23 February 2015

Homily for Quinquagesima

"Seeing with Faith"
Luke 18:31-43

Two Sundays ago we heard about living by grace—the “sola gratia” or “grace alone” on the banner. Last week we heard about God planting the Seed of His Word made flesh—referring to the “sola Scriptura” on the banner. Today is our final Sunday of preparation before we begin the journey called “Lent.” Today we focus on the “sola fide”—by “faith alone”—on the banner. As we journey through Lent, it takes faith—not plain ol’ physical eyesight—to see what our Lord does and achieves for us. And that seeing with faith ushers us into a whole new life as well. St. Paul said it this way: “I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me” (Gal. 2:20).

In today’s second reading we hear what the life of faith is all about. God placed us into that new life when He poured the water over us in the font. And that life is all about love. With St. Paul we learn to say, “If I … have not love, I gain nothing. Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends.” THAT is the life to which God calls us to return. After all, He who calls us to this life is Love-in-the-Flesh.

In today’s Gospel reading our eyes are opened to see this One who is Love and who loves us. We see that our Lord Jesus Christ is both true Man and true God. If we don’t see that, then we’ll never get Lent right; we’ll never rejoice in His Passion. But when we do see our Lord as both true Man and true God, as Love in the Flesh—and hold on to Him, never letting go of Him—then we can hold on and endure the wild, wooly ride that’s about to take place.

In today’s Gospel our Lord shows us both of His natures. First, He shows us His humanity when He predicts His Passion: “See, we are going up to Jerusalem, and everything that is written about the Son of Man by the prophets will be accomplished. For He will be delivered over to the Gentiles and will be mocked and shamefully treated and spit upon. And after flogging Him, they will kill Him, and on the third day he will rise.” He foretells the horrible, agonizing suffering that awaits Him. But He suffers such things only as a human being can suffer. Only as Man can He suffer these things. Only as Man can He die and be raised to life again. All of these things—His Passion, the extreme trauma to His body, His life bleeding out—they all show His true human nature in the most profound way.

But then look at the second half of the Gospel. And ask yourself this: Who could hear the blind man’s cry for mercy? Who could give sight to this man, except God Himself? Only God can do that! And this is the One whom Isaiah proclaimed: “Behold, your God … will come and save you. Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped.” When’s that? When your God comes to you!

We now come to the starting gate of Lent. Our journey begins in three short days. Today carries the name “Quinquagesima”—50 days before Easter. We are about to embark on a journey traditionally marked by fasting, praying, and giving alms. So today the Church calls us to see with the eyes of faith WHO Jesus is and WHAT He goes to Jerusalem to do. He is at the same time true Man and true God. He is true Man so that He might suffer and die in our place. He is true God so that His suffering, death, and resurrection might forgive the sins of the whole world, crush death itself to death, and give us His life of love.

And let’s keep this in mind. Lent is not a 40-day period for us to feel sorry for Jesus. No need to pity Jesus for all that He suffered. After all, it was “for the joy that was set before him” that He “endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God” (Heb. 12:2). Our Lord does not suffer and die to win our pity. No, He does it to give us His love. And His love gives us life. When we follow Him through His Passion, let’s not be like the disciples who “understood none of these things. This saying was hidden from them, and they did not grasp what was said.” They did not get WHAT He would do because they could not quite see WHO was about to suffer, die, and rise again. They did not yet see that this Man before them was also fully and completely God.

When we see the WHO, then we follow our Lord—not merely on the path to Golgotha, but all the way to the joys of Easter morning. When we see the WHO, then we can marvel at the wisdom of God. What wisdom is that? “The word of the Cross,” as St. Paul says. “We preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.” St. Paul goes on: “He is the source of your life in Christ Jesus, whom God made our wisdom and our righteousness and sanctification and redemption.” (1 Corinthians 1:18, 23, 30)

When we see that it’s the Lord of Glory who stands there, not answering a word, being beaten and slapped, then we fall down and give praise to God. When we remember that with a single word—or even just a single thought—He could have struck down His abusers but did not, we fall down and give praise to God. When we see that the One nailed to the cross, the One praying for pardon for His persecutors, the One lifted up on the pole of the cross, is the very same God who fixed the world in place, then we fall down and give praise to God. When we see that the One whose blood stains the wood and the earth is the same God who stoops so low to raise up all the fallen children of Adam, then we fall down and give praise to God.

