Bishop Michael Rinehart

ELCA Ecumenical Dialogs after the Reformation Forum at St. James

Dear friends at St. James Episcopal Church in Conroe. Thank you for your hospitality this morning. Here are some of the notes and links from our conversation this morning. If you have further questions, please don’t hesitate to contact me at

 20 “I ask not only on behalf of these, but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word, 21 that they may all be one. As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us,  so that the world may believe that you have sent me. 

— John 17

Unless I am convinced by the testimony of the Scriptures or by clear reason (for I do not trust either in the pope or in councils alone, since it is well known that they have often erred and contradicted themselves), I am bound by the Scriptures I have quoted, and my conscience is captive to the Words of God. I cannot and I will not retract anything, since it is neither safe nor right to go against conscience. May God help me. Amen

— Martin Luther, at the Diet of Worms

Lutherans and Reformed Churches
A Formula of Agreement – 1997

As churches of the Reformation, the ELCA, the Presbyterian Church (USA), the Reformed Church in America, and the United Church of Christ entered into full communion in 1997. After 32 years of dialogue – and in light of identified doctrinal differences and consensus – these churches worked together to form a foundational document titled, “A Formula of Agreement.” The work of reception is carried forward by the Lutheran-Reformed Coordinating Committee.

Among other things, the agreement means that the four churches:

  • fully accept each other as rightly preaching the gospel
  • encourage the mutual sharing of the Lord’s Supper among members
  • recognize each other’s ordained ministers and ministries, and
  • commit themselves to the ongoing process of further understanding in a common expression of evangelism, witness and service.

In our synod, Presbyterian Pastor C. O. McGee serves Trinity Lutheran Church in LaMarque, Texas. We also have a Presbyterian pastor serving our congregation in Texas City.

Scripture and Moral Discernment: Report on the Consultation among Representatives of “Formula of Agreement” Churches (2012)

Lutherans and Episcopal Churches
Called to Common Mission – 1999

In 1999, the ELCA entered into full communion with The Episcopal Church. “Called to Common Mission: A Lutheran Proposal for a Revision of the Concordat of Agreement” is the document that describes that relationship. The Episcopal Church took its final action on this relationship at its 2000 General Convention in Denver. The work of reception is carried forward by the Lutheran-Episcopal Coordinating Committee.

In the introduction to “Called to Common Mission” there is an important statement about the spirit of this agreement. “Our churches have discovered afresh our unity in the gospel and our commitment to the mission to which God calls the church of Jesus Christ in every generation. … Our search for a fuller expression of visible unity is for the sake of living and sharing the gospel. Unity and mission are at the heart of the church’s life, reflecting an obedient response to the call of our Lord Jesus Christ.”

As a guide for understanding the full communion agreement, a commentary was developed. It provides helpful information on the text and agreement for “Called to Common Mission.”

Episcopal priest Rich Nelson served Emmanuel Lutheran Church in Greenvine, Texas for seven years. He is now associate pastor at Salem Lutheran Church in Brenham. ELCA Pastor George Bement works for the Episcopal Diocese of Texas in Houston. ELCA Pastor Robin McCullough-Bade served as interim pastor at St. Michael and All Angels Episcopal Church in Baton Rouge.

Guidelines and Worship Resources for the Celebration of Full Communion: Lutheran – Episcopal 

Following Our Shepherd to Full Communion
Lutherans and Moravians – 1999

In 1999, the ELCA entered into full communion with the Moravian Church as it was described in the document, “Following Our Shepherd to Full Communion.” The Southern and Northern Provinces of the Moravian Church in America also approved this document. In 2007, the ELCA extended a full communion invitation to the Alaska Province of the Moravian Church in America. The invitation was not accepted by this Province. The work of reception is carried forward by the Lutheran-Moravian Coordinating Committee.

Lutheran churches and Moravian Provinces worldwide have for decades been in virtual full communion, including the interchangeability of ordained clergy and Eucharistic hospitality. Moravians and Lutherans regard themselves as distinct members of a single flock who are following their Shepherd in mission and ministry. Themes of “the Good Shepherd,” of following Jesus, and of fellowship through discipleship were at the forefront of the Lutheran–Moravian Dialogue leading up to the full communion agreement.

Guidelines & Worship Resources for the Celebration of Full Communion: Lutheran – Moravian

Confessing Our Faith Together
Lutherans and Methodists – 2009

In 2009, the ELCA entered into full communion with the United Methodist Church. The United Methodist Church General Conference had approved the agreement in 2008. “Confessing Our Faith Together” is the full communion agreement with the United Methodist Church. This marked the first time that the ELCA had moved into a full communion relationship with a church that had a membership larger than that of the ELCA. The work of reception is carried forward by the ELCA-United Methodist Church Coordinating Committee.

U.S. Lutherans and United Methodists began official dialogue in 1977. About four years later, this first round of dialogues had produced a common statement between the denominations on the Christian sacrament of Baptism, which affirmed the validity of baptism administered in accord with Scripture in our churches. From 1985 to 1987, a second round of dialogues concluded with a common statement on the role of bishops in both church bodies. A third round of dialogues began in 2001, resulting in a proposal for Interim Eucharistic Sharing between the two churches at a 2004 meeting – the final step before the adoption of the full communion agreement by both churches.

We have a Methodist pastor currently serving Lutheran Church of the Galilean in La Place.

Guidelines for the Celebration of Full Communion: ELCA-UMC

Local Formation Model Template

Bilateral Dialogs
We are currently in bilateral dialogs with six church bodies.

