Bishop Michael Rinehart



Bishop of the Texas Louisiana Gulf Coast Synod, of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.

September 24, 2017 is Pentecost 16A, Proper 20A – The Workers in the Vineyard

Exodus 16:2-15 – The Israelites complain against Moses. They receive manna and quail.
Jonah 3:10 – 4:11 – Nineveh repents and YHWH changes his mind. Jonah gets angry.

Psalm 105:106, 37-45 – A song celebrating delivery from Egypt and quails in the wilderness.
Psalm 145:1-8 – God’s providence. The eyes of all look to you, and you give them their food in due season. You open your hand, satisfying the desire of every living thing.

Philippians 1:21-30 – For me, to live is Christ and to die is gain. Live your life in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ.

Matthew 20:1-16 – Grace: Parable of the Laborers in the Vineyard.

Prayer of the Day
Almighty and eternal God, you show perpetual loving kindness to us your servants. Because we cannot rely on our own abilities, grant us your merciful judgment, and train us to embody the generosity of your Son, Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.

Gospel Acclamation
Alleluia. Open our | hearts, O Lord, to give heed to what is said | by your Son, Alleluia.


Believe it or not, there are only 10 weeks left in our year of walking through Matthew’s gospel, Year A: Four Sundays in November, five in October, and this coming Sunday, September 24, 2017. We will cover major portions of the last of five major sections that make up Matthew’s gospel. Matthew presents Jesus as the new Moses, so Matthew’s Gospel is organized into five sections just like the Books of Moses (Genesis-Deuteronomy).

In the early 20th century a guy named B. W. Bacon noticed that Matthew used the phrase, “When Jesus finished saying these things…” five times, at the end of five long discourses, or sermons (Mt. 7:28, 11:1, 13:53, 19:1, 26:1). He pointed out the five-fold narrative/discourse structure. One could organize Matthew’s gospel as follows:

Introduction: Matthew 1

  • Section 1
    • Narrative: Matthew 2-4.
    • Discourse: Matthew 5-7 (Sermon on the Mount)
  • Section 2
    • Narrative: Matthew 8-9.
    • Discourse: Matthew 10 (Missionary Discourse)
  • Section 3
    • Narrative: Matthew 11-12.
    • Discourse: Matthew 13 (Parables of the Kingdom)
  • Section 4
    • Narrative: Matthew 14-17.
    • Discourse: Matthew 18 (Living in Community)
  • Section 5
    • Narrative: Matthew 19-22.
    • Discourse: Matthew 23-25 (Olivet Discourse)

Conclusion: 26-28 (Death and Resurrection)

In September and October, our gospel texts in the Revised Common Lectionary come from Matthew 18-22. These are teachings and parables that are instructive to the church. Life in Christian community.

Here’s an overview of our RCL gospel texts:

  • 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


I have discovered that people don’t like this parable very much. It offends their sense of justice. Why should everyone be paid the same, regardless of how long they worked? This is a story of uncompromising grace. People really have trouble with grace.

Prior to this week’s gospel from Matthew 20, the Scribes and Pharisees gave Jesus a hard time for eating with sinners and not keeping the letter of the law. He responded with stories about lost sheep and an unforgiving slave. The message seems to be that God forgives, and cares about those who are lost, much more than keeping score. Now, Matthew 20 begins with The Parable of the Workers in the Vineyard, which might also be called The Parable of the Day Laborers.

This is a great story, but it drives people nuts, if they really grasp its message. The justice of God does not seem just.

At dawn, a landowner goes looking for workers to help with the harvest.

6:00 a.m. – The landowner finds some people to work and negotiates with them a fair day’s wage. They agree and begin working.

9:00 a.m. – The landowner, still in need of more help, finds people standing idle in the marketplace. He hires them on and puts them to work. He agrees to pay them “whatever is right.”

12:00 noon – More workers.

3:00 p.m. – More workers.

5:00 p.m. – The landowner goes out and finds people standing around. When asked why, they say no one has hired them, so he puts them to work as well.

6:00 p.m. – Quittin’ time. Stop working and collect your wages, the last first.

Each time the landowner looks for people who are standing idle to work in the vineyard. At the end of the day there are five groups of workers:

  • The 6 a.m. folks have worked 12 hours.
  • The 9 a.m. folks have worked 9 hours.
  • The 12 noon folks have worked 6 hours.
  • The 3 p.m. folks have worked 3 hours.
  • The 5 p.m. folks have worked one hour

Let’s say the daily wage is $15/hour, for a 12-hour day. That’s $180 for the day. We can assume a 12-hour day because at the end of the parable, the folks that arrived at 6 a.m. complain that the folks who arrived at 5 p.m. “only worked one hour.” So, 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. $180. The 6 a.m. folks heard this, agreed and shook hands on it at first light.

Now it comes time to collect their pay at the end of the day. The 5 p.m. folks are paid first. Lo and behold, the 5 p.m. workers get paid $180. The 6 a.m. folks at the end of the line are watching carefully. The 6 a.m. folks think, “Holy smokes! The boss just paid those folks $180 for one hour of work. That’s $180 per hour!”

The Parables of GraceRobert Farrar Capon has an excellent treatment of this story in his book Parables of Grace. He says we’re all inveterate accountants/score-keepers.

The 6 a.m. folks immediately begin calculating. (C’mon, we’ve all done it.) 12 hours, at $180/hour is, well, let’s see, over $2,000! We’re having prime rib tonight!

The 3 p.m. people step up. $180. The noon folks: $180. 9 a.m. folks: $180. When the 6 a.m. folks step up, they stare down at their paycheck: Only $180. “That’s not fair!”

