1 Thessalonians 5:1-11, 25-28

“Milk toast.” Milk toast—that’s the way I found myself describing First Thessalonians to someone earlier this week. We’ve spent the last five weeks or so reading through this letter and hearing St. Paul’s encouraging pastoral words, and today we reach the end of the letter. And let’s be honest, although there is some interesting stuff in this letter, it’s probably safe to say that this is not the most exciting book of the Bible. If this was the only letter that we had of St. Paul’s, we might think he was sort of a milk toast kind of person, not a whole lot of character, maybe a little bland. Fortunately, the Bible contains plenty of more dramatic letters in which St. Paul gets all worked up and has to put people in their place. The letters to the Corinthians or the Galatians are more exciting documents, and we can really see Paul’s character coming through there.

And of course we like exciting, don’t we? We like to be entertained, and so most of us would rather read a ticked-off letter to the Galatians than a nice encouraging note to the Thessalonians. Most of us would also rather watch “Jersey Shore” than “The Waltons.” (And if you don’t know what either of those TV shows are, then good for you for not watching too much TV!) But the point is we like drama. Even bad drama, it’s like a train wreck or a car crash that you just can’t look away from. We like to be entertained. And First Thessalonians doesn’t have too much entertainment value…. Here at the conclusion of this letter, the whole thing can seem just a little bit too much like milk toast—which if you’re wondering, really is what it sounds like, toasted bread in warm milk—possibly comforting, even nourishing, but not terribly exciting.

But let’s take a look at the end of this letter together. Paul picks up where we left off last week, talking about the great Day of the Lord, when Jesus will return and bring to completion the work he began with his death and resurrection. And St. Paul concludes this letter to the Thessalonian church by giving some final instructions about how to live in light of this coming Day of the Lord. Pretty standard Christian teaching.

What I want to point out is how many times Paul refers to the church as a family. He uses the word “brothers” over and over again, because his understanding of the church is that we are all brothers and sisters in the family of God. Literally every other verse—seven times in the fifteen verses that we read—Paul refers to the church as “brothers,” or “sons.” Brothers, sons, siblings, children. For St. Paul the church is a family.

The church is the family of God. And as we all know, a great deal of family life is “milk toast,” isn’t it? Not every minute of family life is exciting—at least hopefully it’s not, because otherwise we’d go crazy. What defines us as the people of God is not so much the flashy events or exciting moments, but rather the daily grind of our life together. That’s when you really see who we are as a family. It may be milk toast, but consistent love and encouragement in the faith, like this letter to the Thessalonians, this is the heartbeat of our family life together. So don’t knock milk toast. It’s the “boring” stuff of everyday life that is actually most important to pay attention to. After all we don’t know when the Lord will return; chances are it will be at one of these boring, humdrum moments of everyday life.

Think of soldiers. Paul uses this imagery as well. We often romanticize the life of soldiers because we’ve seen too many movies and played too many video games. And sure it is true that from time to time there is the hellish excitement of battle. But for every dramatic, exciting minute that a soldier experiences, there are hundreds and hundreds of hours of just waiting, standing at the ready, trying to stay awake and alert. Boring, humdrum moments.

I think this is what St. Paul has in mind in verse 6, when he tells us not to fall asleep, but to be alert and self-controlled. He uses the imagery of a soldier. He wants us to keep our “armor” on at all times. He calls faith and love a “breastplate” and the hope of salvation a “helmet.” St. Paul thinks that faith and love and the Christian hope we have in Jesus are what will offer us armored protection on the Day of the Lord. Faith, love, and hope, he says. These are what we are supposed to help encourage in each other as Christians.

This is really what this letter has been all about: encouraging us to remain steadfast in the faith, placing all our hope in Jesus. Like a soldier constantly nudging his buddy to keep him awake and alert and ready, so St. Paul tells us to encourage one another and build each other up, so that we will be ready to meet our Maker, whether that is when we die and fall asleep in him, or when he comes again in glory on the great Day of the Lord. Not terribly exciting work, keeping each other “awake” in the faith, and ready for the Lord’s return, but a very important part of our family life as the people of God.

