Apr 15, 2008

Sermon Title: Every day is a free gift

Nicholas Hopman
M.Div. Student, Luther Seminary
First Place, April 2008 Round

The voice of one crying out in the desert rings out, “You brood of vipers. Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? Produce fruit worthy of repentance.” John the Baptist does not gently tell us to try to do a little better. He doesn’t offer constructive criticism; he’s not welcoming and accepting; he’s not a helpful part of any dialogue. Instead John is a theologian of the cross. He calls a thing what it is. He calls sin “sin” and doesn’t hold back.

We all know that we are sinners. Every religion and belief system has a notion of sin. But usually we are very confused about this. We tend to think of sin as imperfection. We think we do our best, but just fall a little short of the standard. But John preaches the truth. We are a brood of vipers. We are warriors in a great struggle with God for supremacy. God has revealed to us that true life comes from trusting fully and completely in him to provide us with all things. But we would rather be God; we would rather trust ourselves. And so God has given us commandments for how to live well on earth, but we trust our own schemes for achieving the good life; we trust our own sin.

Our sin, of course, does not exclude having some religion, or even repenting. John is cursing particular people who have come to him to repent. But John senses that these men have what Martin Luther called “gallows repentance.” They see the punishment for their sin coming over the horizon and fear it. So they come to be baptized by John to avoid it. So even their repentance is sin. Their repentance is one last rebellion against God, one last attempt to save their own skin. Moreover, it is their attempt to avoid true repentance and stay safe and secure just the way they are.

So John cries out, “Produce fruit worthy of repentance.” If you truly repent of your sin, you do not do it to save your own skin, but you repent because you love God. So you fear and love God and care not only for your own skin, but for your neighbors. Loving your neighbors, your friends and your enemies, that is the fruit worthy of repentance.

Ultimately caring for our neighbors is always a matter of alleviating poverty. Whether it is poverty of companionship and friendship, poverty of health, poverty of days left in this life or lack of money. Love is always attacking poverty.

God’s law demands that we care for our neighbors. The fifth commandment is “You shall not kill.” Our Catechism asks what this means for us: “We are to fear and love God so that we do not hurt our neighbor in any way, but help him in all his physical needs.”

If we really repent of our sin, if we are really sorry for it we will obey the fifth commandment and help those who are poorest. When we repent of or sins we realize that we are beggars. We have nothing to offer God except our sin. We must rely totally and completely on his mercy. In such a circumstance, how can we neglect to care for others in need of mercy? How can we claim to repent of our sin and desire God’s mercy, while not having mercy on those around us?

So God’s law is clear. Repent, and produce the fruits of repentance. Do the works that the truly repentant do. This in a way is good news to those who need mercy. This is good news to the poor, that God demands we help them.

However, the law in insufficient in its help of the poor. In whose hands does the law place the poor? In the hands of sinners. As Paul said [Romans 8:3], the law has been weakened by the flesh, namely our sinful flesh. The law speaks for the poor, but it leaves them in our sinful hands.

The law commands us to help those in need, but how many times have we already failed them? How many times throughout scripture did prophets rage against the people, telling them to care for the widow and the orphan? Is John the Baptist, the last prophet of the law, crying out in the wilderness, “Produce fruit worthy of repentance,” is he finally going to get people to start behaving themselves? Is this sermon today, is my preaching of the law finally going to revolutionize the world and start a movement that finally gets the rich and the powerful to start doing what they should for the poor and the weak?

Unfortunately the answer to those questions is simply “no.” “The law says ‘Do this,’ and nothing is ever done (Luther, Heidelberg Disputation).” The language of the law is the language of scarcity. Sure one or two people here or there might hear the law and bear fruit worthy of repentance, but sin is strong and shows no signs of letting up. Even the alleged “dictatorship of the proletariat” lead to just one more society of powerful and weak, rich and poor.

Today our nation finds itself in big trouble because of greed. Housing prices were soaring, so rich lenders wanted to give out as many loans and make as much money as possible. Now the whole system has blown up and the poor are losing their houses. Not that the poor are without sin, not even in this situation. Being poor does not prevent you from being greedy and trying to get deals that were too good to be true.

Furthermore, even on those rare occasions when the law works like it should poor people are hardly dancing in the streets. In the story of Lazarus and the rich man, we’re told that Lazarus longed merely to eat the food, “that fell from the rich man’s table.” Eating other people’s crumbs is hardly abundant life. The poor Israelites in the wilderness eating their daily gift of manna from the sky must have reflected on how far they were from the land of milk and honey.

But, as I said, John the Baptist was the last prophet of the law. Preaching repentance and obedience to the law was his proper office, but he also had an alien office. John also pointed beyond himself, beyond the law. John said, 11 ‘I baptize you with water for repentance, but one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to carry his sandals.”

The one who came after John is Jesus. He preached the law at times, but his proper office was to preach the gospel and to be the gospel. He healed the sick, he healed beggars. But even Jesus’ own healings were a scare trickle in comparison to the poverty and suffering that fills the world. He said so himself using historical precedent: [Luke 4] “the truth is, there were many widows in Israel in the time of Elijah, when the heaven was shut up for three years and six months, and there was a severe famine over all the land; 26yet Elijah was sent to none of them except to a widow at Zarephath in Sidon. 27There were also many lepers in Israel in the time of the prophet Elisha, and none of them was cleansed except Naaman the Syrian.”

But Jesus ended the trickle of help for the weak and the poor with a ragging torrent of blessing: [Luke 6] “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God. 21“Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled. Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh. 22Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you, revile you, and defame you on account of the Son of Man. 23Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, for surely your reward is great in heaven; for that is what their ancestors did to the prophets.” [Matthew 5]3“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. 4Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. 5Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth. 6Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled. 7Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy. 8Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God. 9Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God. 10Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. 11Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. 12Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.”