Before we get to the landowner’s response, let’s stop for a moment and ask: Why is Jesus telling this story? How might the Scribes and Pharisees be hearing this story? Why would Matthew choose to retell this story? (This parable is peculiar to Matthew. Mark and Luke only have some version of this phrase: “The last will be first and the first last.”) Could they all be measuring their status before God? Their righteousness? Their place in heaven? Are the Scribes imagining themselves as 6 a.m. folks, and the Gentiles, tax collectors and sinners as 5 p.m. Johnny-come-latelies! Who is more righteous? Who will God reward the most? Who will be greatest in the kingdom of heaven?

Consider this. The cutting edge of this story, which only appears in Matthew, is not much different than the cutting edge of The Parable of the Prodigal Son, which only appears in Luke. The older brother in Luke’s parable followed all the rules, and was working hard while the younger son was goofing off. When the lost son returns home, the older, hard-working son discovers that the father loves both of his sons the same, regardless. In today’s story, the landowner seems to pay all the workers the same, regardless. Though our work is sacred, perhaps God’s love is not contingent on how much we work.

Parables of Subversive SpeechWhen the early birds get upset, the landowner’s response is classic. He says, “Friend, I am doing you no wrong.” Capon suggests that this word for friend (Ἑταῖρε, hetaire) is edgier than the usual (φίλοs, philos). Herzog (Parables As Subversive Speech: Jesus As Pedagogue of the Oppressed) agrees that this is a condescending form of the word “friend.”

If he’s right, the sense is more like, “Listen pal…” or perhaps “Look buddy… This is my vineyard. You agreed to work for $180, right? (Marlin Brando voice.) I’m sorry. Do you believe I have I been unfair with you? Perhaps you wish to lodge a complaint? Shall we alter the terms of the agreement? Do you really want to mess with me, pal? I paid you what we agreed upon at the beginning of the day. Take your paycheck and skedaddle. Am I not free to throw my wealth around as I please? Or are you envious because I choose to be generous?”

I remember a small group at my home congregation discussing this passage. The group discussed how difficult it was to find reliable, hard workers. One businesswoman said she didn’t pay all her workers the same amount. Some jobs are harder than others. Some people work harder than others. But she’s the boss. It’s her business. They can take it or leave it. She pays what she agreed to pay. Period.

This story is similar, but different. In this story everyone is paid the same, even though they didn’t work the same amount. Not even close. Some worked 12 hours throughout the heat of the day. That’s a pretty tough sell here in triple-digit Texas. Some worked only one hour. This story makes no sense to the bean-counters of religious purity. It only makes sense in light of a gracious God.

“Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me?” the landowner says, “Or are you envious because I’m generous?” Perhaps those on the score-keeping plan, who are “winning” (in their own eyes), don’t really want a gracious God. It’s like the frontrunner of the marathon being told everyone is a winner. Wait. What?! But I won!

The Evil Eye

The phrase that is translated “Are you envious because I am generous,” literally says, “Is your eye evil, because I myself am good?” (ἢ ὁ ὀφθαλμός σου πονηρός ἐστιν ὅτι ἐγὼ ἀγαθός εἰμι;). This “evil eye” phrase is loaded. The evil eye has a long history. Translators don’t render it literally, because most modern readers won’t recognize the image. There is more here than can be dealt with in this short reflection. Look it up: (especially evil eye in Judaism).

One with an evil eye is so envious, so covetous that they are distressed when others prosper, and wish to do them harm. When your neighbor gets a raise and prospers in any way, does it upset you, or do you celebrate over their advantage?

What if, while working in our vineyards of life, we didn’t worry too much about how hard those next to us were working? What if, while working on becoming righteous people, we didn’t spend so much time worrying about how righteous or unrighteous others are? What if we left judging to God, and focused more on the log in our own eyes? (Matthew 7)

Clearly, those who come last are on equal pay as those who came in first in this story. The first are last and the last first. Those who think they should enter the kingdom first, because of their righteousness, moral superiority or religious heritage are in for a surprise. The righteousness contest is bankrupt. This is a shot across the bow to the religious leaders of his day, and perhaps ours too. It’s a truly distressing parable for score-keepers, and all who think Christianity is about personal moral purity.

To make matters worse, in case they missed the point, in next week’s gospel Jesus will really pour gas on the fire by saying to the chief priests and elders: “Truly I tell you, the tax-collectors and the prostitutes are going into the kingdom of God ahead of you.”

I like this story. I really like it. It shows a loving God who is like hopeless parents that love all their children, underachievers and overachievers, those who score and those who struggle. This is a fun story to read with groups. Don’t miss the opportunity.

Here’s an idea: invite some actual day laborers to join the conversation. Pay them (quite fairly – a day’s wage, perhaps) to be with you for the morning of study and worship. I am being totally serious about this. You might hear a different story. They will tell stories of being underpaid, not being paid at all, verbally abused, and treated as trash. We might gain a fuller understanding of the text if we listened to reflections of those who are most likely to appreciate the reality of the story.

Some have suggested this story subtly illustrates Jesus’ solidarity with the poor, and his awareness of the vulnerability of the poorest day laborers in the barter economy of his day. Today we see the same problems. The laborer really has little choice in the matter of payment. The subsistence-level laborer is utterly dependent on the generosity of the exploitative urban elite. Jesus becomes the model of the broker between the rich and poor. He symbolizes the coming of a new economy, an economy of the kingdom, where all are equal in the eyes of God. Jesus truly embodies the prophetic vision of “good news for the poor.”

Jesus ends the parable with his enigmatic statement, “the first shall be last and the last shall be first.” “This saying should be taken as a word of warning to disciples who are the spiritual firsts.” (David Garland, Reading Matthew: A Literary and Theological Commentary)

day laborers 2

Gander on 9/11

Looking in the midst of tragedy? Watch the helpers. 