A “bilateral dialogue” involves two parties coming together in order to seek awareness, heal wounds and deepen a relationship. Contemporary bilateral dialogues between churches in the world received new enthusiasm from the entry of the Roman Catholic Church into the ecumenical movement in 1965, an event marked and ratified by the Second Vatican Council. Since then, many of these dialogues have allowed churches to establish relationships that permit greater sharing of pastors, witness, mission and ministries.

  • AME
  • AMEZ
  • Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
  • Mennonite
  • Roman Catholic
  • Orthodox – Trinity. A common date for Easter.

Lutherans and Catholics

This year is the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, but it is also the 50th anniversary of the Lutheran-Catholic dialogs.

The Lutheran-Catholic Dialogue has been in ongoing discussions since 1965. Each “round,” or set of discussions, covers a specific topic important for the life and vitality of both communions. There have been four phases:

  • Phase I (1967-1972)
  • Phase II (1973-1984)
  • Phase III (1986-1993)
  • Phase IV (1995-2006)

Recent rounds have had focused discussions on

The Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification (JDDJ) – 1999

In 1999, we reached a milestone in our dialogs. A common statement on Justification by Grace Through Faith was signed by the Vatican and the Lutheran World Federation.
Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification (JDDJ)
Declaración Conjunta Sobre la Doctrina de la Justificación

This document recognized that the Lutheran and Roman Catholic Churches of the 16th century are not the Lutheran and Catholic church bodies of today. The anathemas do not apply to today’s churches.

Declaration on the Way

In order to harvest the fruits of these bilateral dialogues, Declaration on the Way: Church, Ministry and Eucharist was published, highlighting 32 essential areas of agreement as a foundation for unity. This document does not pretend that we agree on everything. It simply highlights the great many things on which we already agree, rather than continue hammering on the things where we disagree.

What unites us is much greater than what divides us.

— Pope John XXIII

From Conflict to Communion

As we approached 2017, the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, the Lutheran-Catholic dialog team began to imagine what it might be like to commemorate this anniversary together. This would be the first Reformation centenary to be held during the era of ecumenism, and the era of globalization. What if we commemorated this anniversary with an eye to proclaiming the gospel, rather than rehashing a 16th century argument?

From Conflict to Communion is a report of the Lutheran-Catholic Commission on Unity, Image result for from conflict to communionprepared by the Lutheran World Federation and the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity (PCPCU). Chapters:

  1. Commemoration of the Reformation in an Ecumenical and Global Age
  2. New Perspectives on Martin Luther and the Reformation
  3. A Historical Sketch of the lutheran Reformation and the Catholic Response
  4. Basic Themes of Martin Luther’s Theology in Light of the Lutheran-Roman Catholic dialogues
  5. Called to Common Commemoration
  6. Five Ecumenical Imperatives
    1. The first imperative: Catholics and Lutherans should always begin from the perspective of unity and not from the point of view of division in order to strengthen what is held in common even though the differences are more easily seen and experienced.
    2. The second imperative: Lutherans and Catholics must let themselves contin- uously be transformed by the encounter with the other and by the mutual witness of faith.
    3. The third imperative: Catholics and Lutherans should again commit them- selves to seek visible unity, to elaborate together what this means in concrete steps, and to strive repeatedly toward this goal.
    4. The fourth imperative: Lutherans and Catholics should jointly rediscover the power of the gospel of Jesus Christ for our time.
    5. The fifth imperative: Catholics and Lutherans should witness together to the mercy of God in proclamation and service to the world.

Common Prayer

Created by the Liturgical Task Force of the Lutheran-Roman Catholic Commission on Unity, Common Prayer provided a liturgy for the common commemoration of the Reformation that was approved by the Vatican and the Lutheran World Federation.


The Lutheran World Federation and the Roman Catholic Church held Common Prayer together on October 31 last year (2016) at the Lutheran Cathedral in Lund, Sweden.

JOINT STATEMENT on the occasion of the Joint Catholic-Lutheran Commemoration of the Reformation

Image result for pope lutheran lund


Cardinal DiNardo and I will lead Common Prayer at the Cathedral on Wednesday, October 25, ten days from today. 7:30 p.m.

Various congregations in the Houston area will also be holding Common Prayer together, such as Sts. Simon and Jude Catholic and Lord of Life Lutheran in The Woodlands.

Salvadoran Cross commemorating the 500th Anniversary of the Reformation

Salvadoran artist Christian Chavarria has created a vibrant 2m-high cross for the joint Reformation commemoration, replete with meaning for both Catholics and Lutherans. Dirk Lange says the significance of the design lies in its depiction of God’s creative and sanctifying work.




October 22, 2017 is Pentecost 20A, Proper 24A – Taxes (Render unto Caesar)

Exodus 33:12-23 – Moses asks to see God’s glory. God says, “You cannot see my face,” but allows Moses to see his backside.
Isaiah 45:1-7 – God promises Cyrus, his anointed (messiah) that he will use him to subdue the nations and strip kings of their robes, even though Cyrus does not know God.

Psalm 99 – The Lord is king. He sits enthroned upon the cherubim. Moses, Aaron and Samuel are his priests.

Psalm 96:1-9, (10-13) – Sing to the Lord a new song. The gods of the peoples are but idols.

1 Thessalonians 1:1-10 – The Thessalonians turned from their idols to worship the living God, and to wait for his Son, Jesus, whom God raised from the dead.