I want to close by saying a word of transition into Holy Communion. We do this thing called Eucharist or the Lord’s Supper every week, and we all have a sense that it’s important and that what’s going on here is a holy thing. But I think we can also forget sometimes what it’s all about.

This is a symbol of our family life together. Remember, although it doesn’t entirely look like it, this is a meal. It’s the Lord’s Supper. And there isn’t much more typical of everyday life than a meal. As a family, we share this meal together every Sunday, and the center of the whole thing is exactly what we’ve just been talking about: nourishing our faith in Jesus, keeping our Christian hope alive, and alert, and ready for the Lord’s return. This meal nourishes us spiritually by communicating to us the gift that our Lord gave us on the cross.

Jesus says we are supposed to do this “in remembrance” of him, to remember him, to keep our faith in him fresh and alive. We have been given this ritual as a reminder of the hope we have in him who “died for us so that we may live together with him.” So, although this is a holy and somewhat mysterious meal, it’s not magic. Jesus gave us his life on the cross, and this meal is how we receive that gift through faith. The good news about what Jesus did for us in his death and resurrection—what we receive in this bread and wine—this faith in Jesus is what makes us ready for the final Banquet we will share in heaven, when we will feast and enjoy life together with the Lord forever. Amen? Amen.

And don’t worry, I promise to keep using our normal bread for Communion; we will not be switching to milk toast.

 

Matthew 20:1-16

I have shared before the fact that although I tried to play it cool throughout my academic career, the truth is that from first grade through graduate school, I was (and still am) one of those annoying smarty-pants kids who always has the right answer (or at least thinks he does). And that meant that I almost always got really good grades on tests and papers and all that schoolwork kind of stuff. And it was always secretly frustrating to me whenever a teacher would curve a test after I had done well. I felt like if I was able to get an A without the grades being curved, then there should be no curve and the people who failed should have to live with it. Now, I never admitted my secret resentment of curved grades because that’s an excellent way to get beaten up in the parking lot after school. But I felt cheated because I worked hard and did well, and other people didn’t do as well, but they got off easy because of the teacher’s generosity.

You may be able to tell already that I’m talking about the story that we read from Matthew’s Gospel today. You can earn your grades, or your denarius—a denarius was a day’s wages—you can earn your keep by working all day, and being smart, and having the right answers on the test. Or, you can get off easy and have your denarius handed to you on a golden platter simply because the master is generous, because the teacher is inclined not to fail anyone if possible.

The way our world works, generally speaking, is according to the principle of merit. Especially for Americans, we believe that people should work hard and be rewarded for their hard work, and that people who do not work as hard should not be rewarded the same way. You’re supposed to get a promotion based on your good merits, not because you’re related to the CEO. You supposed to get a merit scholarship because you merited it, you earned it, not because the scholarship people decided to grade on a curve and give everyone an award. Generally speaking, you get what you deserve in life. You get out what you put in. This is just the way the world works.

But here’s the problem: According to Jesus, this is not the way the kingdom of heaven works. The world may work according to the principle of merit. But the kingdom of heaven works according to a different principle. The kingdom of heaven works according to the principle of God’s grace, God’s unconditional favor. And that ticks some people off. If you’re a worker who slaved long and hard in a vineyard all day, and some guy next to you only got hired for the last hour, you’d be ticked off if you got paid the same wages. Most of us react to this story that Jesus tells in just the way he wants us to. It rubs us the wrong way because we’re used to thinking the way the world thinks, but that’s not the way the kingdom of heaven works. Look at verse 15: “Don’t I have the right to do what I want with my own money?” the landowner asks. “Or are you envious because I am generous?” I think some Christians are envious or upset with the idea of God being gracious toward certain people. I have often heard people grumble and say things like, “I just can’t believe God would forgive a murderer just because they asked for forgiveness.” But Jesus turns our normal way of thinking upside down. Because of the price that Jesus paid on the cross, God has the right to be gracious to whomever he wants. And are we going to be envious because God is generous?