Christ brought overflowing blessings to the poor and the weak. He brings life so abundant that it’s eternal. Christ is the one the prophet Isaiah wrote about, “with righteousness he shall judge the poor, and decide with equity for the meek of the earth; he shall strike the earth with the rod of his mouth, and with the breath of his lips he shall kill the wicked. 5Righteousness shall be the belt around his waist, and faithfulness the belt around his loins. 6The wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid, the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them. 7The cow and the bear shall graze, their young shall lie down together; and the lion shall eat straw like the ox. 8The nursing child shall play over the hole of the asp, and the weaned child shall put its hand on the adder’s den. 9They will not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain; for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea.”

Christ has come to give righteousness to the poor, equity for the meek. It makes sense that these are eternal and not worldly gifts. Lions laying down with lambs, these things do not happen in this age. They point to Christ’s kingdom that is not of this world.

Christ is the answer to David’s prayer, “2May he judge your people with righteousness, and your poor with justice.3May the mountains yield prosperity for the people, and the hills, in righteousness.4May he defend the cause of the poor of the people, give deliverance to the needy, and crush the oppressor.5May he live while the sun endures, and as long as the moon, throughout all generations.6May he be like rain that falls on the mown grass, like showers that water the earth.7In his days may righteousness flourish and peace abound, until the moon is no more.8May he have dominion from sea to sea, and from the River to the ends of the earth.” “12For he delivers the needy when they call, the poor and those who have no helper.13He has pity on the weak and the needy, and saves the lives of the needy.14From oppression and violence he redeems their life; and precious is their blood in his sight.” All these things were written so that we might have hope in the Christ to come (Romans 15:4). Once again in Psalm 72 we hear that Christ’s kingdom is an eternal kingdom (v.5-7).

I quote these passages at length because I cannot equal their beautiful language. Perhaps as Christians we’ve gotten too used to these passages or we expect language like this in the bible, but they are of course true, and shockingly true when compared to the reality that surrounds us.

However, Christ did not fulfill these words of the Old Testament in a straight-forward way. He did not come with a mighty army slashing away at the oppressors. He did not end the reign of sinful rulers with shock and awe. Instead Christ entered into poverty. He had no place to lay his head. He suffered under the hands of the religious leaders, who claimed to teach God’s law while neglecting the poor. He died under the command of a rich government official. So Christ blessed the poor in a strange way.

No doubt we would have preferred that he provide money for everyone instead of eternal life. We would have been happier if he had been like Robinhood or if he had established a kingdom of justice for the poor on earth for everyone to see. We would have preferred that he heal all the sick and the weak. In fact when Jesus reminded the Nazarenes that he had not come into the world to heal them all by reminding them that Elijah only helped one widow and Elisha only healed one leper, what happened? [Luke 4] “28When they heard this, all in the synagogue were filled with rage. 29They got up, drove him out of the town, and led him to the brow of the hill on which their town was built, so that they might hurl him off the cliff.”

The crowd didn’t kill Jesus that day, but we did another day. Sure the rich rulers were opposed to Jesus. Rich Pilate was to afraid to do the right thing, but the crowd of common poor people also chanted, “crucify, crucify.” We wanted Christ to fulfill the words of Isaiah and David exactly as we had expected. Instead Christ fulfilled these promises through his death and resurrection. And when his death and resurrection enter us through the ears as a living word, they kill us and raise us to new life. This story of Christ’s mercy on his cross is precisely the striking down of the wicked and the oppressor that Isaiah and David promised. Christ crucifies us with his words of mercy because we are the wicked oppressors, because our dreams for a kingdom of God on earth lead us to crush Christ. But this death he brings us through faith in his words is the only death that leads to resurrection. Faith alone in Christ alone makes us sons and daughters of Abraham (Matthew 3).

So we do not get the justice we wanted in this world. But justice is a matter of getting what you have coming to you. What do the poor have coming to them? What do we poor people who live under the oppression of our own sin, of death, of scrapping out a living day after day, what do we have coming to us? 21“Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled. Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh. 22Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you, revile you, and defame you on account of the Son of Man.”

Some people will always hate us because of Christ. Some will always view the gospel of the forgiveness of sins as merely an excuse for not doing more to create justice in this world. Some will always see our looking ahead to the kingdom of God as an excuse for the suffering in this world. Like Christ before Pilate, we finally can’t defend ourselves against these accusations. We must let our enemies stumble over the stumbling stone that is Christ’s cross. Then when you’re down on the ground, when you actually are poor, when you have no righteousness of your own to brag to the world about, no righteousness to show the world for it to see with its eyes, then when you’ve stumbled over the stumbling stone, you’re ready for faith, ready for the words of eternal life to enter in.

And what has Christ to say to such poor people? 3“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. [Luke] 4Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. 5Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.” And when people curse you for the gospel’s sake? [Matthew] 23Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, for surely your reward is great in heaven.”

So perhaps now we should step back. You, who already have overflowing eternal life in faith, you will quickly realize that you are not yet in the kingdom. Lions and lambs aren’t lying down yet. The poor do not appear to be the most blessed of all people. So what are we to do? Should we think that the gospel isn’t really real? Should we turn back to the law in an effort to start making some things happen?

You who have abundant life in faith now have your time on earth as a bonus. Every day is a free gift. So what else is there to do but care for the poor and the needy? What else do we have to do with our time? Unlike the Sadducees and Pharisees we read about in Matthew 3, we are not trying to prove our righteousness to God through our obedience to the law. We have God’s own righteousness in Christ by faith. So we are free to care for all those around us who need our help and service. As Luther said in his essay, “The Freedom of a Christian,” we need no law to guide us, no Ten Commandments to order us what to do, because the Christian writes her own Ten Commandments. Before someone asks for her help, the Christian is already helping.