Matthew 22:15-22 – The question about paying taxes.

Prayer of the Day
Sovereign God, raise your throne in our hearts. Created by you, let us live in your image; created for you, let us act for your glory; redeemed by you, let us give you what is yours, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.

Gospel Acclamation
Alleluia. Shine like stars | in the world;
holding fast to the | word of life. Alleluia. (Phil. 2:15, 16)

RCL gospel texts overview

  • September 10: Matthew 18:15-20 – Conflict
  • September 17: Matthew 18:21-35 – Forgiveness (The Unforgiving Slave)
  • September 24: Matthew 20:1-16 – Grace (Vineyard Laborers)
  • October 1: Matthew 21:23-32 – Humility (Two Sons)
  • October 8: Matthew 21:33-46 – Fruit (Wicked Tenants)
  • October 15: Matthew 22:1-14 – Expectation (Wedding Banquet)
  • October 22: Matthew 22:15-22 – Taxes (Render unto Caesar)
  • October 29: Reformation – John 8:31-36 (The truth will set you free.)


Show me the Money

First they smother him with flattery:

Teacher, we know that you are sincere…
You teach the way of God in accordance with truth…
You show deference to no one…
You do not regard people with partiality…

Every adept leader knows, when they start pouring on the charm, watch out. They are buttering you up like a turkey before Thanksgiving. A mentor warned me, beware of those who approach you first in a new call, buttering you up with flattery.

Here’s some ancient wisdom: Beware of flattery:

Whoever flatters a neighbor is spreading a net for the neighbor’s feet. ~ Proverbs 29:5

The manipulator showers you with praise upon praise. In leadership, you’re taking shots from every side, so you take affirmation anywhere you can get it. You grow to need it, depend on it. The first time you do something the manipulator doesn’t like, they yank the praise and replace it with scorn. If you’ve been feeding off the affirmation, it’s like a punch in the gut. It’s a hard lesson to learn. Most pastors experience it on internship or in their first call. After a while, you learn to get your kudos elsewhere. Home? Friends? But even there, it’s dangerous. Get in a fight with your spouse, and you’re back in the darkness where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth. Best to grow into the place where you depend on an inner source of strength that comes through prayer.

Those who wait upon the Lord will renew their strength.  They shall mount up with wings like eagles. ~ Isaiah 40

Best to depend on a vibrant spiritual life. The joy of the Lord is your strength. If you depend on the praise of others for your sense of well-being, it will fail you.

Like the glaze covering an earthen vessel are smooth lips with an evil heart. An enemy dissembles in speaking while harboring deceit within; when an enemy speaks graciously, do not believe it, for there are seven abominations concealed within; though hatred is covered with guile, the enemy’s wickedness will be exposed in the assembly. Whoever digs a pit will fall into it, and a stone will come back on the one who starts it rolling. A lying tongue hates its victims, and a flattering mouth works ruin. ~ Proverbs 26:23-29

So, with that cheerful word of warning, we dive further into the text. The Pharisees are plotting against Jesus. They send their disciples, along with the Herodians. The Pharisees are the purity party. They want the Romans out of Judea. The Herodians, of course, have accepted the Roman occupation as a given and are even profiting from it. Both of these groups feel threatened by Jesus’ ministry.

They ask an impossible question, designed to get him into trouble, one way or the other. Eight simple words: “Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar?” With that, the trap is set.

  • If he says yes, he will alienate the Pharisees and all who want an overthrow of the Roman occupation.
  • If he says no, he will alienate the Herodians and can be arrested and convicted of treason. (And he will be.)

The casual listener today may hear the question as, “Is it lawful to pay taxes?” But this is not the question. There are many taxes, including a temple tax. The question is, essentially: Is it appropriate, according to Jewish religious law, to pay taxes to Caesar, a foreign, occupying emperor who claims to be the Son to God?

Inscribed on the denarius coin were the abbreviated words, “Tiberius Caesar, August Son of the Divine Augustus” on one side and “Pontifex Maximus” (high priest) on the other. It had a graven image on it, making it idolatry. It said Caesar was the son of God. It was considered idolatry to use or even touch these coins.


Idolatry or treason? There is no way to win this one.

Or is there?

“Let me see the coin,” Jesus says. “Show me the money!” This is brilliant. Jesus springs a trap back upon them. He doesn’t happen to have one of these coins. Ironically, though, they do. Without thinking, one of them tosses him a coin. Even if he doesn’t say another word, he has just won the argument. He is under fire, but it is they who are carrying the idolatrous coins.

Jesus looks at the coin, a symbol of Roman power, as if he has never seen one before. “Whose head is this?” It was, of course, Caesar’s head. “Render, then, unto Caesar what is Caesar’s…” The Herodians smile. The Pharisees frown. Wait… What did he say? Did he just say to cave into the Romans and pay the tax?

“…and render unto God what is God’s.”

Did he also say to give to God what belongs to God? And what belongs to God? Doesn’t everything belong to God? (Psalm 24)

Somehow he has managed to circumvent the trap and at the same time spring it on them. The text says they were all amazed. Astonished. He had cleverly outwitted them. Perhaps it’s not such an easy dichotomy. Maybe he’s suggesting they’re a bit too focused on money. Perhaps the “us vs. them” mentality isn’t as important to God as they think. Perhaps rejecting the coin is as idolatrous as the coin itself. Perhaps they should focus on what God wants from us.

