Septuagesima 2011

20. February 2011
Matthew 20:1-16

As part of our last convention, the members of the Lutheran Church — Missouri Synod voted to enact a massive restructuring of its central offices. The LCMS is faced with the same financial challenges staring down nearly all congregations. In order to address a this looming shortfall, the convention voted to centralize authority, removed duplication of boards and committees, and downsize support staff.

Its ugly business but likely necessary. The convention also voted in a new president and four out of five vice presidents. Those who were the architects of the restructuring were now out of office and new leadership were given the task they may not have desired. Isn’t politics wonderful?

To get a grasp on the challenging situation, our new presidium chose the emphasis for our Synod of WITNESS – MERCY – LIFE TOGETHER. You might recall that I presented this emphasis at our November Voter’s Assembly. You probably noticed the emphasis presented on For these Gesima weeks leading up to Lent, we’re going to begin a three-week study considering this three-fold emphasis.

Really, what Pres. Matthew Harrison and our other overseers have given us is nothing less than a taste of the Scriptural view of the church. While we argue over our financial struggles as a denomination and as congregations, me must keep our eyes on the things that matter.

These are: the gifts our Lord has given us, the sacrificial life of the faithful, and the life we live together as a community of believers. Knowing this identity, we at Grace will be prepared to journey together to the cross and rejoice in the resurrection of our Lord.

Today, we begin with MERCY. The epitome of mercy is this: Our LORD gives us what we do not deserve.

I remember the final home basketball tournament of my grade school career. Our team had matured and were at the top of their game. We played hard and reached the championship game. It was an exciting and thrilling time. As the game wore on, my rump got more and more tired. The gravity of the game demanded that only the best players play.

And I wasn’t one of them. Despite the thrilling final minutes of the game, my excitement had turned to disappointment. In this most exciting moment of my basketball career, the coach had relegated me to the bench. Truth be told, I think three players of ten didn’t see any playing time in that game. While our team rejoiced, we were dejected.

This was completely fair. I didn’t deserve to play. I was sluggish and overweight, relatively uncoordinated, and lacking the special “knowledge of the game.” It was far more important that I not receive playing minutes so that we have the greater chance of winning the game. It would be utterly unfair to the seasoned athlete to play the inferior player. It is utterly unacceptable to lose the game for the sake of play time for the bench.

This is the way of our worldly realm, whether we’re talking sports, business, or even “keeping up with the Joneses.” To the victor go the spoils. All is fair in love and war.

Consider your friendly competitions with your neighbors. You think it is not fair that one person have the biggest house on the block. Builders know this instinct. In response, they offer a plethora of designs that actually all look similar with similar amenities. No one on the block will be too jealous with the next, that is, until the pool goes in. Then, like dominoes, pools spring up everywhere. It wouldn’t be fair otherwise.

Consider your business. The hardest worker gets the most reward. Sell more and get paid more. Worker longer and get overtime. The delinquent is docked. The slacker is fired. Usually, employers are fair and just.

The way of the kingdom of heaven is different.

Jesus is not fair. He is merciful. His kingdom isn’t like the world. The kingdom of heaven is like, it is similar to, the vineyard master and the wages he rewards the workers. None of them are gainfully employed. None of them deserve a job. None of them deserve a denarius for their wage. But the LORD of the house has mercy on them. He overlooks their despicable character and rewards them with a job anyway. He gives them a fair wage even though they don’t deserve anything.

His mercy is most evident when he rewards the day laborer, the part-time employee, and the emergency one-hour shift with the same wages. Is it fair? Absolutely not, from the worldly mind. Some have labored their whole lives, running the race of faith. They’ve weathered the burden of the day and the scorching heat. They’ve struggled to control their body with discipline.

And maybe you’re one of those who think you’ve done a better job than most. Maybe you think you have won the race, being the most ideal Christian, praying three times a day and before every meal. Maybe you have come to church every week, given 10% of the income cheerfully, and volunteered your time for VBS and Sunday School. Maybe you’ve even served on every board and committee and lived a pious and upright life to boot.

Today’s Gospel teaches us that all run the risk of unbelief, even you, most pious Christian. We all might be tempted to look at all our piety and life as Christians and think it was a valuable service. Even our most righteous acts of charity and holy living are not valuable to God apart from Christ’s shed blood. Even what we consider good works are bloody rags without Jesus.

We are not worthy that our LORD should come under our roof. That’s is the psalmist’s way of saying our lives fall short of God’s glory. We cannot put on any kind of appearances appropriate for God. Our attempts to be godly are like the benched athlete, considered a member of the team only because he wears the jersey. From God’s perspective, none of us deserve to play the game, to keep our job, or live in anything but a rickety old shack.

That’s when mercy enters in. The Gospel today teaches us the one who truly serves, who shows mercy is the master of the house. Mercy is service. The Greek word for showing mercy in the Bible is διακονέω. This word means to care for, to wait at table, to serve.

Our Lord serves us. Our Lord is merciful. He is like the master at the wedding banquet: “Blessed are those servants whom the master finds awake when he comes. Truly, I say to you, he will dress himself for service and have them recline at table, and he will come and serve them (Luke 12:37).”

Mercy is loving service. Its one thing to say I love you. In Jesus he shows his love through the service of mercy. Jesus himself says, “For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many (Mark 10:45).” It is totally unfair to expect our own Lord to tie a towel around his waist, to bend down, and wash our filthy feet. It’s unfair but it is merciful. Love is merciful.

When it comes to mercy, we receive. We rejoice and receive together, whether as life-long Christians or newcomers. Our LORD doesn’t want us to begrudge anyone the gifts he has chosen to bestow. Take what belongs to you and go. I choose to give to this last worker as I give to you. Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or do you begrudge my generosity? (Matthew 20:15-16)

The kingdom of heaven is different than the world. They world says you’ve got to earn your keep. Jesus says he’s earned your heavenly reward. The world says only those who work hard should be rewarded. Jesus says that the one who deserves nothing will receive everything. What a blessing! What mercy!

Our LORD’s mercy is free and it is superabundant. On account of Jesus’ faithful service, dying for you, you are justified through faith in his blood. You have already received the wages you didn’t deserve for the sake of Christ. You have already won the race when you should have sat on the bench. You have already received our Lord’s gifts generously even though you should be a miserable beggar. All in Christ’s mercy, his service for you.

This superabundant mercy overflows from you into Christ’s service for the community and world. We love our children because of Christ’s mercy for us. We help the beggar because Christ became the beggar, giving us his rich life. We help those suffering because Christ’s own suffering healed us.

You have been freed. Run the race in Christ, who has won the race for you. Work in the vineyard in Christ, who has redeemed you with the wages of his blood. Serve God and serve your neighbor without fearing the wrath to come. The race is won, the penalty for sin has been paid, and the reward of new life is yours.

In Name of the Father, + Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

Rev. Christopher R. Gillespie
Grace Lutheran Church
Dyer, Indiana