So I can’t turn you back to the law today like John the Baptist. I can’t leave you with the demand that you produce fruit worthy of repentance. Because the one to come, the one whose sandals John was not fit to carry, Jesus Christ has already come and he has changed everything. You have not produced the proper fruit and served others as you should, but Christ has forgiven this sin and made you righteous through his gospel. “(Romans 8:3) For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do: by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh, and to deal with sin.” Now go in peace and freedom.

Sermon Title: The way is prepared

Ben Krey
M.Div. Student, The Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia
Second Place, April 2008 Round

Let us pray. May I decrease so You may increase and may the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable to You, O Lord, our Rock and our Redeemer. Amen.

My sermon title this morning is “The Way is Prepared.” Again the sermon title is, “The Way is Prepared.”

The River Jordan is a fascinating geographic phenomenon. In Northern Israel, the Jordan flows into the Sea of Galilee. You may recall the Sea of Galilee as the location where Jesus says to Simon Peter and Andrew “Come, follow me, and I will make you fishers of people.” And immediately they did. Also at the Sea of Galilee, Jesus calls James and John, the sons of Zebedee out of their boats and they too immediately leave their nets and follow Him.1

Why are Peter, Andrew, James, and John at the Sea of Galilee? Because they are fishermen. And if you know anything about fishing, you know fishers go to where the fish are biting. There are a lot of fish biting in the Sea of Galilee. According to the Gospel of Luke, there are enough fish to rip the nets of the fishermen and even sink their boats.2

It is interesting that the Jordan runs into the Sea of Galilee and leaves it teeming with life. Then the very same Jordan River, the very same water, runs into the Dead Sea and stays there. The Jordan River and its life-giving water stops dead in its tracks in the Dead Sea.

The difference between the Sea of Galilee and the Dead Sea is that the Jordan River both enters and leaves the Sea of Galilee, while it only enters in the Dead Sea. The Sea of Galilee is teeming with life, while the Dead Sea is filled with salt and minerals, which might be great for your skin if you have $28 to burn at the mall, but even the quick-to-follow-fishermen turned dumb-as-doornails-disciples knew that you can’t catch a fish in the Dead Sea. In fact, the mineral deposits left in the Dead Sea have killed everything, even the vegetation, in the water.

The story of the River Jordan, the Sea of Galilee, and the Dead Sea teaches us about life. What goes up, must come down. What goes in, must come out. To have life a river must run THROUGH it. Not to be too crass, but this is true with our bodily functions also. If we keep taking food in but never let the food out, we would have problems too and ultimately we would be as lively as the Dead Sea. But when what we take in also flows out in a healthy manner, we will be filled with life like the Sea of Galilee.

Saint Paul reminds us not to keep our spiritual drink3 and life-giving-water4 to ourselves but “that with one heart and mouth” we “may glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.”5 Brothers and Sisters, we cannot keep the Good News of Jesus Christ to ourselves and be alive! We must glorify God if we want to be the Sea of Galilee. If we keep it to ourselves, we will suffer the same fate as the Dead Sea.

Let’s face it. Let’s be real with ourselves. Overall, Lutherans have problems with this. We are justified by faith through grace, and not by works. We don’t need to do anything to be saved. Even if Lutheran Services in America serves 6 million unduplicated clients a year,6 we don’t have to do it. That’s just a nice little bonus.

In an interview with Dr. Lauren Artess, a specialist in Labyrinths, Artess explains that the whole Christian tradition has a false sense of the relationship between contemplation and action. We do not think going to Church and contemplating God’s grace and unconditional love has any real impact on our actions in the world. We say “Go in peace and serve the Lord” or “Go in peace and remember the poor” or “Go in peace, Christ goes before you.” But when we leave the prayerful house of God where we have contemplated the Law and Gospel in our Scriptures and our world, do we then forget what we just contemplated when we watch the evening news? As Luther put it, “it is impossible to separate works from faith, quite as impossible as to separate heat and light from fire.”7 And we should not forget, John the Baptist prepares the way for the One who “will baptize … with the Holy Spirit and with fire.”8 We are not baptized with apathy or cultural amnesia, but quite the opposite. We are baptized by a God of the living, not of the dead.9

We tend to put our contemplations and our actions into different compartments. When Luther said a thousand monks could pray for a thousand years and not do the good that a father does changing one of his son’s diapers, Luther was not putting faith and actions into different compartments - just like you can’t put heat, light, fire, and the Holy Spirit into different compartments. It doesn’t work that way. As Garrison Keillor put it, “going to church no more makes you a Christian than standing in a garage makes you a car.”10

So, now, what is a Christian, then, if it is not someone who just goes to church? A Christian, by definition, is Christ-like. And Christ, or the shoot from the branch of Jesse according to Isaiah, bears fruit. Notice in verse 1 of Isaiah 11, Christ doesn’t hold onto the fruit, He doesn’t keep the fruit for Himself, He only bears the fruit or produces the fruit. The fruit passes through Him, if you will. Isaiah’s words are not meant just for Christ. Isaiah’s words are meant for the bride of Christ – that is the Church – also. Isaiah’s words are meant for us.

This shoot from the branch of Jesse has the Spirit of the Lord resting on Him, with the Spirit of wisdom and of understanding, the Spirit of counsel and of power, the Spirit of knowledge and of the fear of the Lord-and He will delight in the fear of the Lord.11

What if we delighted in the fear of the Lord? What if we were Christ-like?

According to Isaiah, we would not judge by what we see with our eyes or decide by what we hear with our ears. But with righteousness we will judge the needy, with justice we will give decisions for the poor of the earth. We will strike the earth with the rod of our mouths; with the breath of our lips we will slay the wicked.12 Does this mean we maintain our Lutheran quietism? I think if we are going to be slaying the wicked with our breath, we need to get a little louder as a Church!

If we are going to be slaying the wicked with our breath, we need to tell someone that there’s too much violence in Philadelphia.

If we are going to be slaying the wicked with our breath, we need to tell someone that it is not okay for the elderly to be choosing between medications and groceries.

