Tag Archives: Justice

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Laborers in the Vineyard (Second Sunday in Lent) – March 1, 2015 (NL Week 26)

Sunday’s Readings:
Complementary Text – Psalm 16:5-8
Preaching Text – Matthew 20:1-16

+ Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, in the unity of the Holy Spirit. Amen. +

Last week we observed the first Sunday in Lent by examining one of the parables of Jesus and pondering how our lives are shaped by the values of the Kingdom of Heaven. In reading that parable from Matthew 18, we learned that the Kingdom of Heaven is built on God’s radical forgiveness, and that as disciples of Jesus we are called to acknowledge the depth of forgiveness that God offers to us and to extend that same forgiveness to others. As our Lenten series continues today, we look at the parable of the laborers in the vineyard. Before we find out what this parable has to teach us about Heaven’s Reign, we need to talk a little bit about first-century economics.

The scenario laid out at the start of this parable would not have been unusual in Jesus’ day. Day laborers would gather before dawn in the local marketplace in the hopes of being hired to work in the surrounding fields. For their part, most wealthy landowners preferred the flexibility (and relatively low cost) of temporary labor, and so they were eager to snatch up those workers early in the morning and get their money’s worth. It’s a little strange for the landowner himself to go out and hire the workers personally, but other than that this story would have been all-too familiar to the people who heard first heard Jesus tell it. Then, things start getting weird; the landowner, presumably having hired everyone he needed at dawn, goes back to the marketplace four more times – around 9:00am, 12:00 noon, 3:00pm, and 5:00pm – each time hiring another contingent of workers for his vineyard. Around 6:00pm, the landowner tells his manager to call the workers together and give them their wages. The first set of workers had agreed to work for the day for one denarius, by no means an extravagant sum; in fact, the denarius was just enough to ensure that a worker and his family could get by. You can imagine the outrage, then, when the landowner starts handing out the same wages to the laborers hired at 5:00 in the afternoon as he gave to the ones hired at 6:00 in the morning! Who wouldn’t be frustrated at the thought of working all day long in the sun and heat and then getting the same amount as someone who showed up an hour before closing time? What’s going on here?

What’s going on is that Jesus is describing God’s economy and not the world’s. As human beings, we have this intrinsic sense that people should be rewarded in accordance with what they’ve done. Logic dictates that people who work harder should be paid more, and this logic of fairness largely governs the way that we look at the world, to the point that we read it into this parable. Why were those workers standing around at five o’clock, anyway? Was it because they were lazy or because they showed up late, as is often assumed? The parable reveals the answer: they hadn’t been hired. It’s likely, in fact, that they’d been passed over by the landowner in our story all those times for some reason or another. No matter the reason, though, it’s not fair to pay all these guys the same amount, is it? Well, no. But that was never the agreement. The first workers agreed that they’d work for that denarius. Then the workers hired at nine went into the vineyard when the landowner offered to pay them what is “just” or “right”. Though it’s not explicitly stated, it’s not difficult to imagine that the invitation was the same to the workers hired at noon, three, and five. What was just in this scenario, then? In the eyes of this landowner, justice was not paying these workers in proportion to the amount that they worked, but paying them enough to make it through the day!

In responding to the outrage of the first workers, the landowner expresses the difference between our understanding of fairness and the goodness of the kingdom of heaven: ‘Friend, I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for the usual daily wage? 14Take what belongs to you and go; I choose to give to this last the same as I give to you. (Matthew 20:13-14, NRSV) For Jesus, to give the same amount to the last workers as to the first is to do what is just and good, and to reflect the values of God’s righteous reign.

Last week we learned that a community of the forgiven must be a forgiving community.* This week, Jesus’ parable teaches us that God’s generosity goes beyond business as usual, and God’s generosity is our business.. How might this work itself out in practice during this Lenten season? Perhaps you find yourself struggling with uncharitable thoughts toward others; you might consider taking time this week to cultivate generosity of spirit by intentionally thinking and speaking well of people you dismiss or demean for one reason or another. Maybe you have a tendency to regard some group of people as undeserving of generosity; you might consider how this parable invites you to empathize with those in need and, maybe, to extend generosity where you might not have otherwise. Maybe your circumstances have left you feeling that you are undeserving of generosity yourself; you might consider reflecting on the boundary-breaking love of God and allowing yourself to receive the generous mercy and grace that God offers to you in Christ Jesus.

Brothers and sisters, the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand, and with it God’s forgiveness and generosity have come. As we enter the second week of Lent, let us pray that God would grant us the strength to leave behind the ways of this world and to embody that forgiveness and generosity, both as individuals and as a community formed by the values of the Kingdom. Thanks be to God. Amen.

