Bishop Michael Rinehart

November 12, 2017 is Pentecost 23A, Proper 27A

Joshua 24:1-3a, 14-25 – Joshua assembles the tribes at Shechem, telling them to put away the gods they worshipped beyond the Euphrates, in Iraq/Mesopotamia, where Abraham came from. Choose this day whom you shall serve… As for me and my household, we will serve the Lord. The people agree. (So Joshua sets it up as a law and erects a standing stone.)


Wisdom of Solomon 6:12-16 Wisdom is radiant and unfading… One who rises early to find her will have no difficulty.


Amos 5:18-24 – Woe to those who wish for the day of the Lord. It will be dark and disastrous. I despise your festivals, religious assemblies, burnt and grain offerings, and songs. Take away your songs and instead let justice roll down like mighty waters and righteousness like an forever-flowing stream. ELW 717, 710

Psalm 78:1-7God set up a law in Israel. He commanded our ancestors to make his deeds known to their descendants, so that the next generation, children yet to be born, might know about them. They will grow up and tell their descendants about them.


Wisdom of Solomon 6:17-20 The beginning of wisdom is a sincere desire for instruction. The desire for wisdom leads to a kingdom.


Psalm 70 – Five verses: I am oppressed and needy. God, hasten, hurry up, and help me! Make those who say, “Aha! Aha!” be put to shame.

1 Thessalonians 4:13-18 – We don’t want you be uninformed about those who are asleep, or to grieve as those without hope. When the Lord returns, the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are still alive will meet the Lord up in the clouds, in the air.

Matthew 25:1-13 – The parable of The Virgins. The kingdom of God is like ten virgins, five foolish, five wise, waiting for their bridegroom, with their lamps. The wise brought extra oil. The foolish have to go buy oil and don’t make it back in time for the wedding banquet. ELW 677

Prayer of the Day
O God of justice and love, you illumine our way through life with the words of your Son. Give us the light we need, and awaken us to the needs of others, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.

Gospel Acclamation
Alleluia. Keep awake | and be ready,
for you do not know on what day your | Lord is coming. Alleluia. (Matt. 24:42, 44)

Fuel for the Journey

Children’s Song: Give me oil in my lamp.

Can you believe it’s only three Sundays until Advent? The Sunday after this will be November 19, followed by Christ the King, November 26. Then December 3 is the first Sunday in Advent.

November is also the end of the church year. These three Sundays we get to hear three great parables from Matthew 25:

Figure 1: Bishop Martin Lohrman overlooks walled Jerusalem from the top of the Mount of Olives.
  1. Virgins
  2. Talents
  3. Sheep and Goats

Matthew 25 is part of the last of five great discourses in Matthew’s gospel. It is sometimes called the Olivet Discourse (Matthew 23-25), so called because Jesus delivered it from the Mount of Olives (Matthew 24:3).

The Lutheran World Federation has a hospital on the Mount of Olives. Eight years ago I visited this hospital with other ELCA bishops. All the photos here are from that 2009 visit.

Picture2Augusta Victoria Hospital is a church and hospital complex located on the southern sideof Mount of Olives in East Jerusalem. According to Wikipedia, the compound was built in 1907-1914 by the Empress Augusta Victoria Foundation as a center for the German Protestant community in Ottoman Palestine, also building the slightly older Church of the Redeemer the tallest tower in Jerusalem’s Old City. The complex also includes the German Protestant[1] Church of the Ascension with a 50-meter high belltower, a meeting center for pilgrims and tourists, an interreligious kindergarten and a café, as well as the Jerusalem branch of the German Protestant Institute of Archaeology.


Picture5Augusta Victoria Hospital provides specialty care for Palestinians from across the West Bank and the Gaza Strip with services including a cancer center, a dialysis unit, and a pediatric center. It is the second largest hospital in East Jerusalem, as well as the soleremaining specialized care unit located in the West Bank or Gaza Strip. Because Palestinians cannot easily pass through the wall, pictured in a number of these photos, Augusta Victoria Hospital is a lifeline.

I know this is a bit of a tangent, but It is quite possible that Jesus was standing right here at Augusta Victoria when he spoke the words in Matthew 25.

In the first of Matthew 25’s three parables, The Parable of the Virgins, five foolish and five wise bridesmaids take their lamps to meet the bridegroom. When the bridegroom is delayed, it appears the wise bridesmaids have brought extra oil. The foolish have not, so they must go get some oil from the “dealers.” While they are gone, the bridegrooms arrives. The banquet begins and the doors are closed. They are left out. The parable concludes with the point: “Therefore, keep awake. You know neither the day nor the hour.”