How does this text speak to our people today? These notes are just that: notes. No one can tell you what to preach to your people. You know their context, needs, opportunities. Nevertheless, here are some thoughts.

The obvious go-to are the protests going on during the national anthem. NFL free agent Colin Kaepernick has chosen to kneel during the national anthem to protest the racism people of color experience every day in the U.S. Some have viewed this action as unpatriotic. We live in a society where patriotism is virtually a religion. What do we owe the government? What do we owe God? Where do you draw the line? Should people be compelled to kneel, bow or salute the flag? Be careful not to offer simplistic answers.

The preacher might take some time to allow people to dwell on the challenging question of what belongs to God.

Perhaps this is a stewardship sermon. What does belong to God after all? 10%? Or 100%? If we practice “whole life” stewardship, if we truly believe it all belongs to God, what implications does that have for how we live our lives? Perhaps we give 10% to the work of the kingdom in the world, but even the 90% we “keep” belongs to God. What does it mean to be faithful not only to the 10% but also to the 90%, using it in godly ways?

Or perhaps it’s an opportunity to talk about economic exploitation of which we are all a part. Do you know how every penny of your money in the bank is invested? How about the purchases made on your behalf by companies you hire for services? What about your spending choices? Could not your most recent purchase be supporting adverse working conditions in China? We are truly in bondage to sin and can’t free ourselves. How do we live faithfully in a sinful world with money that cannot be anything but tainted? How do we, through our giving and spending, witness to the resurrected Christ and the reign of God?


October 15, 2017 is Pentecost 19A, Proper 23A – Expectation (The Wedding Banquet)

Exodus 32:1-14 – The Hebrew people create a golden calf to worship while Moses is receiving the law and commandments from God on Mt. Sinai. Moses convinces God not to destroy them in response to their disobedience.
Isaiah 25:1-9 – On this mountain the Lord of hosts will make for all peoples a feast…and he will destroy on this mountain the shroud that is cast over all peoples…he will swallow up death forever. This is the Lord for whom we have waited.

Psalm 106:1-6, 19-23 – Both we and our ancestors have sinned; we have committed iniquity, have done wickedly. They exchanged the glory of God for the image of an ox that eats grass. They forgot God, their Savior.
Psalm 23 – The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want. You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies; you anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows. Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life.

Philippians 4:1-9 – Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.

Matthew 22:1-14 – The Parable of the Wedding Banquet

Prayer of the Day
Lord of the feast, you have prepared a table before all peoples and poured out your life with abundance. Call us again to your banquet. Strengthen us by what is honorable, just, and pure, and transform us into a people of righteousness and peace, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.

Gospel Acclamation
Alleluia. This is the LORD for whom | we have waited;
let us be glad and rejoice in | God’s salvation. Alleluia. (Isa. 25:9)
wedding banquet

RCL gospel texts overview

  • September 10: Matthew 18:15-20 – Conflict
  • September 17: Matthew 18:21-35 – Forgiveness (The Unforgiving Slave)
  • September 24: Matthew 20:1-16 – Grace (Vineyard Laborers)
  • October 1: Matthew 21:23-32 – Humility (Two Sons)
  • October 8: Matthew 21:33-46 – Fruit (Wicked Tenants)
  • October 15: Matthew 22:1-14 – Expectation (Wedding Banquet)
  • October 22: Matthew 22:15-22 – Taxes (Render unto Caesar)
  • October 29: Reformation – John 8:31-36 (The truth will set you free.)

We’ve just come through the vineyard parables. The vineyard owner needs workers for the harvest. Some workers clearly feel superior to others, because they arrived earlier and worked harder and are more worthy. But the vineyard owner loves them all the same. That was a parable of grace. Are All Welcome?

The two groups of people listening take note, the chief priest and Pharisees on the one hand, and the tax collectors and sinners on the other. Let whoever has ears listen.

One group is like a son who refuses to work in the vineyard, but finally goes. The other group is like another son who agrees to go, but doesn’t. Jesus: “Truly I tell you, the prostitutes and tax collectors go into the kingdom ahead of you.” Ouch.

Imagine a beautiful young girl. She is smart, but she is not allowed to read or write, go to school, vote, or own property, and she has her whole life ahead of her. She is able to marry. But then, this growing girl is sexually abused by her father. Over and over, for years. She develops dissociative disorders. Her self esteem sinks to unbearable lows. She tries to take her life. She lashes out at her father, makes seemingly absurd accusations, and is thrown out of her home. In an honor/shame society, she is without status. She has no visible means of support. Men, however, will pay her for sex and pay her well. She finds a way to survive.

She is shunned and shamed by the upstanding of society. She is the bad girl that everyone loves to hate. Her father, meanwhile, seems like a spotless, upstanding citizen. Society is sleeping around too, just quietly. She is the counterpoint to their imagined self-righteousness. She is jeered, and when in the wrong place, her life is in constant danger of stoning by the “righteous,” some of whom are her clients. She is treated with contempt. She has few options.

Then along comes one who “sees” her. He is neither client nor threat. His angle is not judgment, but compassion and understanding. He understands that life is complex, and sometimes leads us to places we never wanted or intended to go, by forces beyond our control. He treats her as a person. She is welcome to fellowship with him and his followers, even though they will draw contempt and scorn for associating with her. Rule number one: Never show kindness to society’s outcast.