When we realize this is the One who breathes life itself into everyone and everything, and yet He breathes His last and gives up His own life, then we fall down and give praise to God. When we see this One who closes His eyes in death and is laid in the tomb, we fall down and give praise to God. When we see this One who was raised on the third day in a body incorruptible, the One who is the source of everlasting salvation to all who believe in Him, the One who was with the Father from the beginning, the One who is truly and always God, then we fall down and give praise to God.

So, before the great journey of Lent begins, our Lord opens our eyes to see who He truly is. We will travel through several weeks of returning to our Baptism in repentance. Then we will arrive at the holy week of His Passion. We will follow Him up the road to Jerusalem. We will marvel at the love that He reveals to us. After all, this is God’s heart for us. And we will welcome Him as that very gift of love. Everything that He accomplished in His Incarnation, He also accomplishes for us and in us. Yes, we get to bear His body in our bodies. Our lives become living sacrifices. Since we are joined to Him in Baptism, we are united to Him who is Love. That’s what St. Paul described in our second reading. That love—given from the cross and lived out in our lives—is the only true LIFE.

Once again today we gather at our Lord’s Table. He feeds us on the very same Body that was so mistreated, so abused, so dead, but that was also raised in eternal glory and gives everlasting life. He pours into our mouths the very same Blood that ran down the cross, the same Blood that covers all of our sin, the same Blood that answers every accusation the Law has against us. He gives us these gifts so that we may share in His salvation. And that salvation restores us to love. That’s what He created us for: to love—to love Him and to love one another. That’s what Adam and Eve fell from. And that’s why He went to the Cross: to restore us to that life of love. It’s the life He gives each of us in the waters of Baptism. [It’s the life He now gives to little Anders Peter.] It’s the life to which He constantly calls us to return. After all, He is both God and Man. He is Love-in-the-Flesh, in our flesh. And our life is in Him. That’s what we get to see with the eyes of faith.

“And immediately [the blind man] recovered his sight and followed him, glorifying God. And all the people, when they saw it, gave praise to God.” Let’s join the blind man and see Jesus our Lord, true Man and true God. Let’s join all the people and give praise to God as we follow Jesus up the road to Jerusalem and beyond that to our eternal home where Love Incarnate reigns supreme. Amen.

09 February 2015

Homily for Sexagesima

"Divine Seed"
Text: Luke 8:4-15
(with thanks to Johann Gerhard's treatment of this text in his Postilla)

Jesus compares God’s kingdom to a farmer who goes out to sow his seed. Then He tells us about the different kinds of soils which receive that seed. Then He tells us, “The seed is the Word of God.” It’s the Divine Seed, to be sure. But it’s not the only seed.

In the early 1600s, Pastor Johann Gerhard said this, “In His Creation, God the Lord not only made the earth fruitful with various and multitudinous seeds, but He also sowed a noble Seed into the heart of the first two people—it was, of course, the image of God” (Postilla, 199). God’s image—that was the first seed that our gracious Lord sowed in Adam and Eve. Pastor Gerhard continued: “From this Seed within their hearts there was supposed to sprout up and grow forth the noble fruits of divine knowledge, as well as a perfect love for, and heartfelt praise to, God. Indeed, the fruit of eternal life was to grow forth from this Seed in their heart.” (Postilla, 199). Not only were Adam and Eve perfect in that they had no sin or death, but they would also sprout, blossom, and grow to be more perfect in loving and worshiping the God who loved them and created them.

But something insidious happened. The serpent slithered into God’s noble creation and sowed his own seed. Let’s call it the serpent-seed. The serpent seduced Adam and Eve, and they rebelled against their loving God. The serpent-seed of pride and unbelief sprouted and blossomed into the poisonous fruits of rebellion, stubbornness, fear, self-absorption, self-indulgence, hatred, and even death. And each of us is born with this seed. We inherit this serpent-seed from our parents, and they from their parents, all the way back to our first parents. In fact, when each of us is born—when any little baby is born—this harmful serpent-seed lies hidden, just waiting to sprout forth with its prickly, bitter fruits of stubbornness, disobedience, lies, rage, pride, disregard of parents, lewd and crude words and deeds, self-indulgence, and so on. Yes, we inherit this serpent-seed and its fruits from our first parents, and we pass them on to our children, to our seed.