If we are going to be slaying the wicked with our breath, we need to tell someone that it’s not very Christian for a nation to have 1 out of every 99.1 adult citizens in prison.13

If we are going to be slaying the wicked with our breath, we need to tell someone that it’s not righteous and just that more black men go to prison than to college. We need to tell someone that the rates in wealthy, predominantly white, Chestnut Hill and Lafayette Hill are much smaller 1 out of 99 while the rate in poorer, predominately black, North Philly and West Philly is much larger than 1 out of 99.

If we are going to be slaying the wicked with our breath, we need to start by admitting that “the land of the free and the home of the brave”14 is in a social exile in this enslaved, imprisoned, and fearful country.

If we are going to be slaying the wicked with our breath, we need to judge the needy with righteousness.15

If we are going to be slaying the wicked with our breath, we need to give decisions for the poor with justice.16

If we are going to be slaying the wicked with our breath, we need stop judging by what we see and hear17 and start loving our neighbors as ourselves.18

If we are going to be slaying the wicked with our breath, we need to open up our hearts and mouths19 and breathe out the spiritual blessings that we have received, for we do not fight evil with evil, but overcome evil with good.20

If we are going to be slaying the wicked with our breath, we need to love our enemies as Christ loved us21 even as we were still His enemy.

If we are going to be slaying the wicked with our breath, we need to love because “an eye for an eye leaves the whole world blind”22 and “force begets force, hate begets hate, toughness begets toughness,”23 and apathy begets apathy, and love is the only way.

If we are going to be slaying the wicked with our breath, we need to find those religious folks who are not accepting others as Christ accepted them and call a spade a spade24: “You brood of vipers!”25

If we are going to be slaying the wicked with our breath, we just need to shout: Hey World! Jesus loves you!

If we are going to be slaying the wicked with our breath, we will overflow the banks of our Dead Sea with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit because we are filled with all joy and peace as we trust in God.26 We can’t keep it in. We can’t hold it in any longer. The flood is coming in the form of a Child.

The Reformers could not hold it in any longer. We have a Lutheran tradition of overflowing. We have embraced our label of Protestants or protesters because we protest the wicked with our breath. When we found religions that preach buying and working your way and others’ ways into heaven, we protested. When we found religions that lifted up a quote-unquote sinless person in Rome as having spiritual powers, we protested. When we find religions that are oppressive and teach people that if they are poor God doesn’t love them and if they have become wealthy by oppressing the poor then God really loves them, we protest and say Jesus was poor. When we find religions that claim if you just pray harder you will be healed, we protest because Jesus prayed pretty hard on the cross and yet He still died to wash us clean in His blood.27 When we find religions that judge sinners, we must protest because we are all made in God’s image28 yet fall short of the glory of God,29 we are saints and sinners. When we find religions that say there is a separation of church and state so quiet down and keep your beliefs out of politics, we must protest and say God is God of everything – spiritual and political!

When we find religions that say modern people are intelligent, sophisticated, scientific, secular, post-enlightenment, critical thinkers who either disperse with the supernatural and miraculous as mythical elements of ancient and bygone dreamers who simply didn’t know any better. Or we tolerate Scripture as perhaps having allegorical significance or metaphorical value at best. “The wolf will live with the lamb?”30 Most of us don’t believe that even as we read it. Please …. Let’s face it: we no longer believe the earth is flat or that the sun revolves around us. We won’t believe we can take a passage like this seriously.

The wolf will live with the lamb? That is about as likely as having a black man, a woman, and a person over 70 as serious candidates for president.

The leopard will lie down with the goat?31 That is about as likely as having a black man and two women being the three finalists for Bishop in the SEPA Synod.

The calf and the lion and the yearling together?32 That is about as likely as the 18 and 0, previously undefeated New England Patriots losing their recent Super Bowl dominance to the lowly and unlikely New York Giants.

And a little Child will lead them?33 That is about as likely as the Word becoming flesh.34 God becoming a baby, God becoming a carpenter, God allowing God’s-self to suffer, cry, be rejected, tortured, mocked, taunted, scoffed at, nailed to a cross, God actually dying and being buried and God raising God-self three days later.

The cow will feed with the bear and their young will lie down together?35 That is about as likely as God using a prostitute like Rahab,36 the youngest son of Jesse: a shepherd boy named David,37 the “I don’t want to go to Nineveh!” Jonah,38 the zealous for the Lord39 Christian-persecuting Saul, or a belt-and-camel-skin-wearing locusts-and-wild-honey-eating40 voice in the wilderness41 preparing the way for God. It is about as likely as God using me and all my sins or you and all your sins.

The lion will eat straw like the ox?42 That is about as likely as the human race persisting through the historical record of human sacrifice, the Spanish Inquisition, the Holocaust, slavery in all its forms, genocide and ethnic cleansing to continue to reach for the societal ideals of life, liberty, justice, freedom, righteousness, and peace.

Water coming out of a rock?43 That is about as likely as the third rock from the sun in this particular solar system having just the right conditions for life.

6 jars of water turned into 6 jars of wine at a wedding feast?44 That is about as likely as a prodigal alcoholic being accepted back into their family.

5 loaves and 2 fish being multiplied to feed 5,000 people with a surplus of 12 basketfuls?45 That is about as likely as Gandhi fasting so India could gain independence from England through non-violence.

7 loaves and a few small fish being multiplied to feed 4,000 people with a surplus of 7 basketfuls?46 That is about as likely as a black preacher moving America to social change in the 1950’s and 60’s.

People walking on water?47 That is about as likely as the world’s largest religion beginning from a motley crew of 12 uneducated men, 4 of whom were going-nowhere-fishermen, who hardly ever understood their teacher.