Imagine this beautiful, young girl-turned-woman is transformed by love, acceptance and grace she never experienced at home, by a Jesus who understands that grace transforms, while law cannot. Imagine this woman with no options (but sufficient resources now) provides a safe home for abused or runaway girls. Suppose she supports orphans, cares for widows, and welcomes aliens. She does not go to the Synagogue or Temple because she is not welcome. She is a sinner. But she cares for the sick, even those who are outcasts. She feeds the hungry. She invites the homeless poor into her house. This sinner embodies Isaiah’s kingdom values (see Isaiah 58).

“Which of these two do you think did the will of the father?”

“Truly I tell you, the tax collectors and prostitutes go into the kingdom ahead of you.”

For they are not blinded by illusions of their own self-righteousness.

In the third vineyard parable, the tenants attempt to take over the whole vineyard, killing the vineyard owner’s servants/slaves and, in time, his son. In the end, the wicked tenants are destroyed. Could this be a reference to the destruction of Jerusalem? We might balk at this theology, but it is in line with the theology of Isaiah’s Vineyard Song (Isaiah 5), which gives the case for Judah’s destruction. Sour grapes. Jesus tells the religious leaders that the kingdom will be taken from them and given to a people who produce the fruits of the kingdom. (The preacher might give some clarity as to what Matthew and Isaiah might say those fruits are.) This is a parable of judgment.

Now we arrive at this coming Sunday’s parable, fully briefed to hear it. Now the image shifts from a vineyard to a wedding banquet. (You’ll want to choose the Isaiah 25 reading to compliment this gospel text.) The king has very specific guests to invite to the party (Scribes and Pharisees), but they can’t come for some reason. He makes a second attempt to invite them to the big party, but they still won’t come, so he gets furious, and destroys them. Scholars like to count Jesus’ predictions of the destruction of Jerusalem in A.D. 70, but these very subtle ones sometimes get overlooked. Some take it for granted that this “destruction” is hell, a place where God tortures people forever. You decide.

It fascinates me that, more often than not, the kingdom of God is portrayed as a party. Those who aren’t at the party generally choose not to come for their own reasons. They are not locked out; they are invited guests. But in this parable, they choose not to come. They are like the older brother in Luke 15, who refuses to come into the party because he doesn’t want to be in the same room with his sinful brother. He won’t dignify the Father’s gracious generosity. God’s forgiveness and lavish generosity is the theme in the Parable of the Workers in the Vineyard, and other parables.

When the invited guests can’t (or won’t) come, (they are “unwilling” in some versions), the doors are thrown open to all. The doors to the kingdom are open: Come on in and join the party. Even you who are unrighteous can come in – eat, drink, serve, love…

Then the parable shifts from one of judgment to one of grace. The kingdom is open to all now. The church is a corpus mixtum. Wheat and tares. Tax collectors and Levites. Pharisees and prostitutes. The appointed ones didn’t get the job done, so now the doors are open. Just as anyone who is willing to work in the vineyard is welcome, regardless of the hour, likewise, all who are willing to celebrate in the feast are welcome. Come one, come all.

One could see this as a critique of the Judean leaders who refuse to come to God’s lavish party, who choose self-righteous separation. As a result, Jerusalem gets sacked. Consequently, the kingdom’s doors are opened. All (including the Gentiles) are now welcome to the party.

This new community in Christ will not be built around purity, but instead around faith in Christ and his coming kingdom. It will be a community of those who fall short of the law, fall short of God’s righteousness, but who trust in God’s mercy nevertheless. This new community will be marked by love, not by moral superiority.

Then, there is one last puzzling wrinkle in the story. If you’re not wearing a wedding garment (an extra-long, whitewashed robe for special occasions), you’ll get thrown out. Good news though: The host/king will provide one for you for free, since most people can’t afford one (just like most people today don’t own a tux). You don’t have to provide your own robe of righteousness, you only need wear the one given to you. Don’t get caught without the robe of mercy and grace. Beware if you think you can get by with the dirty rags of your own righteousness. They won’t do. You’re likely to get thrown out on your… Well, you know.

You will be thrown into the “outer darkness,” a phrase only used by Matthew (chapters 8, 22, 25), where there will be “weeping and gnashing of teeth”, this phrase used seven times in the New Testament, six times in Matthew and once in Luke. Some read this literally. Other point out that just about everything in Matthew 20-22 has been clearly metaphorical (see 22:1, “The kingdom of heaven is like…”).

We once had a consultant come to our church to meet with a fellowship hall full of key leaders. “Who is welcome at this church?” he asked. “Everyone!” someone replied. “Really?” he said. “REALLY?” The group conceded that while they’d like it to be true, it probably wasn’t entirely.

Who is welcome at your church? Who is welcome to serve the poor with you? Who is socially qualified? Unqualified? Who is theologically appropriate? Who is good enough? Are you ready to throw open the doors to the riff raff, and invite them to join the dance? How will you do that? Who will invite them? Are you inviting them to a ritual on Sunday morning, or to be part of God’s transformation of the world? (Hint: They’re more interested in the latter, but if they engage, they’ll come to recognize how much they need the former.)

How might we engage those outside our churches in what God is doing in the world, without expecting them to believe everything right away, or without expecting them to join or become card-carrying members? What if the paradigm shifted from making members to engaging entire cities around life-affirming, kingdom-focused, Spirit-breathed community efforts?

Why not throw a lunch this month, and invite the community (for free)? Share your plans to serve the world in Jesus name this year. Peru? CAR? Habitat? ESL? The hungry? The homeless? Have sign up sheets. Recruit people to help. Even non-members. Especially non-members. Have children’s events. Publish it in the paper. Have a fall or Halloween theme. In worship sing “All Are Welcome” (ELW 641). Sermon theme: “What if God really needs everyone?” Or “All Are Welcome. Robe and Wine Provided.”