Many years ago, on 9/11, a group of people illustrated heart-opening generosity in a way that caught my attention. t’s a true story; you can look it up. The details vary from source to source, but this is an experience that changed lives. 

On September 11, 2001 Delta Flight 15 was over the North Atlantic, en route from London’s Gatwick Airport to Cincinnati, Ohio, when flight attendant Joyce Hanson was ordered to the cockpit immediately. The stern-faced captain handed her a message from Atlanta that simply said, “All airways over the Continental US are closed. Land ASAP at the nearest airport, advise your destination.”

Norman Mineta, then U.S. transportation secretary, recalled:

“After I closed U.S. airspace, I realized that we’ve got these planes coming in from Europe and Asia and I then called David [Collenette, Canadian Transport Minister] and I said ‘Hey David, we need your help,'” Mineta said, asking Collenete if Canada could take the incoming planes.

“He put me on hold and within a minute or so he said, ‘We’ll take them all,'” Mineta told the Associated Press in a telephone interview. 200 flights were diverted to Canada. 

The nearest airport for Delta 15 turned out to be in a town called Gander, on the island of Newfoundland. A quick request was made to the Canadian traffic controller and a detour to Gander was approved immediately. The crew simply told the passengers they were having instrument troubles. When they landed 40 minutes later, there were already 20 other airplanes on the ground from all over the world, and 18 more on the way. 

The captain made an announcement, “Ladies and gentlemen, you must be wondering if all these airplanes around us have the same instrument problem as we have.” He explained that there was terrorist activity. No one was allowed to get off the aircraft. No one on the ground was allowed to come near the aircrafts. At 6 p.m. on September 11, Gander airport told them that they would be allowed to deplane at 11:00 the next morning. 

About 10:30 on the morning of September 12th, a convoy of school buses showed up at the side of the airplane. The stairway was hooked up, and the passengers were taken to the terminal for “processing” through Immigration and Customs. They then had to register with the Red Cross.

The town of Gander has a population of 10,400 people. The Red Cross ended up processing 7,000-8,000 passengers. Passengers from various flights were taken to hotels, churches, schools and private homes, where they finally watched the news and learned what was going on. At such a deeply troubling time in American history, the “plane people” as they came to be known were overwhelmed by the hospitality of the people of Gander and outlying communities. With nothing to do, and nowhere to go, for two days they did nothing but enjoy the company of strangers.
Steve Kirby of Delta Flight 37 said that in the small town of Gambo, outside of Gander, where they stayed, the two small stores simply opened their doors all night long and told the community to “take what you need.” He said, “Every meal was a feast. I gained 28 pounds.” For two days they lived in the new community – a community of kindness, hospitality, generosity, sharing.
218 passengers from Delta Flight 15 ended up in a town called Lewisporte, about 45 Kilometers from Gander. Families were kept together. All the elderly passengers were lodged in private homes. Nurses and doctors were on duty. Phone calls and emails to US and Europe were available for every one once a day.
Some people went on boat cruises of the lakes and harbors. Some went to see local forests. Local bakeries offered fresh bread for the guests. Food was prepared by all the residents and church members and brought to schools and churches. Every need was met. Later, in news interviews, tears would stream down their faces as passengers told these stories.

17 dogs and cats from the flights were also housed. Two great apes were cared for. 

Pat Bernard says that she slept in a padded pew at St. George Anglican Church. When they left, the church had a big good-bye service for them, tons of food, church bells ringing, people hugging.
Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or… what you will wear… Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them… Consider the lilies of the field… they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these…

Two days later the passengers were delivered to the airport right on time and without a single one missing or late. When the passengers from Delta Flight 15 were all on board, one of the business class passengers, a Dr. Robert Ferguson, got on the PA and reminded everyone of the hospitality they had received at the hands of total strangers. He said he was going to set up a Trust Fund to provide a scholarship for high school students of Lewisporte to help them go to college. He requested donations of any amount from the other travelers. When the paper with donations got back to us with the amounts, names, phone numbers and addresses, it totaled to $14,500. The doctor got on the PA again and promised to match the donations.
When we catch a glimpse of real hospitality, divine generosity, it changes us forever. We cannot help but give back. True gratitude expresses itself in sacrificial giving. 
By the way, the Flight 15 Scholarship Fund, administered by the Columbus Foundation at 1234 East Broad Street, Columbus Ohio, is administered by Shirley Brooks-Jones, a retired administrative assistant from Ohio State University. She was on that flight. The fund started with $14,500. As of 2017, the fund has grown to over $2 million.

Never neglect to offer hospitality to strangers, for thereby some have entertained angels unawares.

St. John’s Lutheran Church in New Ulm, Texas

St. John’s celebrated their 150th anniversary today, September 10, 2017. Pastor Glenn Hohlt and I presided. 

This congregation still has the old tradition of ushering people out by pew at the end of the service.

St. John’s was founded by Pastor John Conrad Roehm (1822-1902), who was one of the six pastors sent by the St. Chrischona School in Basel Switzerland. Roehm was born in Metzingen, Wuerttemberg, Germany. 

Landing in Galveston in 1851, he did missionary service along Llano river serving Leiningen, Castell, Schoenburg and Mason in Texas. He served Trinity Lutheran Church in Frelsburg, Texas, Ross Prairie (Ellinger), Fayetteville, New Bremen, Pagel Settlement, Rockhouse, Hallettsville, Content, Weimar, Schulenburg, High Hill, East Navidad, Black Jack Springs, La Grange, Bluff, New Ulm, San Bernardo, Biegel Settlement, Cat Spring, Columbus, Alleyton and First Evangelical Lutheran Church of Galveston, Texas. 