Even we city slickers know that a small seed packs a powerful punch as it grows into, say, a large tree. A little acorn turns into a mighty oak tree complete with limbs, branches, leaves, and, yes, the fruit of more acorns—more of its own kind of fruit. That’s also the way the serpent-seed works. It started out as a small acorn of believing the lie that “you shall be like God” (Gen. 3:5). Now it has become the huge tree of a fallen humanity intent on ignoring God, always trying to refashion God into our image, and every individual thinking, in one way or another, that he or she is equivalent to God.

However, our gracious and merciful God did not want His human creatures to perish. He never has and never will. So He planted a second Seed, the Divine Seed—His beloved Son—in order to overcome the poisonous serpent-seed. Right after the fall into sin, He sowed the seed of His Gospel promise. The Seed of the woman would conquer the seed of the serpent. That Divine Seed born of the woman would stomp on and crush the serpent’s head. And like a seed planted in cold winter soil, the seed of God’s Gospel promise lay dormant for many centuries, waiting for the warmth and moisture of spring to begin sprouting, growing, and coming to fruition. Through all those centuries, God made sure that His Divine Seed would come to fruition. God’s saving Seed would come from the offspring, the seed, of Abraham, and God would bless all peoples through Him. God would raise up for King David an offspring, a Seed, Who would establish an eternal kingdom with an eternal place of worship.

Then, finally, the warm, fruitful spring of God’s saving plan came. He sowed His Divine Seed—His beloved Son—in the world as He was conceived by the Holy Spirit and born of the Virgin Mary. Our Lord Jesus recklessly scattered the seeds of His teaching, His grace, and His mercy as He walked and talked among us, as He healed many, and as He endured the scrutiny of all who were poisoned by the serpent-seed. But most of all, our Lord Jesus, the Divine Seed, was planted into the ground of this world in His suffering and death on a cross. As Jesus said just days before He went to the cross: “Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit” (Jn. 12:24). And just look at the fruit! Look at the great, mighty tree of life that sprouted and blossomed and now bears fruit in His Resurrection! It’s better and stronger than an oak tree!

And God’s Divine Seed of a Savior brings forth fruit of His own kind in us. Yes, the Seed of the Word made flesh is planted in us and makes us “partakers of the divine nature” (2 Pet. 1:4). That is, the Son of God is planted in us and makes us children of God. “Beloved, we are God’s children now, and what we will be has not yet appeared; but we know that when he appears we will be like him, because we shall see him as he is” (1 Jn. 3:2). Yes, God has re-sowed and re-planted the Seed of His image in us. From this Seed come the fruits of hungering and thirsting for God, of perfect fear, love, and trust in Him, and of heartfelt praise to Him. From this Seed come the fruits of confessing our sins and receiving His full, free, cross-won forgiveness.

Now the question is: How do you receive this Divine Seed that your Savior plants in you? It’s a good question to ponder just ten short days before Lent begins. On our Reformation banner that also gives us the themes of Pre-Lent, we see the theme "sola Scriptura"--Scripture alone. It might be more accurate to call today's theme "Word alone" since Jesus--the Word made flesh--is also God's Seed.

Will you receive the Divine Seed of your Savior as the first soil—the hard footpath soil—just letting it bounce off of your ears, just letting Satan gobble it up before it can work in you to change you and bear fruit in you? Watch out that you don’t merely hear the Message of Christ outwardly, but inwardly that Seed bounces off due to a hardened heart. That’s what the serpent-seed wants!

Or will you hear the Divine Seed as the second kind of soil—the shallow, rocky soil—letting the Seed penetrate and take root, but then letting it wither and die when the heat of trials comes your way? Remember this, though. Just as seeds in the ground need the sun’s warmth to grow, so also God makes His Divine Seed grow and bear fruit with the heat of temptations and trials. St. Peter said: “Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery trial when it comes upon you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you. But rejoice insofar as you share Christ’s sufferings, that you may also rejoice and be glad when his glory is revealed” (1 Pet. 4:12-13).