Throw open the doors. If the self-righteous don’t want to come to your party, I bet there are plenty of others who will.

Luther at Worms

Here I answered:

“Since then your serene majesty and your lordships seek a simple answer, I will give it in this manner, neither horned nor toothed: Unless I am convinced by the testimony of the Scriptures or by clear reason (for I do not trust either in the pope or in councils alone, since it is well known that they have often erred and contradicted themselves), I am bound by the Scriptures I have quoted and my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and I will not retract anything, since it is neither safe nor right to go against conscience.

“I cannot do otherwise, here I stand, may God help me, Amen.”

Luther’s Works 32:112

The Salvadoran Cross

Salvadoran artist Christian Chavarria has created a vibrant 2m-high cross for the joint Reformation commemoration, replete with meaning for both Catholics and Lutherans. Dirk Lange says the significance of the design lies in its depiction of God’s creative and sanctifying work. Here, he explains the detail of the cross design, drawing on the document From Conflict to Communion.

The cross depicts the Triune God’s creative, reconciling and sanctifying work. At the base of the cross, the hands of God hold all things together, as is recorded in Colossians 1:17 and Hebrews 1:3.

Jesus Christ, Word of God, is at the center of all life, incarnate, redeeming, reconciling, sustaining all creation, and renewing our lives by his death and resurrection made present in the Eucharist. The vineyard and the vine represent both Christ and the people of God.

“Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me. I am the vine, you are the branches” (John 15:1-5).

Salvation through a sure promise

The Holy Spirit as dove signifies God’s work of salvation through a sure and certain promise of his redeeming presence among us until he comes again. In the waters of the font, the baptized have been made new and become part of the one body of Christ, the communion of saints.

“The church is the body of Christ. As there is only one Christ, so also he has only one body. Through baptism, human beings are made members of this body” (From Conflict to Communion, paragraph 219).

The Eucharist represents the visible and full church communion for which we dearly long. At the table, our Lord Jesus Christ offers himself as nourishment for the journey, strengthening the communion of saints established in baptism, reconciling all people as walls of division are broken down.
“For Lutherans, as well as Catholics, the Lord’s Supper is a precious gift in which Christians find nourishment and consolation for themselves, and where the church is ever anew gathered and built up” (From Conflict to Communion, par 140). The cross depicts our deepest longing for a shared Eucharist.

Just as Christ takes upon himself our burden and sin so, too, must we for each other. The poor and oppressed are to be cared for and the refugee welcomed. In common witness and service to God and neighbor, we must continuously let ourselves “be transformed by the encounter with the other and by the mutual witness of faith” (From Conflict to Communion, par 240 Second Imperative).

God calls communities of faith to be places of reconciliation

All actions and symbols in this image point to Christ – his life, death and resurrection. The arms of the faithful are raised in thanksgiving for what God is doing.

The fish, too, point to Christ. In Greek, ichthus (fish) is an acronym for Jesus Christ, Son of God, Savior. Jesus ate fish with his disciples after his Resurrection. Jesus also tells the story of Jonah and the whale to describe his death and resurrection. “For just as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the sea monster, so for three days and three nights the Son of Man will be in the heart of the earth” (Matthew 12:40).

The fish is also to be seen on the booklet From Conflict to Communion (link) and the Common Prayer (link) indicating our rootedness in Jesus Christ.

The images on this cross embody reconciliation: God’s call to communities of faith to be places of reconciliation and peace, God’s call to all the baptized to be ministers of reconciliation, engaging the path of goodness that offers reconciliation to all humanity and all creation. God embraces this splendid universal communion.

The Artist: Christian Chavarría Ayala

When Lutherans and Catholics meet to commemorate the Reformation anniversary, they will do so under a cross that carries a message of hope from one of the world’s most violent countries. Salvadorian artist Christian Chavarria Ayala has painted perhaps the most significant piece in his careers to date – the cross for the common prayer service of the joint ecumenical commemoration 31 October in Lund and Malmö, Sweden.

In the course of his life, Chavarria has endured torment at the hands of militia, the killings of siblings and spent prolonged periods as a refugee. Even today, he lives in fear of drug barons and street gangs.

“The doves were my wish for peace in the country”

Chavarria estimates he has made more than 130,000 crosses, which have travelled to 109 countries. His crosses hang in the offices of bishops, politicians and former presidents in North America, Europe, the Middle East, Africa, Asia and the Vatican. LWF president Bishop Munib A. Younan presented Pope Francis with one of the Salvadorian crosses at an audience in 2013.

The dove seen in many of his crosses is a sign of protest. During a house search as a child, soldiers questioned him about the white birds on his early paintings. “I did not give the true reason, that the doves were my wish for peace in the country,” he says. It was forbidden to paint pictures of white doves in El Salvador. “You were not allowed to say that.” 

Chavarria was a child when two of his siblings were killed Salvadorian civil war. He and his mother fled to Honduras, lived in the woods and later like prisoners in a refugee camp for years.
Cross a reminder of Jesus’ resurrection

As a teenager, he was targeted by the death squads as being affiliated with the guerilla. His mother managed to send him to Sweden as a refugee. Despite hardships of living in a foreign country, he felt free for the first time in his life.