For more history check out 

September 17, 2017 is Pentecost 15A, Proper 19A

Exodus 14:19-31 – The Israelites are delivered from the Egyptians, through the Red Sea.
Genesis 50:15-21 – Joseph forgives his brothers. “Even though you intended it for evil,, God intended it for good…”

Psalm 114 – When Israel went out from Egypt, the house of Jacob from a people of strange language, Judah became God’s sanctuary, Israel his dominion.
Exodus 15:1b-11, 20-21 – Moses’ song. “I will sing unto The Lord for he has triumphed gloriously, the horse and rider thrown into the sea…”
Psalm 103:(1-7), 8-13 – The Lord is merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love. He will not always accuse, nor will he keep his anger forever.

Romans 14:1-12 – Welcome those who are weak in faith, but not for the purpose of quarreling over opinions… Who are you to pass judgment on servants of another?… Why do you pass judgment on your brother or sister? Or you, why do you despise your brother or sister? For we will all stand before the judgment seat of God.

Matthew 18:21-35 – Peter: How many times must I forgive? The Parable of the Unforgiving Slave.

Prayer of the Day
O Lord God, merciful judge, you are the inexhaustible fountain of forgiveness. Replace our hearts of stone with hearts that love and adore you, that we may delight in doing your will, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.

Gospel Acclamation
Alleluia. We have an advocate, Jesus | Christ the righteous; your sins are forgiven on account | of his name. Alleluia. (1 John 2:1, 12)

How Can We Help

In the wake of the flooding in Houston last week, August 25-31, 2017, this is the question I’ve been asked a lot. Thank you for asking. Here’s my stock response.

Pray. Give. Serve.

PRAY for the families of those who lost their lives, and for those who lost their homes. Pray for all who were displaced and all who serve them. Pray for congregations struggling to get back on their feet so they can serve, especially at Faith in Dickinson, Salem in Houston, Messiah in Cypress, and Christ the King in Houston.

GIVE to the Gulf Coast Synod Disaster Fund, which helps congregations and their leaders recover and serve. Or pick a congregation and partner up. Or give to LDR (Lutheran Disaster Response), which does case management among the most needy homes.

SERVING now means mucking out houses and buildings. The water has subsided in most places, but will take weeks in others. Mold grows immediately. Now is the time that unskilled volunteers can serve; carrying out soaked belongings, cutting and hauling dry wall, prying up carpet and other flooring. The trick is getting here and finding a place to stay. Because so many hotels are full, many volunteers tend to be local. If you come from out of town, right now there are some options for you, and these options will grow:

  1. Our Galveston retreat center has space. It’s near Dickinson flooding.
  2. Our camp in LaGrange has space. LaGrange had flooding.
  3. Tree of Life Conroe is set up to house workers at the church. They’re north of Houston.


September and October our gospel texts are from Matthew 18-22. These are teachings and parables that are instructive to the church. Life in Christian community.

Here’s an overview of our upcoming RCL gospel texts:

  • 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.)


Forgiveness is clearly the theme that weaves most prominently through our readings for this Sunday. That may or may not be what your congregation needs to hear if you have been through the flood. That’s a pastoral decision. There are other possibilities. But forgiveness is an absolute necessity for any relationship or community to work, so it is always en vogue.

The first option for the Hebrew Bible reading (Exodus 14) stumbles across a different, but poignant theme: the Israelites deliverance through the waters of the Red Sea. The Psalm picks up this theme, either by using the Song of Moses in Exodus 15. The theme is God’s deliverance from oppression. This is not a story of revolution – people rising up and overthrowing an evil empire by their own might. It is a story of escape. God delivers them and they walk away.

For those of us who have come through the raging waters, this reading might strike a chord. The Exodus 15:1b-11, 20-21 psalm does as well:

“I will sing to the Lord, for he has triumphed gloriously; horse and rider he has thrown into the sea. 2The Lord is my strength and my might, and he has become my salvation; this is my God, and I will praise him, my father’s God, and I will exalt him. 3The Lord is a warrior; the Lord is his name. 4“Pharaoh’s chariots and his army he cast into the sea; his picked officers were sunk in the Red Sea. 5The floods covered them; they went down into the depths like a stone. 6Your right hand, O Lord, glorious in power— your right hand, O Lord, shattered the enemy. 7In the greatness of your majesty you overthrew your adversaries; you sent out your fury, it consumed them like stubble8At the blast of your nostrils the waters piled up, the floods stood up in a heap; the deeps congealed in the heart of the sea. 9The enemy said, ‘I will pursue, I will overtake, I will divide the spoil, my desire shall have its fill of them. I will draw my sword, my hand shall destroy them.’ 10You blew with your wind, the sea covered them; they sank like lead in the mighty waters. 11“Who is like you, O Lord, among the gods? Who is like you, majestic in holiness, awesome in splendor, doing wonders? 

20Then the prophet Miriam, Aaron’s sister, took a tambourine in her hand; and all the women went out after her with tambourines and with dancing. 21And Miriam sang to them: “Sing to the Lord, for he has triumphed gloriously; horse and rider he has thrown into the sea.”

But take care here. Celebrating deliverance from the raging waters will fall flat for those who lost friends or loved ones, and for those who lost house and home. For many, this does not seem like a victory. It is good to celebrate that we are here, but consider how we celebrate. Our good fortune should spur us on to serve those who were most affected.

The other option for the Hebrew Bible reading might be a better choice if you are going to use the theme of forgiveness from the Gospel reading. Joseph forgives his brothers. Then Psalm 113 emphasizes this forgiveness: “The Lord is merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love. He will not always accuse, nor will he keep his anger forever.”

