Sermons

pastorEric aug2014Sermon for 17th Pentecost

Hope and Love
By The Rev. Eric Christopher Shafer -
 

I have shared with you previously that I grew up in Berks County, Pennsylvania, home of the so-called Pennsylvania Dutch people. These are not to be confused with the Amish of nearby Lancaster County – the Amish are “plain” people, known for their horses and buggies and other 18th century ways and simple lifestyle.

Pennsylvania Dutch people are not from Holland but are Germans who came to the Berks County, Pennsylvania area more than two centuries ago. When asked who they were, they answered “Deitsch,” the word for German in their native German language. Deitsch was immediately mistranslated and became “Dutch” and the term stuck. A German-related dialect language called “Pennsylvania Dutch” was used widely in that area, at least until World War I when anything German became suspect. I never mastered the language, but I certainly heard it. Most of the language has now disappeared but much of the culture is still around. And, you have got to like a culture in which Groundhog Day is the major holiday of the year!

I thought again of the Pennsylvania Dutch people when I read today’s Gospel lesson from St. Matthew, especially Jesus’ story of the man with two sons. As a pastor serving in that area of Pennsylvania, I could always count on many, if not most, of my members to be like that first son. When asked to do something, they would often say “no” or, at least, hesitate or not even respond. And then, most often, they would do as I had requested. Quietly. Just like the first son in Jesus’ parable. It was very frustrating until I figured out that, for whatever reason, it was cultural and had nothing to do with me or anyone else. I just had to wait and most things would get quietly done.

In today’s Gospel lesson from St. Matthew, Jesus has just argued with the chief priests and scribes and put them in their place, so to speak. Jesus knows that his authority has come from God. The chief priests and scribes do not want to recognize Jesus’ authority, but they also are afraid to suggest otherwise because they know the people love Jesus. So they are silent. Jesus catches them in their unwillingness to respond.

Then Jesus tells the quick parable of the man with two sons. One son says he will not work in his father’s vineyard, but then does. The other son agrees to work in his father’s vineyard but then does not.

We do not know why the first son changed his mind and did as his father had asked, a request he had first refused – perhaps he had another commitment or was feeling overwhelmed by everything in life, perhaps he was annoyed at his father for asking for help. Perhaps his father had asked one too many times.

For whatever reason, the first son changes his mind and helps his father. For this son, the future is now more open. He can respond to his father’s request and invitation. As he responds, the first son proves himself faithful to his father’s request and invitation. He can live in his father’s hopes for him.

We all know people like both of the sons in Jesus’ story, people who say they will do something and do not do it and others who, like the Pennsylvania Dutch, say they will not do something, but then do it anyway!

neverBeyondGodsReachJesus tells this story to make a very important point – the future is open for those who follow Jesus.

This is a pivotal moment for Jesus in St. Matthew – Jesus is inviting his adversaries and friends into an open future, one not dominated by arguments and opposition of the past, but one that is open to the movement of God’s spirit to heal, revive, restore, to make “all things new.” The chief priests and scribes do not, perhaps cannot, accept Jesus’ invitation – they have too much at stake in the past – it has created their primary identity and, whatever its limitations, they have become dependent on this identity. They refuse to trade that past for a more open future.

But those who followed Jesus, people who were often the poor and marginalized of Jesus’ day, people like “tax collectors and prostitutes,” as today’s text tells us, these people do realize that the identity created by their past does not bring them life. These folks grab hold of Jesus’ promise of a new, open future.

And, today, Jesus makes that same promise to us. No matter what we have done, no matter what may have been done to us, the future, our future, is still open. Whatever hurt we may have experienced or done in the past is, ultimately, in the past. We do not have to allow it to determine or dominate our future. We do not have to drag our past on our back like a snail drags its shell.

We are, finally, more than the sum total of all that has happened to us. We are more than the sum total of all that has happened to us. The future is open. With God, our future is open.

God, the author of all life, regularly invites us into a new relationship with him. God will not count our past deeds, mistakes, griefs or hurts against us. God refuses to define us by what we do, have done, or by what has been done to us, but instead regards us always and only as God’s beloved children.

And, this also takes us back to the first part of today’s Gospel lesson from St. Matthew, to Jesus’ question about authority – to what do we give authority in and control over our lives? If, in Jesus, our future is open, then we can move beyond what we have given authority to in the past and let go of what might be holding us back from a more open future.

We had our music staff team meeting last Sunday and we spoke of the importance of what we are doing in worship, especially in these troubled times for our nation and the world. One of our team said it well, “People are looking for hope.”

Today’s Gospel offers this hope. Someone who has refused to listen to God may yet change her or his mind. It is never too late to respond to God – our past and current actions do not determine our future. No one is ever beyond God’s reach.

No matter where we have been in the past, God is ready to meet us in the present and offer us a hopeful future. And this hope is not dependent on current or past events in our lives or in the world. It is only dependent on God’s love for us.

God is here, inviting us into God’s kingdom today and every day. Each and every moment has the possibility for receiving God’s grace, God’s love, for us.

And, here’s more good news – no matter what you think of our US President, NFL players, the Affordable Care Act, no matter where you are on the political spectrum – Republican, Democrat, Independent, no matter – God is reaching out to you today with God’s gift of acceptance and love and forgiveness. Each of us is a child of God whom God loves, adores and is speaking to right here and now. God only asks that we, too, keep trying to listen to and understand and love each other.

One of the hymns I turn to in my own troubled times is “My Hope Is Built on Nothing Less.” Here are some quotes from that hymn: “My hope is built on nothing less than Jesus’ blood and righteousness … No merit of my own I claim but wholly lean on Jesus’ name …. On Christ, the solid rock I stand, all other ground is sinking sand.”

In these times when hope may seem in short supply we have a God who loves us, is always reaching out to us, is here for us each and every day, in every and all time and place. We stand on Christ, our rock and our redeemer. In hope. Today and all days.

Amen.

(With thanks to the Rev. Dr. David Lose).

The Rev. Eric Christopher Shafer
Senior Pastor - Mt. Olive Lutheran Church
Santa Monica, California
Sept 30 & Oct 1, 2017


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