The blind receiving sight, the deaf hearing, the lame walking, the leper cleansed, the demon-possessed exorcised, sinners forgiven, the lost found, the dead raised? That is about as likely as a group of people coming together every Sunday morning to serve rather than to be served48 and to worship a God they cannot see.

Jesus Christ coming again? That is about as likely as the same Jordan River connecting a lively Sea of Galilee to the lifeless Dead Sea.

It was in that very Jordan River where Jesus was baptized.49 We too are baptized into a death like His.50 We enter this torn up world filled with people divided among themselves. Through our baptisms, we enter this dire place as new creations.51 New creations filled with hope that “Thy kingdom WILL come” through the power of God which has been given to us.52 Hope that our faith in Jesus’ resurrection is not in vain.53 And an unfailing certain hope54 that our sins are forgiven, that if the Son sets us free, we will be free indeed,55 and that as Christians we are free to sin boldly (and have faith more boldly still) to prepare the way for “Thy kingdom”56 to come.

Isaiah, John the Baptist, and Saint Paul did what they could to prepare the way. They prophesied about the ills of society, they proclaimed the forgiveness of sins, and they raised money for the poor in Jerusalem.57 All of those things prepared the way for “Thy kingdom” to come. They have passed on that tradition to Augustine and Ambrose and Athanasius. Who used theology to prepare the way for “Thy kingdom” to come. And they passed it on to Jerome and Francis of Assisi and Thomas Aquinas. Who refined theologies for their world to prepare the way for “Thy kingdom” to come. And they passed it on to Martin Luther and Philip Melanchthon and all the Reformers. Who reformed the world away from earthly kingdoms and corrupt theologies to prepare the way for “Thy kingdom” to come. And they passed it on to Jonathan Edwards and Henry Muhlenberg and John Wesley. Who did what they could to prepare the New World for “Thy kingdom” to come. And they passed it on to Dietrich Bonheoffer and Martin Luther King Jr. and Mother Teresa. Who fought against cheap grace, racial injustices, and poverty to prepare the way for “Thy kingdom” to come. And they passed it on to us.

Now, if I may ask one more question, what are we going to do with it? Are we going to keep it to ourselves? Are we going to stop dead in our tracks like the Jordan River in the Dead Sea? Or are we going to pass it on and rejoice while overflowing with hope until we are teeming with life? The way has been prepared for us to prepare the way. The way is prepared for us to prepare the way.

“There’s a voice in the wilderness crying,

A call from the ways untrod:

Prepare in the desert a highway,

A highway for our God!

The valleys shall be exalted,

The lofty hills brought low;

Make straight all the crooked places

Where God, our God, may go!” 58


1 Matthew 4:18-22
2 Luke 5:4-7
3 1 Corinthians 10:3
4 John 4:14
5 Romans 15:6 (NIV)
6 “Lutheran Services in America” http://www.lutheranservices.org. March 8, 2008.
7 Luthers Works, volume 35
8 Matthew 3:11 (NIV)
9 Matthew 22:32, Mark 12:27, Luke 20:38
10 Multiple citations online including “Garrison Keillor – Wikiquote.” http://en.wikiquote.org/wiki/Garrison_Keillor. March 8, 2008. and “Garrison Keillor quotes – Famous quotes from Garrison Keillor from Basic Questions.” http://www.basicquotations.com/index.php?aid=980. March 8, 2008.
11 Isaiah 11:1-3 (NIV)
12 Isaiah 11:3-4 (NIV)
13 Liptank, Adam. “1 in 100 U.S. Adults Behind Bars, New Study Says – New York Times.” http://www.nytimes.com/2008/02/28/us/28cnd-prison.html?ex=1361941200&en=9f78e91a7de6aabc&ei=5124&partner=permalink&exprod=permalink. February 28, 2008.
14 U.S. National Anthem
15 Isaiah 11:4
16 Isaiah 11:4
17 Isaiah 11:3
18 Matthew 22:39
19 Romans 15:6
20 Romans 12:21
21 Matthew 5:44
22 Mahatma Gandhi
23 Martin Luther King Jr. “Loving Your Enemies”
24 Luther would describe the Theology of the Cross as calling a spade a spade, where a Theology of Glory does not call things as they are.
25 Matthew 3:7
26 Romans 15:13
27 Revelation 7:15
28 Genesis 1:26
29 Romans 3:23
30 Isaiah 11:6 (NIV)
31 Isaiah 11:6 (NIV)
32 Isaiah 11:6 (NIV)
33 Isaiah 11:6 (NIV)
34 John 1:14
35 Isaiah 11:7 (NIV)
36 Joshua 2
37 1 Samuel 16
38 Jonah 1:1-4:11
39 Galatians 1:14
40 Matthew 3:4
41 Matthew 3:1
42 Isaiah 11:7 (NIV)
43 Exodus 17, Numbers 20, Nehemiah 9:15
44 John 9:1-10
45 Matthew 14:14-21
46 Matthew 15:32-38
47 Matthew 14:25-29
48 Matthew 20:28, Mark 10:45 (also part of the mission statement of the congregation I imagine preaching to)
49 Matthew 3:13
50 Romans 6:3
51 2 Corinthians 5:17
52 John 16:15
53 1 Corinthians 15:58
54 Hebrews 11:1
55 John 8:36
56 Luke 11:2 (KJV)
57 Acts 24:17 and Romans 15:26
58 James Lewis Milligan. “There’s a Voice in the Wilderness.” Evangelical Lutheran Worship. Hymn #255. Augsburg Fortress. Minneapolis, MN. October 2006.

Sermon Title: Are we chaff?

Judy Mai
M.Div. Student, Luther Seminary
Third Place, April 2008 Round

Do you ever run back into your house just to make sure that you have turned off the coffee pot or the iron? I do it all the time. No matter how much of a hurry you are in some things are just too important not to double check. It doesn't matter if you are running late—you have to check. You don't want to lose everything you have in a house fire. Today's Gospel makes me feel the same way. It makes me feel like no matter what else is going on in my life right now, no matter how busy I am, I had better take some time and figure out if I am wheat or chaff. That is what I have been doing for the past few days as I studied and prayed about this text. I must confess I have found the whole process disturbing. I find this text disturbing. I think I am chaff. I am worried you all might be too.