This coming Sunday’s epistle brings to an end our marching through portions of Romans. Though Romans has 16 chapters, we end this run in chapter 14. A portion of chapter 15 appears in Advent 2A, when Paul quotes Isaiah saying a root of Jesse will come. A portion of chapter 16 (the last three verses of Romans) appears in Advent 4B: Paul says the mystery hidden for the ages is now disclosed, and made known to all the Gentiles through the prophets. Next week we begin four weeks in Philippians:

  • September 24, 2017: Philippians 1:21-30
  • October 1, 2017: Philippians 2:1-13
  • October 8, 2017: Philippians 3:4b-14
  • October 15, 2017: Philippians 4:1-9

Since rejoicing is a major theme of Philippians, this may be a good time to give thanks for the gifts of life, love and faith.

Romans 14 is one of Paul’s treatises on bound conscience. It gives us insight into his thinking, ethics and ecclesiology. “Welcome the weak, but not just to quarrel.” Some eat only meat, while others are vegetarians. The vegetarians believe it inappropriate to eat meat sacrificed to pagan idols. Since this comprises most of the meat in the Roman markets, some believe it is more appropriate and faithful (kosher?) to abstain from meat altogether. Paul’s take is that idols are nonexistent anyway, so eat up. He also clearly believes human religious traditions to be ineffective for justification. They can, in fact, work against one’s salvation by puffing one up. Nevertheless, the vegetarians and the carnivores should respect one another and stay together in community.

Clearly Paul considers those who abstain from eating meat to be weaker in faith, and the omnivorous stronger. He is not without an opinion on the matter. And yet, his admonishment to them is to accept one another’s differences. “Who are you to pass judgment on servants of another?” Shades of Matthew 7:1-5, Sermon on the Mount.

Paul also hints at a disagreement about the loosening of the Sabbath laws, what day to take the Sabbath, or have worship. “Some judge one day to be better than another, while others judge all days to be alike. Those who observe the day, observe it in honor of the Lord…” This may also be an argument about which days should be fasting days. For many Christians this became Wednesday, and Friday, in honor of the crucifixion.

Paul then says, whatever you do, wherever you fall on this issue, make up your mind and be confident, while respectful of others. The point he emphasizes toward the end of this passage is that we’re all going to stand before God on judgment day. People are accountable to God, not to you, so don’t worry about it. Let God be God. Jesus would add, work on the log in your own eye. You’ve got more than you can handle dealing with your own stuff.

Mark Reasoner tells an amusing story to make the point:

A story about Ruth Graham, wife of the famous evangelist, illustrates how differences can threaten our unity. Mrs. Graham, dressed and made up as would seem fitting for any American woman in the 1970’s, attended a luncheon with wives of conservative pastors in Germany.

These German Christians had more conservative ideas regarding how women should look. They did not believe that married Christian women should wear makeup or clothing that made them look too much like the world. As a result, a German pastor’s wife, sitting across from Ruth Graham, became very upset. She thought it was shameful that the wife of this famous evangelist looked so worldly. Why, Ruth Graham was even wearing mascara! The German pastor’s wife became so angry that she started crying right into her beer. Meanwhile Ruth Graham couldn’t understand why the woman was crying, although it bothered her that a self-respecting pastor’s wife was drinking beer at a meeting to prepare for an evangelistic crusade where Christians come together as the unified body of Christ.

Matthew 18:21-35 is a classic text on forgiveness. Jesus has just taught about how to resolve conflict to maintain cohesiveness in the community. Now he will talk about forgiveness.

Then Peter came and said to him, “Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?” 22Jesus said to him, “Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times.”

Then, to illustrate his point, Jesus tells a story about a king who forgave an enormous sum owed by a slave. The slave then goes out, and fails to forgive a fellow slave a much smaller sum, throwing him in prison. When the king finds out, he scolds the slave for not “paying it forward,” and orders him to be tortured, ironically, for lack of mercy. Then Jesus hits them with a punch in the gut: “So my heavenly Father will do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart.”

Jesus’ shocking hyperbole drives the point home with power. Jesus makes it clear: We are to forgive. Especially when preaching close to 9/11, we should be very clear about what forgiveness is and what it isn’t.

A parishioner once told me this passage made her stay in an abusive marriage too long. Another said his childhood abuser wanted to “friend” him on Facebook. Forgiveness does not mean we allow destructive things to happen or continue. It does not mean discarding healthy boundaries. Forgiveness does not mean we are going to be best friends. Forgiving an abusive ex doesn’t mean you have to marry him or her again. Forgiving an abusive person does not mean you keep putting yourself in the dysfunctional arena in which the abuse takes place.

Stanley Hauerwas, in Matthew, Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible, says, p. 166,

As the parable makes clear, the forgiveness that makes peace possible is not without judgment. The question is not whether we are to hold one another accountable, but what is the basis for doing so and how is that to be done.

Forgiveness does not mean restoration to a position of trust. An example: your treasurer embezzles $50,000. Do you forgive him? Yes. Do you make him treasurer again? No. Restoration to a position of trust would be unkind to the community, and to former treasurer, who clearly has a weakness. The preacher needs to take care not to proclaim too shallow a vision of forgiveness.

If forgiveness doesn’t mean these things, what does it mean? I believe this kind of forgiveness means I choose not to hold hatred in my heart. I may be so wounded I have trouble letting go, but I will not work relentlessly and harboring anger. Forgiveness means I am not going to let the wrong or abuse define me. I am not going to let it keep me from living into a hopeful and joy-filled future. I choose not to carry around the heavy anchors of anger, bitterness, resentment or hate. I choose to live into the future, in spite of the scars of the past. I forgive because Christ has forgiven me. Ephesians 4:32.