*R.T. France, The Gospel of Matthew, New International Commentary on the New Testament, Wm. B. Eerdmans (Grand Rapids, MI: 2007), 702.

Faith as a Way of Life (Advent I) – Sunday, November 30, 2014 (NL Week 13)

Sunday’s Readings:
Complementary Text: Matthew 26:36-38
Preaching Text: Habakkuk 1:1-4; 2:2-4; 3:17-19

+ Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, in the unity of the Holy Spirit. Amen. +

 As he surveyed his people and his country, the prophet Habakkuk did not find much cause for celebration.

He saw the Babylonian army amassing on the horizon, preparing to swoop into Jerusalem and destroy that holy city, and he could no longer contain his cry: How long, O Lord?

He saw his own people thrown into despair, as their leaders traded justice and righteousness for their own comfort and political expedience, and he could not hold back his lament: How long, O Lord?

He remembered the promises of God that had been proclaimed throughout the centuries and wondered how he could continue clinging to them as that questioning cry escaped his lips: How long?

In our own time, we look around at our nation and our world, and often find little cause for celebration.

We see agents of terror and fear wreaking havoc on our allies and threatening our shores, and in our most honest moments we join the cry: How long, O Lord?

We see people at home and abroad crying out for justice, dignity, security, peace, and equity, and we find it difficult to hold back our own lament: How long, O Lord?

We hear or read the promises of God that have been passed down to us and claimed throughout the generations, and wonder when those promises might find fulfillment as our hearts cry out: How long?

Today, the church begins another year with the observance of the season of Advent. In years past, I’ve shared my belief that this is one of the most important seasons of the liturgical year, because it is a season characterized by brutal honesty about the state of our world and the content of our faith. American Christianity sometimes has a reputation for being unrealistic about the world around us, either through our willingness to ignore the problems that face the human community, or by claiming that we shouldn’t worry about them because they won’t matter in the end anyway. Advent doesn’t allow us to take the easy way out; it forces us to look at our world with eyes wide open, to ponder all the ways that it fails to measure up to God’s plan for creation.

At the same time, the society in which we live is caught between two pervasive ways of looking at our present and our future. The first is an attitude of unrestrained optimism: sure, things don’t always look good out there, but if we just keep trying hard enough, we have the tools we need to fix all of our problems and create the kind of world we want to live in. When we consider, however, how sin permeates even our most well-intentioned thoughts and actions, a focus on human potential alone doesn’t seem adequate. The other viewpoint, of course, is its opposite: an all-encompassing belief that the world is slated for destruction and that there’s nothing that can be done to stop it, so we might as well not bother.

As Lutheran Christians, grounded in the words of Scripture, we are called to resist these two ways of thinking – one of which places all the responsibility on us and one of which allows us to give up any sense of responsibility at all – and look beyond ourselves to God, the one who was, who is, and who is to come. It is this God who – as we have seen during our journey through the Hebrew Scriptures this fall – has proven time and again to be faithful to promises of deliverance, salvation, and renewal. It is this God who has continued to provide voices to remind of God’s will for our world, who has inspired generations of people to resist evil and injustice, and who offers comfort and strength through the words of Scripture. It is this God who was not content to remain on the sidelines, and who chose to become one of us so that we might know that God is with us and for us as we yearn for the day when justice and peace will meet and our world will be filled with God’s righteous reign.

That balance between realism and hope is the great gift of this season, and it is the core message of our reading from Habakkuk. In a situation in which all seemed lost, when the law had failed to achieve its goal and the nations surrounded the prophet, the city, and the nation, God assures the prophet that the brokenness he sees around him cannot thwart God’s purposes for them or for the rest of the world:

…there is still a vision for the appointed time;
            it speaks of the end, and does not lie.
If it seems to tarry, wait for it;
            it will surely come, it will not delay.
Look at the proud!
            Their spirit is not in them,
            but the righteous will live by their faith.
(Habakkuk 2:3-4, NRSV)

 In response to that renewal of God’s promise, Habakkuk is able to deliver this stunning proclamation of trust in the Lord:

Though the fig tree does not blossom,
            and no fruit is on the vines;
though the produce of the olive fails
            and the fields yield no food;
though the flock is cut off from the fold
            and there is no herd in the stalls,
yet I will rejoice in the Lord;
            I will exult in the God of my salvation.
God, the Lord, is my strength
            he makes my feet like the feet of a deer,
            and makes me tread upon the heights.
(Habakkuk 3:17-24)

This Advent, brothers and sisters, may God grant us the faith to look upon our broken and beautiful world and trust that, against all odds and despite all appearances, God is indeed working in this world to bring about God’s promised reign of justice, peace, love, and joy for all people. May God grant us hope as we remember Christ’s coming among us in the person of Jesus, as we open our eyes to the signs of Christ’s presence in our midst by the power of the Holy Spirit, and as we look ahead to the fulfillment of all things in God’s time. Finally, in the meantime, may God grant us the strength and the will to be partners with God in bringing about reconciliation, peace, and wholeness for all as we await his coming again. Come, Lord Jesus! Come quickly! Amen.