It’s a beautiful thing actually. The kingdom of heaven works according to the principle of grace: God’s unmerited favor. From the world’s point of view, that turns everything upside down. The first are suddenly last and the last first. When we really understand the principle of God’s grace, suddenly everything gets reversed. Country club presidents suddenly start serving the neighborhood riff raff. We suddenly find ourselves able to forgive people, even when we are clearly in the right. We discover how to submit to one another out of love. Pride shrinks; life becomes less burdensome; and compassion replaces judgment. Because we realize that the eternal kingdom of heaven is governed not by any principle of merit or just deserts, but by the infinite, gracious love of God.

This principle of God’s grace is the distinctive mark of Christianity. Yes, like all other religions, Christianity teaches a way of life and morality. Yes, like all other religions, Christianity has something to say about the afterlife. But this biblical theme of God’s unconditional love, God’s grace, this is the hallmark of our faith. It is the chief characteristic of who Jesus is.

It was ultimately Jesus who was the epitome of the first made last. Jesus, the firstborn of all creation, the head of all things, the one who merited and earned more than anyone else, he chose to become last and to set aside every good thing that he deserved. And his decision to go to the cross and to take last place in the world, this purchased for us first place in the kingdom of heaven. Because of Jesus, we are the last who are made first; we all are the laborers who were paid without having to work. In this world it is a scandalous and contrary thing to say that the first shall be last and the last first. But it is also the express purpose of God. What we earn or achieve in this world will ultimately be set aside. What counts is simply our saying “yes,” and walking into the vineyard of the king who offers us everything for nothing. The kingdom of heaven has always worked according to the principle of God’s gracious love, and that is something for which we can be deeply, deeply thankful. Amen.

Matthew 16:21-27

We are all brought up to believe certain things about the world. Most of us were taught that our solar system is made up of nine (or more recently, eight) planets, each of which has an orbit that revolves around the sun. But if we had been brought up 500 years ago, we would have been taught that the earth rests at the center of the universe and that everything, the sun, the moon, all the planets, revolve around us.In the 1500’s none of us would ever have believed Copernicus when he said that the earth revolves around the sun. That was completely upside down!But every so often there comes along some thinker who is able to see the world differently from the rest of us, and who eventually changes everything about the way we think. Just think how differently the generations after us might think about the world we live in now. Remember we also used to think that the earth was flat. Do you really suppose that somehow, in our generation, we’ve figured it all out? I don’t think so. I think there is yet a great deal that we believe about the world that future generations will find silly. There must be things that we look at upside down that someone will eventually turn right-side up.

It can be easy for us to lose sight of just how revolutionary a figure Jesus really was. He really did turn the world upside down. Look with me, if you will, at the passage that we just read from Matthew. This is the story of when Jesus called our patron, St. Peter,“Satan.” “Get behind me, Satan!” Jesus says. Pretty harsh. I mean, I’ve been called some pretty nasty things in life, but no one has ever called me Satan … at least not yet. So what’s going on here? What would make Jesus call one of his best friends such a despicable name? What was so wrong with the way that Peter saw the world that Jesus needed to turn it upside down?

If you remember back to last week, just before this passage that we read today, Peter has just confessed that Jesus is the Son of God, which is a good thing to confess. But the argument that Peter and Jesus are having today is an argument about what it means for Jesus to be the Son of God. Jesus says plainly that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer and die and then be raised to life again on the third day. But Peter doesn’t like that at all; Peter has a different idea about what it means for Jesus to be the Son of God. So, Peter takes Jesus aside gives him a piece of his mind, he “rebukes” him. (Can you imagine “rebuking” Jesus!?) You see, the way Peter sees the world, what Jesus should do is ride into Jerusalem, and take the city over by force, and rule the world as a successful king. But Jesus turns Peter’s world upside down: Jesus would ride into Jerusalem, and suffer and die, and save the world as a sacrificial king. This is the difference between looking at the world spiritually, as Jesus does, and looking at the world like Peter, as if all that mattered was worldly success. The things of God versus the things of men.