Our brains are wired for stories. So the Bible uses stories to convey theology. Jesus too.

A traditional interpretation is that the delayed bridegroom is Jesus. The virgins are the church. Some are prepared with enough oil for the long wait. Others are not.

Augustine says in XLIII:

 It is no easy question, who the ten virgins are, of whom five are wise, and five foolish… but if I mistake not this parable relates to the whole Church.

And again, later, he says:

In the “girded loins” is virginity; in the “burning lamps” good works… He who will not see what is evil, he who will not hear what is evil, he that turneth away his smell from the unlawful fumes, and his taste from the unlawful food of the sacrifices, he who refuseth the embrace of another man’s wife, breaketh his bread to the hungry, bringeth the stranger into his house, clotheth the naked, reconcileth the litigious, visiteth the sick, burieth the dead; he surely is a virgin, surely he hath lamps. 

Question: What is this oil that some run out of?

There are many different interpretations. What guesses might you have?

Many interpreters like good works, because of what Jesus said earlier in the gospel, in the Sermon on the Mount: “No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.” (Matthew 5:15-16)

If you think about it, however, Matthew 5 refers to the light given off by the lamp as good works. Let your light shine, so people may see…” If the light is good works, what might the oil be? What fuels good works? You can imagine what Luther said of course: faith. Perhaps Matthew is saying, “Keep the faith.”

Others have suggested that the oil is the Holy Spirit that empowers good works. Or the Word.

Augustine thinks the oil is love:

Some great, some exceedingly great thing doth this oil signify. Thinkest thou that it is not charity? This we say as searching out what it is; we hazard no precipitate judgment. I will tell you why charity seems to be signified by the oil. The Apostle says, “I show unto you a way above the rest.” Though I speak with the tongues of men and of Angels, and have not charity, I am become as sounding brass, or a tinkling cymbal.” This, that is “charity,” is “that way above the rest,” which is with good reason signified by the oil. For oil swims above all liquids. Pour in water, and pour in oil upon it, the oil will swim above. If you keep the usual order, it will be uppermost; if you change the order, it will be uppermost. “Charity never falleth.”

Irenaeus of Lyons has this to say in Adversus Haereses II.XXVII.2

 And when the Bridegroom comes, he who has his lamp untrimmed, and not burning with the brightness of a steady light, is classed among those who obscure the interpretations of the parables, forsaking Him who by His plain announcements freely imparts gifts to all who come to Him, and is excluded from His marriage-chamber. 

Where to go with the congregation?

However one interprets this, it might be a good opportunity to ask people, what fills your spiritual gas tank, or oil lamp? What gives you joy, love, generosity?

What fuels good works in your life? Generosity? Compassion? Service? What keeps your faith, hope and love burning bright? Whatever it is, don’t show up to the party without it.

And ask people what they are waiting for? For what do you yearn, that is delayed? Justice delayed is justice denied. Is it coming?

When will Christ come? Matthew’s message is, we don’t know. But be ready.

Next week talents. Don’t bury your talents. Use them. For what?

The following week: Sheep and Goats: Feed the hungry, clothe the naked, welcome Strangers. Visit those sick and in prison.

The light of faith is a free gift. Keep your lamp trimmed and burning.

All Saints Sunday – November 5, 2017


Revelation 7:9-17 – John’s apocalyptic vision of white-robed martyrs standing before the throne and the Lamb, along with the angels, the elders and the four creatures. They hunger no more, nor thirst (Isaiah 49:10). The sun does not strike them nor heat (Psalm 121:6). God wipes away every tear (Isaiah 25:8). ELW 422, 423,

Psalm 34:1-10, 22 – I will bless the Lord at all times… I sought the Lord and he answered me… Taste and see that the Lord is good. ELW 493

1 John 3:1-3 – See what love the Father has given us, that we should be called children of God…

Matthew 5:1-12 – The Beatitudes from the Sermon on the Mount. ELW 728

We also had the Beatitudes Epiphany 4A: January 30, 2011. The Beatitudes “placemat” can be found here: 01-24-11 Beatitudes Study Placemat

Prayer of the Day
Almighty God, you have knit your people together in one communion in the mystical body of your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord. Grant us grace to follow your blessed saints in lives of faith and commitment, and to know the inexpressible joys you have prepared for those who love you, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.

Gospel Acclamation
Alleluia. They are before the | throne of God, and the one who is seated on the throne will | shelter them. Alleluia. (Rev. 7:15)

Color: White

All Saints

Picture1The first Sunday in November in our congregations is All Saints Sunday. It is traditional to remember the saints of the congregation who have passed away in the last year. Often a pillar candle is lit on a retable, or on the altar as their names are read. Many congregations also invite members to come forward and light candle in remembrance of loved ones.