Thanksgiving Evening – Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Wednesday’s Readings:
Complementary Text: Matthew 18:12-14
Preaching Text: Ezekiel 34:20-31

+ Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, in the unity of the Holy Spirit. Amen. +

Tonight we’re going to talk about what it means to be fat. Now, before anybody starts getting nervous – myself included – don’t worry. This is not a sermon about the excesses of Thanksgiving. I think you’ve already heard that one before, possibly from me, and while that might be an important message for another day, it’s not my focus this evening. What I’d like to get at is what the prophet Ezekiel was talking about when he referred to some of the people as “fat sheep” and others as “lean sheep” and indicated that God was preparing to judge between them. In case it wasn’t abundantly clear from the reading, let me just point out right off the bat that in Ezekiel’s mind there was no such thing as a “sheep” that could claim to be living “fat and happy”. If you were to choose between being a fat sheep and a lean one, it’s pretty clear that things are going to turn out better in the end for the lean ones. So, what exactly is going on here?

Well, Ezekiel is in the middle of a series of prophecies in which he indicts the leaders of Israel, accusing them of being false shepherds, and creating conditions for injustice and inequality among the people. Some folks benefited from those conditions, and ended up doing pretty well for themselves. Others found themselves on the wrong end of the equation, and the consequences were not good for many of them. Ezekiel describes those lean sheep as being scattered and ravaged by the fat sheep, who butted them with their horns and pushed them around so that they would miss out on the bounty of God’s provision.

This evening’s reading makes clear, however, that a situation like that cannot be sustained forever, because God’s will for justice, equality, and abundant life for all of God’s people cannot be thwarted. So the Lord declares that a new day is dawning, a day in which the false shepherds who allowed things to go so wrong would be replaced by one shepherd. That shepherd was to be no one less than a servant of the Lord who would feed and guide all the sheep under the terms of a new covenant of peace and establish a new flock in which slavery would end and fear would give way to safety and security.

As Lutheran Christians, this description points us directly to Jesus Christ, the great shepherd of the sheep who was sent by God to reconcile the world to himself and bring about peace between God and humanity. He was also sent so that we might examine our hearts and minds and consider whether we are living like fat sheep or lean ones. In other words, do our words and our actions reflect our belief in the promises of God? Do we live as though we have been showered with blessing, or are we trapped in a mindset of scarcity that leads us to lash out at others? Do we speak in ways that reveal our understanding that God is God and we are not, or do we join our voices with the chorus of the nations and rain down insults and curses upon our brothers and sisters? Do we spend our time rejoicing in the freedom that is ours in Jesus Christ and extending that freedom to others, or do we contribute to systems that keep people under the yoke of oppression?

It’s not easy to be a lean sheep, but our text this evening reveals that God in Christ has promised to be our shepherd, even if it means seeking us out to bring us back into the fold. We worship a Lord whose will is a world saturated with showers of blessing, a community that lives in safety and security, an earth in which hunger and pain will be no more. On this Thanksgiving Eve, let us bless God for the wondrous things that we have seen and heard and received in Jesus Christ. Let us thank the Lord for the promise of a world restored and a community reconciled. Finally, let us pray that we might surrender our lives each new day to our Good Shepherd, so that in everything we say and do we might lead others to give praise and thanks to our righteous and merciful God. Amen.

Jeremiah’s Temple Sermon (Reign of Christ) – Sunday, November 23, 2014 (NL Week 12)

Sunday’s Readings:
Complementary Text: Matthew 21:12-13
Preaching Text: Jeremiah 1:4-10; 7:1-11

+ Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, in the unity of the Holy Spirit. Amen. +

 This morning, we join with Christians throughout the church in observing what has come to be known as Christ the King Sunday. This festival, held on the last Sunday of the church year, is an annual reminder of the truth that in Christ we worship the king of kings, the one who has been given all authority in heaven and on earth, and in reflecting on that truth we are called to remember what it means to live as citizens of God’s Reign.