Or will you hear and receive the Divine Seed as the third soil—the one with thorn-bushes in it—receiving it with joy, but then letting worldly cares and pleasures and the anxieties of our hectic lives choke out the life that God gives in His Seed? Watch out for those prickly thorns of worldly success and wealth, and all of the ways that the world makes you anxious by compelling you to consume your time. Watch out that those many cares—those giant cares of the economy, the brutality of ISIS, unemployment, illness, or personal tragedy, or those puny cares of the coolest cell phones or the latest winners on The Voice—watch out that those many cares don’t choke out the life that our Divine Seed sows in you. Yes, our hearts need to be rescued from such prickly thorns.

Our gracious God and Father is the Divine Sower who plants the Divine Seed of His Son. And that means He plants the seed of His image and life. He plows up the hardened soil of our hearts. He breaks up the rocky soil so that His love and life can penetrate more deeply. He rescues us from the prickly, choking thorns, so that His life can grow in us. That’s why Lent draws our attention away from ourselves and places it squarely on things like Baptism and Confession, hearing the Divine Seed and praying to our God. That's why the Church gives us the Divine Service every week. And that's why we schedule times for hearing and learning the Divine Seed in Sunday School, Bible class, and Catechism class.

You see, your Lord Jesus wants to make you the good soil, so that you can receive His life and forgiveness with joy. He also wants you to sprout and grow, endure and persevere, and blossom and bear fruit, now and into eternity. So, come to the Table. Here your Lord Jesus plants Himself into you yet again. Come, receive the Divine Seed that He gives in His Body and Blood. And let it bear abundant fruit in you in faith toward Him and fervent love toward one another. Come, receive Him who overcame the serpent-seed. Come, receive the seed of His forgiveness and life, and let Him bring forth His fruit of love, mercy, and life in you. Amen.

Homily for the Christian Burial of Jeffrey W. Schulte

"Amazed by Grace"
Texts: Isaiah 25:6-9; Ephesians 2:1-10; John 5:24-30

Hey, can I interest you in a music CD? It’s by a home-grown talent named “Dutch Schulz.” Perhaps you’ve heard of him? Change those words just a bit, and you can almost hear him trying to sell you one of his CDs, right?

When Jeff first put this CD in my hand, the first thing my eye caught was the name “Dutch Schulz”…and my mind wondered, “Who’s that?” Then I saw the picture of Jeff leaning against the street sign. That guy I knew. But “Dutch Schulz”? Who’s that? So Jeff kindly brought me up to speed on his stage name—the stage name that, for many, is more common than his given name.

Then on Monday evening I received a call from Pr. Bill Wilson. He said, “Randy, one of your members—Dutch Schulz—is in the hospital.” Again my mind did a double take. This time, though, there was a little recollection. As Pr. Wilson was explaining more, my mind was having a separate conversation with itself. “Dutch Schulz. Dutch Schulz. Why do I know that name? But member of Hope?” “Not sure about that one,” I told Pr. Wilson, as I searched the church directory in my contacts. Then up came “Schulte” and it clicked: “Yes, ‘Schulz’ equals Schulte, and ‘Dutch’ equals Jeff.”

Leave it to Jeff—I mean “Dutch”—to have the unique name. But it’s fitting for his unique personality. And— wouldn’t you know it?—leave to “Dutch”—or is it Jeff?—to exit this fallen world in such a unique way—not that he chose that way, of course.

The way that Jeff has exited this fallen world, though, reminds me of many a conversation he and I had through the years. I remember the many years that Cheryl, Kristen, Lauren, and Brandon would come to church faithfully, but Jeff would come only occasionally. They were members at Hope, but Jeff resisted the whole religion thing. He had too many questions. But over time, and through the faithful, patient witness of family and many friends, Jeff dared to learn more.

“Ask questions about God and religion? Of course, Jeff!” That’s what we all do, in one way or another, at one time or another. And, boy, were his questions deep and penetrating. No mere idle curiosity for Jeff. He grappled with weighty questions. Questions such as, “If God is so good, then why is there evil in the world?” Questions such as, “I know the things I have done in my life. How can God love someone like me?” “How do I know God can love and forgive someone like me?”