At first, I tried to fool myself. I try and keep the commandments. I'm in church on a regular basis. I tithe. I can't be chaff, right? You are probably thinking the same thing about yourself. Here you are in church and this intern pastor is saying you might be chaff instead of wheat. How unfair! What about all those people who are sleeping in today? What about all those people who don't come to church at all? What about the people who don't give anything to support the church's work? Why are we chaff and not them? I don't know about them. I only know about us. I will explain.

When I first read the lesson I was relieved to see that John the Baptist was talking to the Pharisees and Sadducees. In verse 7 it says, “When he saw many Pharisees and Sadducees coming for baptism, he said to them, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?” Whew, what a relief. He is talking to them, not me, right? That verse started to get me wondering. Why was John the Baptist so harsh to them? Why should they be chopped down like a tree that doesn't bear good fruit or burned up like worthless chaff? What is so bad about them? Who were they anyway?

This is what I found out about the Pharisees: they were one of the two great Jewish religious and political parties of the second commonwealth. Their opponents were the Sadducees and it appears that the Sadducees gave them their name, perushim, Hebrew for “separatists” or “deviants.” The Pharisees upheld an interpretation of Judaism that was in opposition to the priestly Temple cult. They stressed faith in the one God; the divine revelation of the law both written and oral handed down by Moses through Joshua, the elders, and the prophets to the Pharisees; and eternal life and resurrection for those who keep the law. Pharisees insisted on the strict observance of Jewish law, which they began to codify. While in agreement on the broad outlines of Jewish law, the Pharisees encouraged debate on its fine points.

I am sorry, but that doesn't sound that different from us. We also have faith in one God. We also believe that scripture is divine revelation handed down orally and in writing. We believe in eternal life and resurrection. We believe in the broad outlines of Jewish law and we certainly engage in debate on it's fine points. If you attend a Lutheran Bible study, you will most likely hear plenty of debate on the finer points of scripture. Except that the Pharisees didn't believe in Jesus and they didn't eat Jello salad, the Pharisees could have been Lutheran.

We don't know as much about the Sadducees. They were a sect of Jews formed around the time of the Hasmonean revolt (c.200 B.C.). They were the other powerful religious and political party during the time of Jesus. They upheld only the authority of the written law, and not the oral tradition held by the Pharisees. They are believed to have had a small following, drawn primarily from the upper classes. Eventually, they reached an accommodation with the Pharisees, which allowed them to serve as priests in exchange for acceptance of Pharasitical rulings regarding the law. Their sect was centered on the cult of the Temple, and they ceased to exist after its destruction in A.D. 70.

So the Sadducees were not that different from the Pharisees and the Pharisees were not that different from us. Why did John call them a brood of vipers? Would he call us a brood of vipers?

If we go farther into the Gospel of Matthew we can hear Jesus explain why Pharisees would be condemned so harshly. Jesus had no problem with their teaching. He actually told the disciples to do what they teach. He warned them not to do what they do. The Pharisees were condemned for not practicing what they teach. Jesus said they place heavy burdens on others and don't lift a finger to help them. I think Jesus looked around at all the poverty and injustice on earth and he couldn't stand it. He was so mad at the elite groups because they had the power to change it and they wouldn't. They knew better, they knew God's law and refused to keep it. They were more worried about being respected. They went to worship and they wanted people to see them and know that they were better than others. They wanted people to know that they were better than the people who slept in on the Sabbath day.

I don't think things have changed that much today. I think Jesus looks around at all the poverty and injustice and he can't stand it. We know that Jesus had a special place in his heart for children. He rebuked the disciples sternly when they tried to keep them away from him. What do you think he would say about poor children today?

Health systems in poor countries around the world are rapidly deteriorating, and in some cases, have failed entirely. Young children and pregnant women bear the brunt of these inadequate health systems. Every year, 10 million children die before their fifth birthday, nearly all of them from preventable causes—causes that we have the power to prevent. Each year, more than 500,000 mothers die from complications during child birth. There are affordable technologies and interventions in existence that would prevent nearly all of these deaths.

What about orphans? I found at least 25 different places that the Bible talks about caring for orphans. I'll just mention one, James 1:27, “Pure and undefiled religion before God and the Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, to keep oneself unspotted from the world.” The world is full of orphans that are not being taken care of properly and soon there will be even more. Eighteen million children have already lost one or both parents to AIDS, 12 million of them are in Africa alone. Unless more is done, there will be 25 million of these children around the world by 2010. If pure religion is to visit orphans and widows, what does that mean for us?

It is not just children that are in trouble. Around the world, one person in seven goes to bed hungry each night. Look around at each other, imagine we lived in one of those poor countries. Imagine 10 of us here not getting any dinner. It doesn't have to be this way. We could address hunger not just by giving food, but by helping farmers in poor countries grow better crops and helping countries build farm-to-market roads so farmers can supply distant cities.

One person in seven has no access to clean water for drinking, cooking or washing. In addition to spreading disease, this has multiple negative effects -- girls growing up in villages without water are far less likely to attend school because they're too busy spending hours walking to and from the nearest water source.

Sometimes we wish poor people would just help themselves right? They need to pull themselves up by their bootstraps. How can you better yourself and have a better life than your parents if you can't even go to school? But around the world, 77 million children do not go to grade school because their parents cannot afford fees, books or uniforms for all their children. Those of you who are parents or grandparents, try and imagine choosing which of your kids gets to go to school because you can only afford to send one.