Lewis Smedes says forgiveness is relinquishing my right to get even. It is not eliminating all the consequences of the evil that has been committed. It is giving up my right to hurt you for hurting me. Frederick Buechner reminds us that forgiveness is an act of radical self-interest. We punish ourselves by carrying around our grief and anger when we do not forgive others.

Forgiveness is not easy, but is something the Bible talks about a lot. Jesus says we are even to love our enemies, those who have hurt us, or seek to hurt us most. Paul says if your enemy is hungry, give them food. If he is thirsty, give him something to drink. Learning to love the enemy is a lifelong pursuit.

The preacher must be able to tell a concrete, true story of forgiveness that makes a difference, either from the saints or from his or her personal life, to connect with the congregation. Without this, we risk spouting shallow, pious platitudes.

Mere ChristianityI will close with some thoughts from C.S. Lewis:

Everyone says forgiveness is a lovely idea, until they have something to forgive, as we had during the war. And then, to mention the subject at all is to be greeted with howls of anger. It is not that people think this too high and difficult a virtue: it is that they think it hateful and contemptible. ‘That sort of talk makes them sick,’ they say. And half of you already want to ask me, ‘I wonder how you’d feel about forgiving the Gestapo if you were a Pole or a Jew?’ 

So do I. I wonder very much. Just as when Christianity tells me that I must not deny my religion even to save myself from death by torture, I wonder very much what I should do when it came to the point. I am not trying to tell you in this book what I could do – I can do precious little – I am telling you what Christianity is. I did not invent it. And there, right in the middle of it, I find ‘Forgive us our sins as we forgive those that sin against us.’ There is no slightest suggestion that we are offered forgiveness on any other terms. It is made perfectly clear that if we do not forgive, we shall not be forgiven. There are no two ways about it. What are we to do?

– C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity, Book 3, Chapter 7

How Can We Help?

How can we help?

This is the question I’ve been asked most. Thank you for asking. Here’s my stock response.

Pray. Give. Serve.


Pray for the families of the 60 people who lost their lives. Pray for the people who lived in the 182,000 homes that flooded, and the 9000 homes that were destroyed. Pray for all who had to evacuate and whose lives have been disrupted. Pray for the 40-50 congregations who had multiple members that flooded. Pray for the 20 congregations that have some kind of water damage. Pray for the four congregations where the flooding was particularly bad. And while you’re at it, pray for India, Nepal, and Bangladesh were flooding has taken 2000 lives. 

Pastor David Hansen adapted this prayer from ELW occassional services:

Loving God,

We trust in your mercy –  

we know that your love endures forever.

Look with mercy on all
who have been affected by Hurricane Harvey. 

Give us your strength to meet the days ahead,
your peace, which surpasses all understanding,
and your hope for restoration and rebuilding.
Stir up those who are able to give aid,  

Let us be your hands and heart on earth,

help us show the world what love and joy look like.
Be with all who offer aid;

may your Spirit may uphold them.

As you have made water a sign of your kingdom,
and of cleansing and rebirth,

grant your people vision to see new life

on the other side of disaster.

To you be given all honor and praise,

through Jesus Christ our Savior and Lord.



The situation changes daily. The needs change daily. Financial gifts are the most flexible. 

People ask, “Should we give to Lutheran Disaster Response or the the Gulf Coast Synod? It depends upon what you want your money to do. does case management among the most needy, usually through Upbring. They serve low-income families with no insurance. This is holy work. 

Congregations are not LDR’s primary work. But they are ours as a synod. Gifts to the Gulf Coast Synod Disaster Response help congregations and their leaders to recover and serve their neighborhoods. Our only to reach neighborhoods is through our congregations. We help congregations so they can give to their community. 

You can give it to Gulf Coast Synod disaster response at this website, or by sending a check to:

Texas-Louisiana Gulf Coast Synod Disaster Response

12941 I-45 North Freeway, Suite #210

Houston, Texas 77060-1243


There will be volunteer opportunities for sometime to come, but now is critical. Mold will settle in soon. Later reconstruction will require professional contractors. Cleaning out houses (mucking) is something unskilled volunteers can do. We have a coordinated workday on September 9, launching from five sites. Many groups will be going out before and after that.

For many in the U.S. the distance makes it impractical. But if you can get here, and if you can find a place to stay, there is work to be done. Hotels are filled with those who have lost homes, and will be for some time to come. Here are some possibilities to consider:

1. Our camp, Lutherhill, in LaGrange has room. You can call them at (888) 266-4613 or visit There is a lot of work to do in LaGrange, Texas. 

2. Our retreat center, Zion, on Galveston Island, is close to the flooding in Dickinson Texas.  (888) 266-4613 or visit

3. Tree of Life Lutheran Church in Conroe Texas can sleep up to 40 people on cots and mattresses. (936) 539-9530 or

September 10, 2017 is Pentecost 14A, Proper 18A

Exodus 12:1-14 – The commandment to observe Passover.
Ezekiel 33:7-11 – As I live, says the Lord God, I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that the wicked turn from their ways and live.

Psalm 149 – Sing to The Lord a new song… Let them praise his name with dancing, making melody to him with tambourine and lyre.
Psalm 119:33-40 – Lead me in the path of your commandments, for I delight in it. Turn my heart to your decrees, and not to selfish gain.

Romans 13:8-14 – Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law. The Ten Commandments… are summed up in this word, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law.

Matthew 18:15-20 – If another member of the church sins against you… How to manage conflict.

Prayer of the Day
O Lord God, enliven and preserve your church with your perpetual mercy. Without your help, we mortals will fail; remove far from us everything that is harmful, and lead us toward all that gives life and salvation, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.