You see, contrary to Peter, Jesus had a deep faith that there is a way above all this worldly chaos, God’s way, a way of true life. And Jesus knew that the most powerful thing you can do with your life is sacrifice it to God. And in sacrificing his perfect life, Jesus bought us freedom, and spiritual communion with God, and everlasting life. And compared to the violent takeover that Peter had in mind, Jesus’s vision not only turned the world upside down, but also ultimately saved the world from sin and death. Peter wanted Jesus to go the way of the world, but Jesus knew that it is the way of the cross that leads to true life.

Now, you may be wondering what all this has to do with you. What different does it make that, two thousand years ago, Jesus chose the way of the cross? And I want to end on this note, just by saying two things. First of all, Jesus’s death and resurrection is the only thing powerful enough to be able to save us from as big a spiritual problem as sin and death. If Jesus had had the things of men in mind instead of the things of God, if Jesus had raised an army and marched into Jerusalem to be a worldly king—which is surely could have done if he wanted—this would still not have solved the problem of sin and death in the world. Only Jesus’s sacrifice on the cross can deal with our sin and wipe us clean; Jesus’s precious death is the only thing worth enough to purchase us everlasting life. So, for Jesus it had to be the way of the cross instead of the way of the world. And that had everything to do with us and our eternal salvation.

But there is another thing that we have to learn from this story. Immediately after talking about his own death on a cross, Jesus tells his disciples that if we are to follow him, we too must take the way of the cross. We too must allow Jesus to turn our worlds upside down. Naturally, we want to “save” our lives; like Peter, we want to have security and success and happiness in this world. It can be so easy to lose sight of God in the midst of the constant, hectic motion of our lives. But Jesus warns us that if we bury ourselves in our own lives, we will actually lose ourselves. Because the world does not in fact revolve around us, Jesus says, it revolves around God. And therefore, the most meaningful thing you can do with your life is present it as a sacrifice to God, give it back to him, spend your life with Christ for the sake of his kingdom. Because if we give our lives to God, as an open sacrifice to him, we will find that in the end, when the Son of Man returns in his Father’s glory with all his holy angels, we will enter into everlasting life, by the mighty power of his cross and resurrection. Amen.

Matthew 16:13-20

There are these moments of profound connection that we experience every so often in life. Like the first time you see your own child and it dawns on you that your lives are now connected in an unspeakable way. Or when it occurs to you that the woman or man you are looking at is going to be your spouse forever. Or even just that silent moment of connection sitting across the table from a close friend, when you realize that there is a deep connection here, even if you can’t quite express it, you’re connected and that relationship makes a deep imprint on your life.

The moment of connection between Peter and Jesus that we read about today was one of those profound moments. There is a connection made here that changes Peter’s life forever. And in fact this moment is so powerful that it becomes the foundation or the “rock” on which to build not only for the rest of Peter’s life but for literally billions of people around the world since that day—including you and me. This moment is the foundation of the Church.

So what’s going on here that’s so powerful? What is it about this interaction between Jesus and Peter that is worth Jesus making such a fuss about? After all, he reacts pretty strongly to Peter’s answer about who Jesus is. When Peter says that Jesus is the Christ and the Son of God, Jesus says that this was revealed to him directly from God the Father and that on the basis of this, Peter will be the rock upon which Jesus will build his Church, never to be overcome by the forces of hell. And through the ministry of this Church, God will bind evil and loose people from the power of death forever. That’s a pretty strong reaction to Peter’s simple statement about who Jesus is! So what’s going on here?