One of the songs on his CD expresses this internal wrestling match quite well. Even at age 16 he was grappling and wrestling with the deep things of God and this fallen world. As he said in his side note: “I wrote ‘Child of Innocence Again’ at U. City H.S. in History class, Sophomore year. Flip the numbers and it’s ironic that I’ve recorded it at the age of 61 how I felt at 16.” The refrain poetically captures the struggles we all have in and with this fallen world so full of sin and evil: “I want to be a child of innocence again. I want to be a child in a world without sin.” Somehow we know there’s gotta be something better, something without the evil in all of its manifestations.

Why do people turn against each other, or try to control one another with the tactics of a tyrant? Why do people cheat on their taxes or get nasty when the repo man comes to collect the car that they bought from Jeff but couldn’t, or wouldn’t, pay for it?

As Jeff grappled with such questions—as he knew he wanted to “be a child in a world without sin”—he also discovered that it was not God who brought sin and evil into the world. It was our first parents—Adam and Eve. God created the world perfect, without sin, without evil, and we human beings are the ones who messed it up and who keep reveling in our messes. You know, kind of like a baby sitting in a dirty diaper and not wanting it to be changed.

It’s the death in trespasses and sins that St. Paul mentioned in our second reading. We’re all there—Jeff, you, me. We all live in “the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind.” Apart from our Lord Jesus Christ, we are all “by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind.” This was the message that resonated with Jeff like a blues song in his soul.

But it was the flip side of God’s message to him that amazed Jeff. Yes, God could and did love a sinner like him. Yes, God could and would forgive him—and all of us—inside and out. The more Jeff heard that message of God’s amazing grace, the more Jeff was amazed by that grace. “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast.”

“Yes, Jeff,” I would tell him, “that includes you. No matter how bad, no matter how evil, no matter what you’ve done, no matter what you’ve experience from other people, that includes you.” And that is God’s message for you and me here today as well.

This message of God’s forgiveness, love, and eternal life in Christ Jesus so amazed Jeff that he loved to sing it. Yes, you know it—“Amazing Grace.” I will never forget the time he said, “Pastor, next week I want to bring my guitar to Catechism class, and after class can I sing ‘Amazing Grace’ and some other songs?” I said, “Sure.” The next week came. And Jeff brought his guitar. And—fitting for Jeff—it was his unique way of singing “Amazing Grace.”

You see, God’s amazing grace in Jesus Christ started to restore Jeff to being “a child of innocence again.” It’s that amazing news that we heard about from Jesus: “Whoever hears My words and believes in Him who sent Me has eternal life.” God the Father sent His Son, Jesus, into this world to conquer our worst enemy: death itself. It’s true for Jeff. It’s just as true for you. Jesus Himself suffered the kinds of evil, the kinds of betrayal, the kinds of liars, cheats, and scoundrels, that Jeff and we endure too. The difference with Jesus is that He said, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” And because of Jesus and His death on a brutal cross, Jeff, and you, and I, and all people get to receive God’s amazing grace. Because of Jesus and His resurrection on the third day, you, and Jeff, and I get to rejoice in the hope of eternal life—in being children of innocence again.

Our first reading captures this so well. God promises to prepare “a feast of rich food” and “aged wine well refined” for the likes of us. And what will God Himself consume? “He will swallow up on this mountain the covering that is cast over all peoples, the veil that is spread over all nations. He will swallow up death forever.” That’s exactly what Jesus did on the cross—for you, for Jeff, for me, and for all people who hear His voice.

Yes, we have just witnessed a shocking turn of events. A nasty little bacteria—a result of this fallen world—has suddenly snatched a dear husband, father, and grandfather, a loved son and brother, a treasured friend and colleague, a unique personality. But in Jesus, God has swallowed up the effects of that nasty little bacteria. So, when it seems like this thing called death is swallowing us whole—and in a sudden, suffocating way—look to Jesus for your comfort and hope. He has swallowed death forever. Jeff rejoiced in that message, I know. And I’m sure he would want you to rejoice in it too.

Let God’s words through Isaiah give you peace and comfort in the days, weeks, and months ahead: “The Lord GOD will wipe away tears from all faces, and the reproach of his people he will take away from all the earth.” He has already done that for Jeff; He promises to do that for you too.