This is getting pretty depressing. I know you didn't come to church to get depressed. Let's look at some of the other lessons for today. Maybe that will make us feel better. I have always liked today's first lesson—Isaiah 11. I love the idea of every creature getting along with every other creature—the wolf and the lamb, the cow and the bear—even the little child and the poisonous snake. It is such a beautiful picture. Unfortunately, it is not any better than the parable of the wheat and the chaff. Verse 4 says that the coming savior will judge the poor with righteousness and decide with equity for the meek of the earth. He will kill the wicked with the breath of his lips. I am not so sure this text is good news for me. I am not poor and I am not especially meek. I don't consider myself to be a wicked person, but what if not helping the poor counts as being wicked? Can we look at the psalm instead?

Psalm 72 is a royal psalm in which the Israelite king, as the representative of God, is the instrument of divine justice and blessing for the whole world. The king is human, giving what he receives from God. The language of this psalm is beautiful and extravagant, but it is all about justice for the poor again. “May he defend the cause of the poor of the people, give deliverance to the needy, and crush the oppressor.” This one makes me worry too. It isn't good news for us. It seems unjust for nations like ours to have more than enough, while people go hungry all around the world. “Crush the oppressor” makes me uncomfortable. I am a citizen of a nation that spends less than 1% of it's budget on helping people faced with extreme poverty and AIDS around the world. We are doing next to nothing. I am doing next to nothing.

Jesus said, “If you love me you will keep my commandments.” His command is that we love one another as he has loved us. I don't want to be like the Pharisees who knew the law and didn't keep it, but sometimes it is so hard to do the right thing. Exactly how much would I have to give away to be sure that I wasn't chaff instead of wheat? How many people would I have to help? I wish I knew exactly how much would be enough. The rich young man in Matthew 19 wanted to know that too. He wanted to be sure. He asked Jesus what he had to do to gain eternal life. Jesus told him to keep the commandments and that was not a problem for the man. Then Jesus told him to sell his possessions, give the money to the poor and follow Jesus. This was a terrible problem for the man, just as it would be for us. Jesus explained to his disciples that it is easier for a camel to get through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to get into the kingdom of God. This just made me sad and frustrated. It is too hard! I can't give away all my possessions. Many of Jesus' teachings found in the Gospel of Matthew are just impossible for me to live up to. Matthew 18:8 says that if your hand or foot causes you to stumble, you cut them off. I stumble all the time. There would be nothing left of me if I cut something off each time.

I find myself asking the same question that the disciples asked Jesus after the rich young man left. “Then who can be saved?” Jesus' answer is the comfort that I have been looking for all along. Finally, the good news. “For mortals it is impossible, but for God all things are possible.” Salvation is impossible for me to accomplish by myself. It is only possible with God's help. I think we are chaff, but there is hope for us. Jesus is that hope. Jesus is the root of Jesse that we read about in the second lesson for today. Look at Romans 15:12, “The root of Jesse shall come, the one who rises to rule the Gentiles; in him the Gentiles shall hope.”

At baptism, we are united with Jesus. We enter into his life, his death, and his resurrection. We come to Jesus and yoke ourselves to him. Matthew 11:28-30 explains what it means to be a Christian.

"Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light." I have always loved this text. I picture myself weighted down with all my sin and fear. I am weighted down because I know I am chaff. I am afraid because I know I am not good enough. I have not tried hard enough to live up to Jesus' commandments. I picture myself handing all these burdens over to him and resting at his feet or maybe being carried by him. The picture I have in my head of this text isn't right. I have recently realized that I have not been reading it carefully enough. This text is not about having no burdens. I am giving my burdens to Jesus and yoking myself to him. That means his cross is my cross now. I share in his pain. His heart breaks for the poor and the orphan so mine does too. I share in his cross, but I will also share in the glory of his resurrection. That is my hope—my only hope.

May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that you may abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Sermon Title: Sinners under the Eyes of a Gracious God

Christopher Lee Halverson
M.Div. Student, The Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia
Fourth Place, April 2008 Round

In the name of Jesus. Amen.

Today John shouts out from the Gospel of Matthew “Repent!” “Repent for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand.” God is going to rule in this world with power and might. “Now, I know,” John probably admitted to the cynics, “it might seem like the glory, and might, and rule of Israel has been crushed by Roman, by Greece, by Babylon, by Assyria, by its own people in the civil war between the Northern and Southern kingdom. It might seem like Israel is just a stump, nothing more than rot and ruin.” Yet, John believes something is about to happen. The history of Israel’s domination is about to be overturned. The great eschatological judgement has come!

John is announcing God’s coming rule. He is making way for God’s vice-regent to come baptizing with “The Holy Spirit and Fire.” And when God rules His promises are fulfilled. This vice-regent is a Davidic king who is coming to return to the throne of Israel. There will be an idealized king, an ideal David. A David, filled with the justice and the righteousness of God—A David who defends the poor—A David who, in the words of Isaiah, “shall not judge by what his eyes see, or decide by what his ears hear.”

This is a scary proposition; this is a proclamation not to be taken lightly. When the religious leaders came down to the river Jordan where John was baptizing, they did not fully grasp this fact.

“He sees what you really have done!” says John. “Seriously! Repent! For the one that is coming sees the inner heart, he gazes beneath the fear of wrath, down to the center of your soul! Do you really want to draw attention to yourself with a fearful repentance, a repentance of convenience, of cowardliness… of covenant? That Abraham stuff isn’t going to cover you! This man who is coming sees things as they are, and he’s going to separate out the wheat from the chaff, and ‘the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire’.”

Here is seems John the Baptist is channeling Jonathan Edwards, preacher of “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” fame, who wrote, “The God that holds you over the pit of hell, much as one holds a spider, or some loathsome insect over the fire, abhors you, and is dreadfully provoked: his wrath towards you burns like fire; he looks upon you as worthy of nothing else, but to be cast into the fire; he is of purer eyes than to bear to have you in his sight; you are ten thousand times more abominable in his eyes, than the most hateful venomous serpent is in ours.”… or perhaps Johnathan Edwards’ was channeling John the Baptist. At any rate, John is calling for repentance and warning that presumptions of righteousness are just not going to cut it, for he, “shall not judge by what his eyes see, or decide by what his ears hear.”