We can become desensitized to how powerful of a thing Peter is saying when he confesses Jesus to be the Christ and the Son of the living God. Christian faith is so familiar to us in our culture that it doesn’t even occur to us what a powerful thing it is to say that Jesus is the Christ. Western culture is so familiar with the claim that Jesus is the Son of God that even if people don’t believe that claim, it still doesn’t sound like that extreme of a thing to say, because we’ve heard it said so much. But it was an extreme thing for Peter to say. For the first time in history, Peter was confessing out loud that Jesus was the savior of the world, that he was the One the world has been waiting for throughout all of history, God himself in the flesh, come to save us. Now that is a pretty powerful thing to say when you stop to think about it.

But this connection between Jesus and Peter isn’t so foundational for the Church just because Peter happened to understand a certain point of doctrine. It’s not like this moment was so powerful just because Peter recited part of the Creed correctly. What’s going on here is way more personal than that, and that is what I think we most often miss in this story. This moment between Peter and Jesus is very very personal, intimate even. I mean picture Peter looking into Jesus’ eyes and saying what he does. “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” That is not just reciting a Creed; this is Peter confesses his complete trust in Jesus. “I trust you completely,” that is a profoundly vulnerable thing to say to someone. “You are my Savior; you are my God.” That isn’t something you just say with your head; that’s a heart thing. And that profound connection between Peter and Jesus becomes the example for the rest of the Church through the ages. That kind of personal trust in Jesus is the rock upon which the Church is built.

This is all as true today as it was on that day when Peter made his confession of faith. The living Church today, the global community of billions of Christians, rests upon the foundation of a personal trust in Jesus as the Christ. Almost all churches recite the Creed, but many Christians experience no personal connection to Jesus. Churches are strong and vibrant where people are personally, unashamedly connected to Jesus, and, on the other hand, churches wither and die where people no longer connect in a personal way to the faith that they confess. The foundation of the Church has always been a personal, life-changing trust in Jesus like what Peter expressed that day so long ago.

And this should come as really good news to us. It means that our vitality as a church does not depend upon us. Our life flows from the connection that we share with Jesus through faith. Simply by confessing our heartfelt, personal faith in Jesus as the Christ, who died and rose again for our sake—simply by being built upon this rock, we find ourselves forever secure, regardless of any appearances to the contrary. God has been gracious enough to send us his Son to accomplish everything necessary for us, and if we decide personally to put our trust in that gift, then he has promised us that no force of hell or sin or death will ever prevail against us, for in the gift of Jesus the Christ, we have been given the keys to the kingdom of heaven. Amen.

Psalm 1

How many of you all remember a song or a rhyme that you were taught in grade school in order to learn some lesson or other? The ABC’s are probably the most obvious example, right? We’re all taught this song from a very early age in order to help us learn the alphabet. But the song I remember most from grade school was a catchy little number called “Conjunction Junction.” “Conjunction junction what’s your function”—and then you would learn all the functions that conjunctions can have in different sentences. To this day I remember that song and the grammar lesson that went with it. Most of us have some song, or some rhyme, that we still use to remember some bit of wisdom. (“Red sky at night, sailors’ delight,” or “Lefty loosy, righty tighty,” or, my personal favorite from summer camp, “If it’s yellow, let it mellow; if it’s brown, flush it down.”) Songs like this don’t just help you learn some lesson or other, they also make it interesting; they take the wisdom that you’re learning and sort of bring it to life.

Now, we’ve been spending these midsummer weeks looking together at selections from the book of Psalms, this biblical collection of poems and songs. And each week we’ve looked at a different type of psalm: hymns of praise, then lamentation prayers, then royal anthems. And this week we are looking at yet another type of psalm, which scholars call a “wisdom psalm.” And these wisdom psalms—not unlike the grade school songs that we all remember so fondly—they remind us of some lesson or other, but they do it in a way that brings the wisdom to life.

Look with me at the psalm that we said together today. The basic lesson that Psalm 1 teaches is not terribly interesting, basically it says, “It’s good to be good, and it’s bad to be bad.” But remember this is a lesson set to music, it’s a poem, so it has more to offer if you take the time to listen. They way that this psalm talks about the wisdom of goodness is actually quite beautiful.