Our text today is often referred to as Jeremiah’s “Temple Sermon”, because it was delivered in the temple in Jerusalem and because its message concerned that temple and the people who attended worship there. Like Micah and Isaiah, whose words we have heard the last two weeks, Jeremiah was called to bring God’s message of judgment and promise to people who needed a wake-up call. As God’s chosen people, Israel and Judah had both been given extraordinary gifts as part of their covenant with God: a place to live, a series of laws and instructions about how to live rightly with one another and with God, and, perhaps most importantly, God’s gracious favor. Over time, however, the people had allowed the covenant to become one-sided. Instead of seeking to fulfill the commandments that God had given them and trusting that God’s love would sustain them and their life together, some of the people began to presume that the way they lived was unimportant, and that God’s favor would remain with them even if they had no desire to serve as God had instructed them. After all, God had chosen to make God’s name dwell in Jerusalem, and surely God would not let the holy city and the temple be destroyed! Jeremiah’s word to the people is a call to action: Do not trust in these deceptive words: This is the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord! In other words, don’t presume that you will retain God’s mercy when you refuse to even try following the call to do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly!

As Lutheran Christians, we are all too prone to this type of thinking. In our fervor to highlight the grace of God that is ours in Jesus, we sometimes worry about even the slightest suggestion that our actions matter in God’s eyes. When we take this to the extreme, however, we risk falling into the frame of mind Jeremiah warns about. There is a difference between trusting in God’s promise as we strive to life faithfully and presuming that God doesn’t care about the way we live or how we treat one another. As servants of the king, we must always remember that the one who rules us is both merciful and just, and that we are called to be faithful to our God and King with our whole lives and to trust that God will bless our efforts with grace and love when we fall short.

I want to highlight the fact that the call to faithfulness is a call that encompasses our whole lives, because this is one of the other problems that Jeremiah was trying to address in his word to the people of Judah. Jeremiah asks a scathing question of his people: Will you steal, murder, commit adultery, swear falsely, make offerings to Baal, and go after other gods that you have not known, and then come and stand before me in this house, which is called by my name, and say, ‘We are safe!’ – only to go on doing all these abominations? It appears that at least some of the people had fallen prey to another trend that plagues us in the church today: the fragmentation of our lives. We divide our time all too easily into sections – work and play, family and job, church and world, sacred and secular – and then wonder how things can get so confused. The division between church and world is a particularly harmful distinction, because it harms our life and our faith. Dave deFreese, former bishop of our synod, once told us about his desire to put a big sign above the exits to a church he served that read, “So what?” His point was to call attention to this very problem; to answer the question of how what we do when we gather for worship makes a difference in the life we live out there? If, like the people Jeremiah is addressing, we think that God is content with our showing up on Sunday morning and then living the rest of the week as though we were never here, then our reading for today should cause us to take notice. Allegiance is not a part-time job, but a full-time calling. God in Christ is our king every moment of every day, and we are called to live every moment in God’s reign, so that God’s mercy and love might be known in everything that we say and do.

I don’t know about any of you, but I’ve found that this is really difficult to live out on a day-to-day basis. I’ve talked often about how we live in a world that tugs at us from so many different directions, that demands our time and our energy and our resources almost unceasingly. I’m convinced that this is one of the greatest problems we face as Christians today. How do we remain faithful to Christ our king when we are constantly bombarded with messages that seek to capture our attention and our commitment? Perhaps part of the answer might be found in the first part of this morning’s reading, which recounts Jeremiah’s call to the prophetic ministry. Like many of those called to leadership in Scripture, Jeremiah’s immediate reaction is one of disbelief and inadequacy: “Ah, Lord God! Truly, I do not know how to speak, for I am only a boy!” (Jeremiah 1:6, NRSV) But Jeremiah’s objection is bookended by two of the most incredible words of assurance in all of Scripture: Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you… (Jeremiah 1:5, NRSV) “Do not say, ‘I am only a boy’; for you shall go to all to whom I send you, and you shall speak whatever I command you. Do not be afraid of them, for I am with you to deliver you, says the LORD.” (Jeremiah 1:7-8, NRSV)

Obviously, not all of us are called to be prophets in the same way that Jeremiah was. But God has called each and every one of us into the Reign of Jesus Christ, showered us with forgiveness and grace and love, and sent us out into the world to strive for justice and peace and righteousness in everything we say and do. That call cannot be revoked; our doubts and fears and failings cannot change the promise and the challenge that God has laid on us in the waters of baptism and the life of faith that we share with one another. We will not be perfect in this life; only our King can claim that track record. But we have been chosen to bear God’s word of grace and peace into the world; we have been given the sacraments to sustain us on our journey; we have been granted the promise of life lived in God’s presence through Jesus Christ by the power of the Spirit. As we are sent forth from this place, let us pray that God would lead us to trust in Christ’s mercy and love, not presume that it is ours; let us remember that we are called to life-long allegiance, not part-time service; and let us never forget that the King of creation knows our very names and promises to be present with us as we seek to do his will today and always. Thanks be to God for Jesus Christ, our gracious, just, merciful, and righteous King! Amen!