Repatriation when he came of age was equally hard but he says today that he would not live anywhere else but El Salvador. “I was a refugee most of my life, and I love my country,” he says. “It’s not worth leaving it in the hands of the bad people.”  

Chavarria has started to study theology and is on his way to becoming a pastor. The crosses he paints tell of the hope for a different world than the one he lives in.

“The situation here is like a dark cross which we carry every day, but we have to transform it” the artist says. “We make crosses with strong colors, to show the beauty of God’s creation. The cross must not remind you that Jesus died on it, but that he died and has risen. It is a symbol of life for us.”

Of the Lund cross, he points to the face all people of the world are represented. “Despite their race, culture, skin color or age, they are together and invited to the table of the Lord.” 

October 8, 2017 is Pentecost 18A, Proper 22A – Fruit (The Wicked Tenants)

Exodus 20:1-4, 7-9, 12-20 – The Ten Commandments
Isaiah 5:1-7 – My beloved had a vineyard on a very fertile hill. He dug it and cleared it of stones, and planted it with choice vines; he built a watchtower in the midst of it, and hewed out a wine vat in it; he expected it to yield grapes, but it yielded wild grapes.

Psalm 19 – The heavens are telling the glory of God; and the firmament proclaims his handiwork. The law of the Lord is perfect, reviving the soul… Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable to you, O Lord, my rock and my redeemer.
Psalm 80:7-15 – Restore us, O God of hosts; let your face shine, that we may be saved. You brought a vine out of Egypt; you drove out the nations and planted it.

Philippians 3:4b-14 – Yet whatever gains I had, these I have come to regard as loss because of Christ.

Matthew 21:33-46 – The parable of the Wicked Tenants

Prayer of the Day
Beloved God, from you come all things that are good. Lead us by the inspiration of your Spirit to know those things that are right, and by your merciful guidance, help us to do them, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.

Gospel Acclamation
Alleluia. Jesus says, I chose you and appointed you
to go and bear fruit | that will last. Alleluia. (John 15:16)

RCL gospel texts overview

  • September 10: Matthew 18:15-20 – Conflict
  • September 17: Matthew 18:21-35 – Forgiveness (The Unforgiving Slave)
  • September 24: Matthew 20:1-16 – Grace (Vineyard Laborers)
  • October 1: Matthew 21:23-32 – Humility (Two Sons)
  • October 8: Matthew 21:33-46 – Fruit (Wicked Tenants)
  • October 15: Matthew 22:1-14 – Expectation (Wedding Banquet)
  • October 22: Matthew 22:15-22 – Taxes (Render unto Caesar)
  • October 29: Reformation – John 8:31-36 (The truth will set you free.)

day laborers

Fruits of the Kingdom

This week we hear another parable.

This is the third and final vineyard parable from this series in Matthew. The first was the Parable of the Workers in the Vineyard, then the Parable of the Two Sons (in the vineyard) last week. This week we have the Parable of the Wicked Tenants.

Here’s the text:

“There was a landowner who planted a vineyard, put a fence around it, dug a wine press in it, and built a watchtower. Then he leased it to tenants and went to another country. When the harvest time had come, he sent his slaves to the tenants to collect his produce.

But the tenants seized his slaves and beat one, killed another, and stoned another. Again he sent other slaves, more than the first; and they treated them in the same way. Finally he sent his son to them, saying, ‘They will respect my son.’ But when the tenants saw the son, they said to themselves, ‘This is the heir; come, let us kill him and get his inheritance.’ So they seized him, threw him out of the vineyard, and killed him. Now when the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenants?”

They said to him, “He will put those wretches to a miserable death, and lease the vineyard to other tenants who will give him the produce at the harvest time.” Jesus said to them, “Have you never read in the scriptures: ‘the stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone; this was the Lord’s doing, and it is amazing in our eyes’? Therefore I tell you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people that produces the fruits of the kingdom. The one who falls on this stone will be broken to pieces; and it will crush anyone on whom it falls.”

When the chief priests and the Pharisees heard his parables, they realized that he was speaking about them. They wanted to arrest him, but they feared the crowds, because they regarded him as a prophet. 

A word about allegory. Augustine, and Luther after him, interpreted the Bible allegorically, especially the Hebrew Scriptures.

Augustine did not find Exodus 23:18, (“You shall not boil a kid in its mother’s milk,”) edifying, so, he interpreted it allegorically, and Christologically: “Christ should not himself perish in the slaughter of the innocents.”

Now this may seem a stretch (and it is), but this was the pattern: rereading the Hebrew Scriptures in light of the church’s faith in God’s revelation of Jesus as the messiah. This would not withstand the scrutiny of modern historical-critical exegesis, but understand this: Paul does the same thing with Sarah, Abraham, Hagar, Isaac and Ishmael, law and gospel.

Luther, as a Late Medieval Augustinian theologian, understood the Bible had more than one level of meaning. There were many, but four were standard. This is called the quadriga:

  1. Literal – the first meaning, the plain sense of the text
  2. Allegorical – how the text speaks to faith in Christ
  3. Tropological – the moral meaning, how we are to act
  4. Anagogical – the spiritual meaning that points to eternal significance

Following Augustine, Luther interpreted the Old Testament Christologically, as can be seen in his commentary on the Psalms. It must be noted that this is not unique. It is typical of biblical hermeneutics of the era.

Forgive my excursus, but it seems clear that Matthew wants his readers to understand this story allegorically, and most likely Jesus did too.

Jesus speaks in riddles, parables, allegory, metaphor, simile and other figures of speech. At one point the disciples get so frustrated, they ask him to please speak “plainly.” Allegory is a common tool for mystics.