The first two verses sort of set the whole thing up. Like I said, basically these first verses say, “It’s good to be good.” Happy are they who have not taken their place among the wicked, but instead delight in God’s law. “Goodness is good. It’s a happy thing.” Now here’s the problem: That’s a very nice thing to say. But it sure seems to me that the wicked are often the happy ones, while those who try to live according to God’s law actually wind up suffering for it. In my experience there are very few good deeds that go unpunished. So, tell me, silver-tongued poet of the psalms, how is it good to be good and bad to be bad, when it’s the righteous who suffer more often than not, while the wicked prosper? … And, actually, the rest of the psalm is a pretty good answer to this question.

The reason why goodness is wise and wickedness is foolish is because in the end, it is goodness that will endure while wickedness will wither away and die. Except of course this is a poem, so this point is made using the imagery of goodness like trees being securely planted versus wickedness like chaff being blown away by the wind. The Lord knows the way of the righteous; their future is secure. But the way of the wicked is doomed. In the midst of a world in which wickedness so often seems to prosper, a song like this is a reality check. It’s a reminder of where the universe is headed, which is most certainly in favor of righteousness not wickedness.

I remember in seminary seeing a book titled “With the Grain of the Universe.” Now, I never read that book, but I do know what it’s about, and I know what the author was getting at. The point is that when we live according to God’s intentions for us, then we are living with the grain of the universe. On the other hand, when we devote ourselves to wickedness, in whatever form, we are working against the grain. And this is precisely the point that the psalmist is making. If you devote yourself to God’s ways, then despite present appearances, you are living with the enduring grain of the universe, and that is a very good thing.

African slaves sang very similar songs as they worked in cotton fields before the Civil War. In so many Negro spirituals, they sang about the Lord’s return and the vindication that would be theirs when Jesus set all things right. It certainly looked like the wicked were the ones prospering while the innocent suffered, but songs like this were a reality check, a reminder that despite present appearances, God really is in control, and therefore in the larger scheme of things, goodness really is good, and wickedness really is bad. So, as you come across psalms like this one that talk about how happy a thing it is to be on God’s side, keep the larger scheme of the universe in the forefront of your mind, then maybe we’ll see the psalmist’s point.

Those singing slaves did the best thing a Christian can possibly do with the world around them, which is to remember that everything finds its answer in Jesus. Ultimately, it’s Jesus who proves this psalm to be true. In his earthly life, it certainly did not look like being righteous got him very far. In fact, righteousness got Jesus crucified. But even as he hung on that tree, he was himself a tree firmly planted, bearing fruit in due season, with leaves that do not wither. Nothing, not even death, could uproot him. In Jesus, righteousness was proven victorious when he rose on the third day. Despite all appearances—even in the face of death—goodness is always the wiser path, while wickedness is always doomed. The death and resurrection of our Lord decisively proved the psalmist’s point, once and for all.

Of course all this can be not only a comforting word, but also a chilling one when we remember the fact that we are not righteous. St. Paul says that there is no one righteous; none of us live up to God’s expectations, which means that in this psalm we would probably do better to identify with the wicked rather than with the righteous—were it not for Jesus. Again, even this finds its answer is Jesus. When we read psalms like this one that speak in favor of the righteous, we have to remember that we read these psalms as people who are united to Jesus by faith. On our own, we do not have the righteousness that it would take to be on the right side of things in this psalm. And so Jesus offers us his righteousness. On the cross, Jesus takes on our wickedness so that we don’t have to be “doomed” (in the words of the psalmist). Instead, Jesus credits us with his righteousness, so that as a free gift from God, we can be planted like trees beside God’s everlasting streams of living water, bearing good fruit in due season. In him, every good thing we do shall prosper, whether we get to see it or not. And, that, brothers and sisters, is a very happy song to sing. Amen.

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