjectives. Among all of these descriptors, perhaps the one which is the greatest complement is to be called “the dependable one”. This is the person who can always be relied on to get things done and always follows through on their promises.

Today’s Gospel brings us into the events of our Lord Jesus’ final week in Jerusalem. During the days leading up to His Passion, Jesus seems to be brought into round after round of questioning from His opponents who were trying to trick and trap Him in His words, seeking a way to accuse Him later as they prepared to solve their “Jesus problem” once and for all by having Him put to death.

As the week we know of as Holy Week begins, a group from the religious leadership comes to Jesus to challenge Him. They want to know where He thinks His authority comes from. Really, what authority did He think He had to enter Jerusalem to the praise of the crowds calling Him “the Son of David”? What authority did He think He had to walk into the Temple and disturb the officially sanctioned “business” that went on there? What authority did He think He had to question them and their teaching, based on hundreds of years of religious tradition? Continue Reading »

A sermon preached at Trinity-Mount Rainier on the Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost (LSB Proper 20A), September 24, 2017.

It’s Not Fair!
Readings Appointed
(Isaiah 55:6-9; Philippians 1:12-14, 19-30; Matthew 20:1-16)

Have you ever found yourself in a position where you had to wonder about the fairness of a decision that had been made? For many of us, we feel and believe that we have a strong sense of fair play and of justice. And so, when we hear of something that seems to go against our particular sense of what fairness is, we often end up exclaiming, “It’s not fair!”

In today’s Gospel, we are presented with what seems to be a case of possible injustice. In this parable that our Lord speaks today, we cannot quite make sense of what this landowner was thinking as he paid those who worked for him in his vineyard. We too marvel at the fact that this man would pay the same wage for different amounts of work. We can easily understand and sympathize with the position of those hired first, siding with them with what seems to be the lack of fairness that the landowner was showing. Yet, we can also find ourselves probably agreeing with the landowner that he is indeed free to do what he wishes with his money. But even with our conflicted thoughts, we still have to ask does that make what he did right or fair?

When we read this parable, we need to remember what it is not. What it is not about is how one should go about paying wages and one’s relations with laborers. What this parable is all about is how our God relates to us and gives to us His gifts. Continue Reading »

A sermon preached at Trinity-Mount Rainier on the Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost (LSB Proper 19A), September 17, 2017.

The Unforgivable Sin?
Matthew 18:21-35
(Other Readings Appointed: Genesis 50:15-21; Romans 14:1-12)

What is “the unforgivable sin”? According to the Scriptures, that sin was defined when Jesus declared, “Every sin and blasphemy will be forgiven people, but the blasphemy against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven” (Matthew 12:31). Theologians have taken to interpret this verse with the understanding that “the blasphemy against the Holy Spirit” is nothing less than the denial and rejection of God, which becomes unforgivable because one is denying the Source of forgiveness. And then, taking Jesus’ Word at its face value, when He says, “Every sin will be forgiven people,” we come to the conclusion that, apart from the denial of God and rejecting Him and His forgiveness, all other sins are forgivable by God.

It is then interesting that theologians and other teachers of the Scriptures at various times in the Church’s life somehow came to see some sins more unforgivable than others. For example, there was a time that suicide was taught to be “the unforgivable sin” because the victim of suicide could not have the chance to repent of this sin before they died, and because of this the deceased could not be given Christian Burial. Yet, coming to understand the nature of mental illness, the despair that often drives people to this act, and even some of the “mechanics” in committing the act of taking one’s life, many Churches have come to see that a suicide may not be automatically damning, and to leave that judgement in the hands of the One to whom it really belongs—God.

These thoughts were in my mind as I meditated on today’s Gospel. Here again we hear Peter’s famous question, “Lord, how often will my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? As many as seven times?” To this question, we also hear Jesus’ equally famous answer, “I do not say to you seven times, but seventy-times seven.” And then to help Peter, the Disciples, and even us today to understand what He meant, Jesus taught them this truth about forgiveness through the telling of the Parable of the Unmerciful Servant. Continue Reading »

A sermon preached at Trinity-Mount Rainier on the Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost (LSB Proper 18A), September 10, 2017.

Tough Jobs
Matthew 18:1-20
(Other Readings Appointed: Ezekiel 33:7-9; Romans 13:1-10)

Every once in a while we will hear someone telling somebody else, “Well, it’s a tough job; but somebody’s got to do it.” Usually the implication behind such a statement is an admission that a task which someone has been given to do is indeed a difficult one, and there is a degree of sympathy for the person who has to do it. And yet, at the very same time, one can sense a degree of thanksgiving for one’s self that says, “And thankfully, I don’t have to do it.”

Last Sunday, we looked at how the Christian life is marked by the hard tasks we are called to do which show us Whose we are and to Whom we belong. This Sunday’s readings carry on with this same theme, and perhaps again we are left with having to do a little bit of head shaking and wondering: “Is this what I really signed up for?”

The eighteenth chapter of Matthew’s Gospel is quite “hard hitting” with its demands and its imagery. It is one of those moments where we hope that Jesus isn’t speaking literally and is just using hyperbole to get a point across to His hearers. Could anyone imagine a world filled with blinded and maimed people, because after all we know that everyone sins? Yet, if we just get stuck pondering this image of sin inflicted eye gauging and limb removal, then we will also miss the greater point of what Jesus is trying to make to us. Continue Reading »

A sermon preached at Trinity-Mount Rainier on the Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost (LSB Proper 17A), September 3, 2017.

Hard Labor
Romans 12:9-21
(Other Readings Appointed: Jeremiah 15:15-21; Matthew 16:21-28)

Last Sunday, having broached part of today’s Gospel in that sermon, I announced that I was not going to preach on the Gospel Reading this week and to look at the Epistle instead. However, after reading the Gospel again today, I’ve discovered that I may need to walk back that statement just a bit. In Jesus’ words today, if we listen closely to them, what we will discover is actually a fine introduction to what Saint Paul teaches us in his words to the Romans and to us.

Most Christians are familiar with Jesus’ call to His followers and His explanation of what the life of being His disciple is all about. “If anyone would come after Me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow Me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake will find it.” These are words which every follower of Jesus does well to remember as it is the call given to us for this life that we live in, with, through, and for our Lord Jesus.

Yet as we hear this call, we may be left with a lingering question about what this call really means. What is this denial of self all about? What is the cross that we take up? What is this “life” that Jesus is talking about? What does this call of Jesus to us look like as we put it into practice? Continue Reading »