Even the characters in the text know this parable is an allegory. We see this in verse 45: “When the chief priests and the Pharisees heard his parables, they realized that he was speaking about them.” The Pharisees recognize that. This isn’t about some imaginary wicked tenants. It’s about them.

Even without Matthew explicitly telling us, if we follow his practice of using Scripture to interpret Scripture, we are led to the inevitable conclusion that Jesus is telling a story about one thing, while clearly meaning another. The tenants are the chief priests and the Pharisees.

Following this through, God is the landowner who sent the slaves/prophets, who were beaten, stoned, and killed. The killing and stoning of the prophets is made clear again in Matthew 23:25, “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, killing the prophets and stoning all those sent to you…” This is a running theme in Matthew (and Isaiah).

God sends the prophets to the people to call them to bear fruits of repentance – justice and mercy, the weightier matters of the law – but gets only violence. Over and over. This is the story of the world. God calls us to love. God calls us to create a society where people are fed. Instead there is violence. Jesus saw it in his day. There was the violence of the Roman Empire (torture and death by crucifixion, massacres, and so on) and violence by those who wanted to overthrow the Roman Empire (terrorists like the Sicarii and the Zealots).

Matthew’s Jesus is recalling Isaiah 5:1-7, our first reading from the Hebrew Scriptures. This text highlights the people’s ingratitude and lack of fruitfulness, as well as Yahweh’s troubled relationship with Israel (David Garland, Reading Matthew: a Literary and Theological Commentary, p. 221).

According to Emerson Powery,

Culturally, the leasing of land to tenant farmers was a common experience in the first century. Landowners could expect tenants to turn over (a portion of) the crop (cf. 21:34). Those who failed to meet the landowner’s standards would be removed from the land and landowning elite could usually pay others to remove them forcefully if necessary.

Do we have the courage to prophetically denounce the same pattern in our society? Consider the amount of money we spend on “defense” compared to the amount we spend feeding a hungry world.

Finally the landowner sends his own son. They seize him, throw him out of the vineyard, and kill him. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out who the son is (although we have plenty of them in Houston to ask, if necessary). Jesus’ crucifixion is the logical outcome of a society bent on violence. Jesus is an archetype for the suffering of this world, the falsely accused, the powerless, the victims of violence and hatred.

This is true of all who follow in his footsteps. How many gentle peacemakers have met a violent death? If you criticize or try to reform a system that is causing suffering, those benefiting from that system will be furious. You have threatened their sweet deal. As in this parable, the tenants will rise up and eliminate that threat.

I love how Jesus ends his Parables with questions that force the listener to painfully acknowledge the point. “Who do you think was the neighbor to the man who fell among robbers?” “The Samaritan, I suppose.” And in this text: “What do you think the landowner will do about it?” The high priests have to grapple with the answer. This is a parable of judgment. “He will put those wretches to death,” – and here the chief priests and Pharisees start to squirm a bit – “and lease the vineyard to someone else, someone who will bear fruit.” “They condemn themselves with their own mouths.” (Garland) This is a tough text for those who believe in judgment “lite.”

As usual, Jesus punctuates his point: “Therefore I tell you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people that produces the fruits of the kingdom.” This is almost as bad as last week’s punch in the gut: “Truly I tell you, the tax-collectors and the prostitutes are going into the kingdom of God ahead of you.” Jesus does not mince words. He is clearly critical of the corrupt, arrogant religious establishment that is not bearing fruit, and he is on the side of those who have been ostracized by the self-righteous.

What is the fruit of the kingdom? Read on in Matthew: Feeding the hungry, providing water for those who need it, welcoming strangers, visiting the sick and imprisoned. Or read back in Matthew to the things Jesus refers to as “the weightier matters of the law,” the Micah 6:8 stuff: justice, compassion, humility. These are fruits of the kingdom Jesus finds wanting in the scribes and Pharisees.

One can imagine the workers in the vineyard to be the chief priests and Pharisees, or perhaps they are us. What does this story mean for us today? Stories are meant to have living implications for those who hear them. How do you hear this?

I am mindful of people like Lutheran Bishop Medardo Gomez, who spoke out against corruption and violence in El Salvador. For this he was imprisoned and beaten. People like Roman Catholic Archbishop Oscar Romero (who, by the way, confirmed Bp. Gomez), who spoke up for justice, and was executed by the death squads (wicked tenants)? Jerusalem, Jerusalem, if only you knew the ways of peace.

Are you speaking out against injustice? There is plenty to go around. Are you speaking up for the voiceless and powerless? If not, why not? Are you bearing witness against the violence both of the state and of those who wish to overthrow the state? Have you been thrown in prison for your prophetic voice? If not, why is that? Have you been willing to risk mild criticism on behalf of the poor, the widow, the orphan or the stranger?

This Jesus who is the cornerstone, is also a stumbling block for some.

Okay, an edgy text. So what’s the good news here? This is a parable of judgment. Sounds like bad news to me. We never take a text, however, outside of the greater context of the entire narrative of Matthew in which it resides. The good news is the vineyard owner cares. The vineyard owner is going to do something that involves his son and a releasing of the vineyard.

The good news is that God is calling all people to be part of the work in the vineyard, no matter what hour it is. The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few. The good news is that God will bring about the kingdom, in time. It will be built upon a cornerstone that the builders rejected. That which appeared to have no value, is inherently of ultimate value.

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