An image that comes to my mind when I think of the difference between exterior and interior, between perception and reality, an image from my experiences with Mkate wa Leo, the homeless ministry my seminary is involved in, is Philadelphia’s City Hall. It is located in the center of the city. The iconic Love Park is near by, as is our slightly less famous landmark, the giant clothespin found in Center Square Plaza. City Hall a large beautiful building, Pennsylvania’s founder William Penn stands in statue form atop it. The mayor has an office there; the city council meets there.

But there is another side, an underside if you will, to this place. Underneath this building there is a series of underground walkways leading to SEPTA public transportation and to several shops. Off to one side, past an elevator, there is a fairly vacant section. Here, on hard concrete floors, propped against unyielding concrete pillars, one can find the homeless. Collapsed cardboard boxes for both pillow and bed, the far corner used as a urinal, this is where they live. A far cry from the powers above—the power brokers, and deal makers. This above ground monument, is in reality a mausoleum, a white washed tomb. If one uproots this stump the roots show, the underside appears.

“The worst thing about being homeless” I was once told, “is that people don’t see you, its like you become invisible.” This statement was later affirmed by Philadelphia’s own head of the Office of Supportive Housing. “Some people believe ‘the ideal solution is to do something so they can’t visibly see the homeless.” [1] Looking at the dual nature of the City Hall and noticing the action of looking away from the homeless, how can we say anything other than “Repent!” For he, “shall not judge by what his eyes see, or decide by what his ears hear.”

Philadelphia has a serious homeless problem. People are living in destitution right underneath our noses and embedded in the very bowls of our city, and yet we have put on magical blinders that have given us such tunnel vision that we do not see our sisters and brothers suffering on the street. Our vision has become myopic, but more than that it has been curved in upon itself. After all why do we refuse to see? Because it would inconvenience us—because it would take time out of our day—because it might force us to see the similarity between we and they, I and thou.

The neglect of our neighbor has gotten so bad—the crowds of homeless in center city have become so gigantic—that even the most firmly entrenched blinders have scrapped against and been jarred by the homeless. The Mayor elect has described the situation so: “when day turns to dusk, Center City becomes ‘a Philadelphia version of a South African shantytown’.” [2] Having been so offended by squalor in the city streets action is being taken. There is a political solution in the works here in Philadelphia. Instead of the band-aid of shelters and handouts, the very area I have focused my own energies on, the city will focus on getting people houses. This is wonderful, no doubt about it! This really will help people, transform lives, and maybe even the city!

Yet, John the Baptist, informed by Isaiah and bristling at Pharisaic falsity, echoes in my ears. “Seriously! Repent! For the one that is coming sees the inner heart, he gazes beneath the fear of wrath, down to the center of your soul!” The problem of homelessness in Philadelphia is not simply sociological. We are still a people moved only by shantytowns in our backyards. We still have magical blinders bound to our eyes like perverse phylacteries. We are still curved in upon ourselves. The root problem of the eyes, of human indifference to the despoilment of the image of God indelibly possessed by our brothers and sisters, has not been changed. The root and foundation of our personal City Hall is still build in blindness.

I feel that the three words immediately after today’s gospel reading are so important to remember and read when reflecting upon the fire of John the Baptist, “Then Jesus came.”

The mighty King of Israel, the Great and Terrible Judge, this hatchet swinging hack, this thresher of men, pitchfork in hand, is none other than Lord Jesus. If there is anyone we hope can straighten out sight and heal hearing it would be he. Jesus who makes the blind see and the deaf hear. The anointed who is baptized with sinner folk, the son of man who has no place to lay his head. Yes, the ax is at the edge of the rotten stump, ready to uproot the whole thing. But that ax is not picked up; it sits there by the tree, rusting. Instead, a tiny leaf pops out of that old stump; a shoot of green stretches out of the dead tree trunk.

This is not fantasy—nor something located exclusively in Jesus’ generation, recorded for our mere edification—nor something we can only hope for in the future. We are caught up between these two times, yearning for both Christ’s resurrection and the general resurrection. And here we are given a foretaste. Radical transformation rooted in other centered love is possible. New birth is possible.

A little over five years ago now I was volunteering at a homeless shelter in Wyoming, transporting laundry and donations by van. Sometimes a shelter resident would ride with and help me load or unload things.

There was one resident in particular who would ride with me often. He happened to have a swastika prominently tattooed on his forehead. We worked together for several weeks and during that time I did my best to pretend I didn’t see his tattoo. I put on my blinders, because his appearance made me uncomfortable.

Then one day we were driving along and he said to me, “I know you look at it.”

“Look at what?” I asked.

“The swastika,” he replied.

I was this close to responding “What swastika,” but, by that time, I was staring at his forehead instead of the road, so I replied guiltily, “yeah. I do.”

“I got it while I was in prison down in Denver,” he said. This is, of course, just the kind of thing you want to hear while alone with a guy twice your size.

“Oh.” I said, looking back at the road.

He then told me how he had hated blacks and latinos, though he used much stronger language than that.

“Oh,” I replied again, limply.

He continued, “Then I got out. No landlord wanted an ex-con as a renter. The only place that would let me in was an African American co-op. It took a while, but I just couldn’t hate them any more.”

Christ turns us toward our brothers and sisters, so that we may see! That we may, like Francis of Assisi, turn to a leper and see Christ. That we may see a branch rise up from the root of Jessie. That we might see the kingdom of God, painfully not yet here, yet extraordinarily already here.

Amen and Alleluia.

1 http://www.philly.com/inquirer/hot_topics/15848292.html