Here’s the amazing thing about God’s grace, the grace that amazed Jeff. God Himself has made Jeff “a child of innocence again.” It happened when Jeff was baptized, and our Lord Jesus brought Jeff to realize it and love it throughout his life. And now God has completed that task. We can actually rejoice that, yes, Jeff is “a child of innocence again.”

I, for one, gladly echo Jeff’s poetry written while he sat in history class at the tender age of 16: “I want to be a child in a world without sin.” I’m sure those words resonate in you as well. Well, Jeff is there now! And, by God’s amazing grace in Jesus, you may look forward to that too. Amen.

Homily for Septuagesima

"Living by Grace--Really!"
Texts: Exodus 17:1-7; 1 Corinthians 9:24-10:15; Matthew 20:1-16

So…what do you think of that so-called “absolution” you received earlier? Did it surprise you? Did it sound familiar? Just in case it didn’t quite do the job, or just in case you missed it, or just in case you tried to block it out, hear it again: “As a called and ordained servant of the Word, I announce to you that God says, ‘That’s okay. No problem. Forget it. You should be sorry. Don’t ever do it again. I forgive you, but I don’t want to have anything to do with you. Go in peace, but don’t come back!” What’s the matter? Isn’t that the way you might respond to someone who apologizes to you? But you don’t want your God to forgive you that way?

Can you imagine if God had said that to the Israelites in the wilderness? They had just been rescued from their slavery in Egypt. They had just experienced the Lord’s grace in delivering them by means of the plague of the first-born of Egypt. They had just witnessed the Lord’s gracious and mighty arm parting the waters of the Red Sea and allowing them to walk through on dry ground, escaping from Pharaoh and his army. And they had just sung His praises for doing that. God also graciously turned bitter water into sweet water for them to drink. God also graciously sent them quail so they could eat meat. And God also graciously rained honey-sweet bread—called “manna”—from heaven to sustain them on their journey.

Still they struggled to live by grace. They came to Rephidim, and “there was no water for the people to drink.” So they “quarreled with Moses and said, ‘Give us water to drink.’” And Moses’ reply goes to the spiritual heart of the matter: “Why do you quarrel with me? Why do you test the LORD?” Translation: “Why do you insist on living in your sin and not trusting God and His gracious ways? Why do you insist on not living by grace?

Can you imagine what would have happened if God had told them, “Alright, I forgive you. But don’t do it again. I don’t want to have anything to do with you. Don’t come back”? Then they really would have known misery in the wilderness! As it turns out, St. Paul reminds us today, “with most of them God was not pleased, for they were overthrown in the wilderness.” That’s what happens when we don’t live by God’s grace in Jesus. But then, forty years later, God did take the next generation into the Promised Land. God did continue to deal with them by His grace. God still wanted them to live by grace—really.

But living by grace—I mean really living by God’s grace; I mean really and joyously receiving God’s grace in Jesus; I mean really and joyously reflecting God’s grace in Jesus—is quite the struggle, isn’t it? Take, for example, those workers who were hired first thing in the morning, at 6:00 a.m. They agreed to the proper day’s wage that the vineyard owner offered. They “signed on the dotted line” we might say. Then they bore “the burden of the day and the scorching heat”—all twelve hours of it. But when those other workers—those slackers who started their workday at 5:00 p.m. and worked only one hour before quitting time—when they received a full day’s wage,  for only one hour of work, well, the first workers cried foul. “You’re paying them the same as you’re paying us?! That’s outrageous!” They struggled with the master’s graciousness and generosity.

And so do we. We struggle with living by God’s grace when we think that God must favor us just a bit more because, after all, we’re the ones in church. We’re the ones who picked up our box of offering envelopes and give in the offering. We’re the ones who help out with our time, our skills, and our work. We’re the ones who have been Christians for blank number of years—fill in the number that fits for you. God’s smile upon us must be, well, just a little bit bigger, right? But that’s turning God’s grace into a punch the time clock and get your paycheck system. That’s not grace.

We also struggle with living by God’s grace when we take His free and lavish forgiveness to mean that we can live any old way we want. We go along with the culture and say, “If it feels good, then it must be right. God would want me to be happy, right?” Or, as the Israelites did, we turn to the grumbling and complaining and quarreling. After all, this world is not perfect, things just don’t go as we expect or want, and someone needs to hear our discontent. But that’s turning God’s forgiveness into free-reign with no responsibility or repentance. That’s not grace. It may be cheap grace, but not God’s grace.