Gospel Acclamation
Alleluia. In Christ, God was reconciling the world | to himself, entrusting the message of reconciliation to us. Alleluia. (2 Cor. 5:19)

Let me begin by saying thank you to Pastor Don Carlson for researching my lectionary notes for the last dozen posts. He did this a few years ago during my sabbatical. His insights, coming after leading In Search of Paul, to Turkey and Greece so many years, were insightful and thought-provoking.

I must also thank the good people of the Texas-Louisiana Gulf Coast Synod, for supporting me in this work. It is a wonderful gift to be able to study and reflect on these texts every week.

My heart goes out to all of you, and to the folks in the Southwestern Texas Synod as well, as you recover from the devastation of Hurricane Harvey. I won’t elaborate on this now, but if you want to know more check out

September and October our gospel texts are from Matthew 18-22. These are teachings and parables that are instructive to the church and to life in Christian community.

Here’s an overview of our upcoming RCL gospel texts:

  • 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.)

On to the texts. Our Hebrew Bible texts are Exodus and Ezekiel. The Exodus text is the commandment to observe Passover. The Ezekiel text is God’s call to Ezekiel, asking him to tell the house of Israel to repent, for God does not wish the death of sinners, but rather that they turn and live.

The Romans text embodies the theology of love that Jesus espouses when asked the greatest commandment. He says the greatest commandment is to love your God and the second is to love your neighbor. It is the theology of 1 John 4:7-8. “Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love.” Paul’s clearest exposition of this theology is in 1 Corinthians 13, where love, for Paul, transcends eloquence, ecstatic speech, prophecy, even faith and self-sacrifice.

Here in Romans 13 Paul boils it down three times, in three consecutive verses:

  1. “Whoever loves has fulfilled the law.” (13:8)
  2. “The Ten Commandments are summed up in a single saying, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’” (13:9)
  3. “Love is the fulfillment of the law.” (13:10)

It is this passage from Romans 13 that famously caused Augustine to convert to Christianity.

The gospel text for this Sunday is one that absolutely must be studied and understood by anyone living in community. It is almost as if Jesus told this story for every church I ever served. As we take a look at this text, it is well for us to keep Paul’s words about love from Romans 13 in our heads.

It is likely that Matthew, writing in AD 80 or so, included this story because of stuff going on in his church. The Gospel of Matthew is the church’s manual, after all. Mark, Luke and John must not know this story, because if they did they would most certainly have included it. Wherever there is human community, there is conflict. Jesus had to deal with conflict even among his own disciples. We can expect no less in our congregations and church bodies. There is nothing unchristian about conflict, but there are Christ-like ways to deal with conflict.

candid conversations

This passage on dealing with conflict outlines a way to keep community healthy. If we respond to conflict without love, we have missed the point. In fact, some have pointed out even this procedure could be misappropriated as a tool to wield power over someone else. Any process can be abused. To use it in this way would be to miss the point.

So let’s look at it. Matt 18:

If another member of the church sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone. If the member listens to you, you have regained that one. But if you are not listened to, take one or two others along with you, so that every word may be confirmed by the evidence of two or three witnesses. If the member refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if the offender refuses to listen even to the church, let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.

So we have a 4-step process:

  1. If a member sins again you, go and talk to that person privately.
  2. If you aren’t listened to, take one or two others along.
  3. If that doesn’t work, take it to the church.
  4. Gentile/Tax collector

Every pastor should preach this text every time it comes up in the lectionary. It only comes up once every three years. Perhaps this should be an annual sermon. Boundaries and leadership are the immunity system of a healthy organization.

This is not how most communities function. Therefore you have to teach this. It’s counter-cultural. When someone sins against them, most people tell everyone else, except the very person that offended them. “Do you know what so-and-so did to me/said to me? Well, let me tell you! Isn’t it awful? I am never speaking to him/her again…”

Thus we create a triangle. What was a one-on-one conflict now involves others, who are brought into the anger. The offense may be quite real, but now we have less chance of resolving it. We spread our conflict throughout the whole community, like an infection. Communities that function like this constantly throb with conflict. It will be hard to get a vibrant sense of well-being and health in a community that doesn’t know how to handle conflict in healthy ways.

Some churches are made up of extended families. We have one congregation where 2/3 of the members are part one of of two families. In this situation, methods of managing conflict (avoidance, blaming, computing, distracting, placating…) are deeply ingrained in generations of family systems. One pastor is not likely to change this, but it should not stop us from living into a new reality. Engaging the council in a study and discussion of this text will certainly have some impact. If leaders set the example, the culture begins to shift. You now have your council devotions. You’re welcome.

The first step is to go to the person privately. When this happens most of the time reasonable people, who love one another, will be able to work through things. Equally important, the community has not been dragged through the drama.

Notice whose responsibility it is to initiate the conversation: It says, “If a member of the church sins against you…” The person who is wronged is to initiate the action. This is because sometimes the offender does not even know that he or she has offended. Jesus seems to understand that left unchecked, resentment can turn into anger and anger can harden into hatred.

Here’s what St. Augustine had to say about it:

Our Lord warns us not to neglect one another’s sins, not by searching out what to find fault with, but by looking out for what to amend. For He said that his eye is sharp to cast out a mote out of his brother’s eye, who has not a beam in his own eye. Now what this means, I will briefly convey to you, Beloved. A mote in the eye is anger; a beam in the eye is hatred. When therefore one who has hatred finds fault with one who is angry, he wishes to take a mote out of his brother’s eye, but is hindered by the beam which he carries in his own eye. A mote is the beginning of a beam. For a beam in the course of its growth, is first a mote. By watering the mote, you bring it to a beam; by nourishing anger with evil suspicions, you bring it on to hatred. (Sermon XXXII)

Augustine points out something important. We are not to go around looking for people to offend us. But when something happens that we can’t let go of, it’s time to act.