While many use the white votive candles in glass cups, as in the picture above from 2Grace, Conroe, even in the best of circumstances, paraffin wax finds its way on the table, floors and pews, as during Christmas. There is another option. A St. Gregory Palamas Greek Orthodox Monastery in Perrysville, Ohio makes beeswax candles. You can purchase a pack of 50 for $16.50. They can be lit and places in small boxes or jars of sand. The link is here:

If you’d prefer the former, Sacco’s in Houston sells ten-hour disposable votive candles in plastic cups $35 for a carton of 100. Beat the rush.

My post this week is a bit different. Rather than digging into the text, I’m offering a guided meditation that can be used. I don’t do this for sermons often, but All Saints seemed like a good time to offer a guided meditation. This meditation is simply a series of questions that invite worshippers to reflect on the saints in their lives. 


Who are Your Saints?

Who are your saints?

Who went before you?4

Who were the looming giants of your childhood?

Who held your hand?

Who taught you to walk?

Who cupped your cheeks in their hands and kissed your face?

Who picked you up when you fell down and bandaged your hurts?


Who are your saints?

Who taught you to pray?

Who taught you right from wrong?

Who brought you to the baptismal font?

Who placed a Bible in your hands?

Who first taught you the words, “The Lord is my Shepherd, I shall not want. He makes me lie down in green pastures. He leads me beside still waters. He restores my soul.”

Who first taught you, “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death I shall fear no evil, for Thou art with me…?”

Who taught you to see flowers and trees not as things, but as beautiful mysteries?

Who taught you to see majesty in clouds, and sunsets and oceans?

Who taught you to soak up the rainy days?

Who taught you kindness to strangers?

Who taught you to love your enemies?

Who taught you not to judge others, or look down your nose at others?

Who taught you that it is better to give than to receive?

Who taught you to love your neighbor as yourself?

Who taught you to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, welcome the stranger, visit the sick and in prison?

Who taught you to care for those who are hungry, broken, lonely?

Who taught you that Jesus was the reflection of the immortal God?

Who are your saints?

Who taught you to love?

Who taught you to give of yourself, in order to discover what life was about?

Who taught you the virtue of self-sacrifice?

Who introduced you to the God that lurks beneath the surface of life?

Who taught you that life is more than just a sequence of events?

Who taught you there was more to life than going to work, and accumulating wealth and things?

Who taught you it was okay to fail? That falling down is a part of life?

Who taught you to get up, dust yourself off, and get back on the horse?


Who are your saints? Light a candle.

Who taught you to do what you love?

Who helped you discover your true gifts in life, and develop them?

Who loved you when you could not love yourself?

Who showed you grace and forgiveness you did not deserve?

Who taught you to forgive, and let go of grudges?

Who believed in you when you did not believe in yourself?

Who are your saints?7

Who taught you to hope beyond this life?

Who taught you that there is more to life than meets the eye?

Who taught you to imagine what lies beyond the veil, around the bend where you cannot see?

Who waits for you beyond the grave?

Who whispers to you in your dreams, and in your prayers?

These are the ones we remember today.

These are the ones for whom we light our candles.

The communion of saints, who wait for us on a distant shore we cannot see over the horizon.

The multitude of apostles, prophets, martyrs and saints.

Even the flawed, deeply flawed saints.

So let us say our prayers and light our candles.

For the saints we remember.8

For the saints that we barely remember, from times that are only a misty memory.

And the saints that we cannot remember at all.

For those we knew, and those we never knew, countless generations before us.

For those who loved, before our parents were alive, whose love brought us into being.

For those who wait for us with joy.

Who from their labors rest.

And let us look once again with the eyes of a child.  

At a world of mystery that is larger than life.

Larger than we can imagine.

Higher than we can reach.

Deeper than we can see.

And let us live in the hope,

Of one day being reunited with those whom we love.

On that day when we awaken.

Like babies, being born again, opening our eyes for the first time.

Taking our first breath, in a world we cannot begin to understand.

Embraced and loved by those whom we can almost see, as through a mirror dimly.

But one day, face to face.

Alleluia. Alleluia.



The 500th Anniversary of the Reformation – October 29, 2017

Jeremiah 31:31-34The days are coming when I will make a new covenant with Israel and Judah: law on their hearts.
Psalm 46 – The LORD of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our stronghold. (Ps. 46:4)
Romans 3:19-28No one will be justified by the law. Now, apart from the law, the righteousness of God has been revealed.
John 8:31-36
– You shall know the truth and the truth will set you free.