We also struggle with living by God’s grace when we “forgive” others in the same way as that so-called “absolution.” No problem. Forget it. You should be sorry. Don’t ever do it again. I forgive you, but I don’t want to have anything to do with you. What? You don’t want your fellow Christian, your family member, your friend, your co-worker, to receive the same “day’s wage” of forgiveness from you that you have already received from God Himself?

Remember when Peter was a bit confused about how many times he should forgive his brother who sinned against him? Should it only be seven times? Jesus then told another parable—about a forgiving master who graciously forgave a billion dollar debt, but an unforgiving servant who could not forgive a debt of only a few hundred bucks. It did not turn out well for that unforgiving servant. You remember. Perhaps you also remember Jesus’ punchline: “So also my heavenly Father will do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother from your heart” (Matt. 18:35).

We do struggle with living by God’s grace. We love the sweet sound of God’s amazing grace, but living by it? And in real, everyday life? That’s harder. It feels more like St. Paul’s athlete who has to train hard to exercise self-control and not run aimlessly. As we admitted in today’s Collect, or Prayer of the Day: we “justly suffer the consequence of our sin.”

But we also prayed that our gracious God would graciously hear our prayers and deliver us by His goodness. Talk about dripping with the sweetness of God’s grace!

When Jesus tells the parable of the workers in the vineyard—all hired at different times through the day, but all getting the same wages after quitting time—He’s drawing our attention to God’s rich, deep, endless generosity and grace. You keep sinning against Him, and He keeps forgiving you. You keep complaining—like the first workers and the Israelites before them—and He keeps forgiving. You keep treating sin—your sin—as thought it’s “no problem,” “no big deal,” and yet He keeps showering you with His forgiveness in Jesus. In fact, not only is Jesus the vineyard owner who delights in being generous with the things that belong to Him, He is also the real worker who bore the burden of our sins and the scorching heat of the cross—all for you, and all for your neighbor.

Not only do we hear a strange, so-called “absolution” today, but we also see a strange banner for this time of year. No, this is not Reformation Sunday. But these three Sundays of Pre-Lent strike the same three Reformation themes that we know and love. Today, of course, strikes the theme of sola gratia—“by grace alone.” You and I labor and struggle in God’s vineyard to live by His grace and to reflect that grace and forgiveness toward each other. And yet God is amazingly rich in His generosity. He just keeps giving and forgiving. In the waters of your Baptism; in the words you hear proclaimed; in the Body and Blood under bread and wine. And in Confession and Absolution—when you confess your sins, even individually to your pastor, and then hear the forgiveness that God speaks to you. And with that forgiveness you get to forgive your family, friends, co-workers, and others with the same delight as the vineyard owner paying his workers.

Let’s go back to our so-called “absolution.” A certain Pastor Williams once used that very “absolution,” just as I have today. He also used it to introduce a sermon on grace, forgiveness, and reconciliation. He wanted to make the point that living by God’s grace—living in and with forgiveness—happens in real, everyday life. At the end of his sermon, he did give the real Absolution. Several weeks later, a young couple thanked Pastor Williams for his unusual message. They said, “Pastor you’re helping change the culture of our home.” The pastor asked, “What do you mean?” Andy, the husband said, “Last week Janet and I had one of our typical spats in the kitchen. But was we cooled down and regained our senses, we used a different way of speaking. We used words such as I confess and I forgive. You reminded us that as Christians, we have a new language to deal with wrongs. It’s God’s way for us to share the Good News with each other.” (Kober, p. 171)

Ted Kober tells this story in his book Confession and Forgiveness. He also points out how sin is never “okay.” Sin is never “no problem.” There’s only one cure for sin—forgiveness through our Lord Jesus Christ. Living by that forgiveness in the burden and scorching heat of each and every day. How generous our gracious God is! That’s living by grace—really!

Now please stand for the real Absolution:

“Almighty God in His mercy has given His Son to die for you and for His sake forgives you all your sins. As a called and ordained servant of Christ, and by His authority, I therefore forgive you all your sins in the name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.”