Jesus says, “If the member listens to you, you have gained that person back.” The goal of the conversation is reconciliation. The Christian life is about forgiveness, compassion and reconciliation. We interact not to humiliate, but to heal. That is why Jesus says to talk alone. Think about it, when confronted by a group, most people will put up their walls and get defensive, but one-on-one softens the heart. The meeting can end with an embrace.

But not always. Sometimes people can’t or won’t hear. Sometimes we are hard-headed. Other times we are blinded by privilege. We have stomped on others’ feelings with ignorance. Or they have stomped in ours. Or worse, a brutal violence has been committed. When this is the case, they may not be able to hear. Don’t give up. Try again. This time take someone along with you. When two people are in conflict, a non-anxious third party can often bring stability and clarity.

When someone comes to me and starts complaining about another person, my first response is “Have you spoken to him about this?” Most of the time the answer is no. If anger and anxiety are infectious in the community, the leaders are the immune system. Leaders model conflict resolution, one way or the other. They can convey a sense of well-being in the community. If they do, many will follow suit. The pastor, the staff and the church council/board are the most important people in setting the tone of how we are going to be in community together.

Leaders teach people to talk to one another directly. Quite often, those offended will say, “I’ve not spoken to him/her yet.” Sometimes they say, “I’m afraid.” Other times they’ll say, “I’ve tried.” In those cases a caring response is, “Would you like me to come along with you?” Some people need moral support. The Scriptures say there is much wisdom in many counselors. And Jesus points out, having witnesses means there can be no he-said/she-said. Every word can be confirmed. If most people respond to the one-on-one, many of the rest are going to respond to a caring, conversation with a couple of people.

But not always. There are some situations that need extra care. To these Jesus says, “Take it to the church.” Keep in mind that in Matthew’s day (AD 80) churches were small. They met in homes. Matthew may mean the leaders of the church. Take it to those in a position of authority. This system protects the leaders from having to arbitrate every conflict. Deal with it one-on-one, and if that doesn’t work then in a group of two or three caring people. It only comes to the leaders of the church if those first two steps don’t work. If the conflict reaches the leaders, they will often be able to take care of it.

But not always. The first three steps are going to get most folks. There are, however, some conflicts so deeply entrenched and some people so unwilling to bend that they cannot be resolved. There are some people who simply cannot let go of bitterness. It may even come from a former conflict that has nothing to do with the current situation. If that person won’t listen to the leaders of the church, then he or she is to be treated “as a Gentile or tax collector.” (By the way, this is a clue that Matthew is writing to a Jewish-Christian community, unlike the Gentile-Christian communities with whom Paul worked.)

One way to interpret this is that Jesus is suggesting once all these efforts have been expended, it is okay to ostracize that person completely from the community. This is a form of excommunication. We know that orthodox Jews were not to speak to Gentiles or tax collectors, touch them or even make eye contact.

But there is another interpretation.

How did Jesus treat Gentiles and tax collectors? It just so happens we have quite a few stories of such encounters. As it turns out, Jesus interacted freely with Gentiles, tax collectors and sinners. In fact, it got him into a bit of hot water with the Pharisees and Sadducees. They complain in Luke 15 that he even eats with them. Good heavens! And isn’t it interesting that this gospel is named after a tax collector who was one of Jesus’ disciples?

Could it be that when Jesus says to treat someone as a tax collector or Gentile he means to treat them with compassion? To see them as a target for mission and conversion? I’ll leave it to you to think this through.

Are there times when this process should not be used? Of course. There are exceptions to most rules. If someone is in physical danger from the offender, caution would be advised. If the offender has committed murder or rape, or physical abuse, then one must go to the person who has the direct authority to administer discipline. I wouldn’t ask a bruised and abused wife to go put herself at risk. But appeal to the person who actually has jurisdiction, not to every person around, who may have no authority. Justice become juicy gossip all too often.

This process of conflict management is so important to the life of the Christian community that it is included in the ELCA model constitution for congregations, chapter 15 on discipline of members of the church.


*C15.01. Denial of the Christian faith as described in this constitution, conduct grossly unbecoming a member of the Church of Christ, or persistent trouble-making in this congregation are sufficient cause for discipline of a member. Prior to disciplinary action, reconciliation will be attempted following Matthew 18:15-17, proceeding through these successive steps: a) private admonition by the pastor, b) admonition by the pastor in the presence of two or three witnesses, and c) citation to appear before the Congregation Council.

I have been asked if I would suggest this method for international global conflict. It is doubtful that Jesus or Matthew, who conveys the story, were suggesting strategies for international diplomacy. They could hardly have pictured modern nation-states. But would these be bad strategies? Are they not in fact what actually often happens? A president calls a president. Advisors and ambassadors are brought in. Sometimes parliaments have to get involved. I’m not suggesting this is the way to operate every time, but if we are to take Jesus’ injunction to love our enemies seriously, it might be worth consideration.

I wouldn’t miss an opportunity to preach on this text in a second. The last time we heard it was in 2014. If the average congregation has at 10% turnover per year in people who move, die or leave, then at least 30% of your congregation may not have heard this important message yet. It might be about time for the congregation to hear these important words again. For they call us to love one another, to take sin seriously, to not let hurts fester and get infected. They call us to be a community of reconciliation and peace.

Where love rules, there is no will to power,

and where power predominates, love is lacking.

The one is the shadow of the other.

Carl Jung (1875-1961), Swiss psychologist

On the Psychology of the Unconsciousness, 1917.

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