The 500th Anniversary of the Reformation

dsc_2447-editAs it says in From Conflict to Communion, “Every commemoration has its context.” This commemoration of the Reformation is being held in an age of Ecumenism and in an age of Globalization. Consequently, Lutherans and Catholics, after fifty years of bilateral dialogs, committed to commemorating this 500th  anniversary together, with an eye toward the proclamation of the gospel.

Previous commemorations were characterized by Lutherans and Roman Catholics going to their separate corners, with festive attempts to justify their distinctive existence. Lutherans used the commemoration of the Reformation to criticize the Roman Catholic church. Catholics used it to criticize Luther and his movement for dividing the church. In 1917, at the 400th, Luther was portrayed as a German national hero.

Previous centennial commemorations of the Reformation took place in culturally homogenous lands, or at least in lands where there were a majority of Christians. Today’s pluralism presents a new challenge and a new opportunity for the church. If the goal is not to win the fight, or to promote our tribe, what is it? What if our ultimate goal is the proclamation of the gospel? What then? How do we recognize the truth of what happened in a way that proclaims Christ to the world?

What happened cannot be changed, but how we tell the story really matters. If my wife and I each recount an argument we had, you will hear two very different stories, even though we are describing the same events. We may even both be telling the truth. How you tell the story is shaped by what facts you choose to tell, and which facts you leave out. History notoriously left out the fact that Columbus pimped out young native girls to Spanish soldiers. It was an inconvenient truth. Lutherans might be prone to gloss over Luther’s anti-Semitism.

In chapter 3 of From Conflict to Communion, Lutheran and Catholic theologians together attempt to tell the story of the Reformation in a way that is true and honest, and in such a way that both Lutherans and Catholics can nod, and say, “Yeah, that’s what happened.” It is a sort of “no spin zone.” If you are going to preach the story of the Reformation, I would encourage you to read this carefully. Do not fall back on old vitriolic tropes. There has been an explosion of research on late Medieval society and context that merits a hard look before we channel Roland Bainton, or retell the story as our childhood pastors did.

Lutherans would do well to take a hard look at how very Roman Catholic Luther was, as regarded to the Blessed Virgin Mary, the saints, the Eucharist and so on. Another good read is Martin Luther: An Ecumenical Perspective, by Roman Catholic Cardinal Walter Kasper. This short book can be read in a couple of hours. It helps readers understand how the Roman Catholic view on Luther has evolved, and how A Mighty Fortress can be in the Catholic Hymnal.

There is nothing like a lot of good reading to dispel our simplistic ideas about Lutherans and Catholics today. This is not the 16th century. Bishops are no longer princes. The Eucharist is served in both kinds. Sermons and liturgy are done in the vernacular. The church has not burned anyone at the stake for some time. Lutheran and Catholic churches of today are not the church bodies of the Late Medieval Period.

Instead what we need to proclaim is the way of Jesus as the only hope for a world that seems bent on violence and self-destruction. The world needs the gospel today every bit as much as it did two thousand years ago. With politicians playing brinksmanship, with the largest global refugee crisis in world history, with our precious earth gasping for air, the cosmos is groaning for salvation. It is either the way of Jesus or it is lights out for the world. We can no longer afford to wage internecine ecclesiastical warfare. We must unite in faith, hope and love.

The mark of the true church will not be having the right dogma. Jesus said, “By this shall all people know you are my disciples, if you love one another.” I am a firm believer in justification by grace through faith. One of the first verses I was made to memorize as a child was Ephesians 2:8-9:

For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God— not the result of works, so that no one may boast.

I just wish they had also had me memorize the very next verse with it, Ephesians 2:10:

10 For we are what he has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life.

Of course we are saved by faith. And works are the natural byproduct of faith. We were created for good works. In other words, we are not saved by good works. We are saved for good works.

Luther understood this:

Thus it is impossible to separate works from faith, quite as impossible as to separate heat and light from fire.  (LW 35:371)

The whole salvation by faith or by works thing is a straw dog. Asked and answered. To present this as the pressing issue between Lutherans and Catholics today misses the mark. This is also made clear by Lutherans and Roman Catholics together in the 1999 Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification:

By grace alone, in faith in Christ’s saving work and not because of any merit on our part, we are accepted by God and receive the Holy Spirit, who renews our hearts while equipping us and calling us to good works.

Our differences today are more around orders of ministry. Marriage of priests. Ordination of women. The authority of church hierarchy. This is not a time to harp on this. The world yawns. We have much more important work to do.

So I leave you with the challenge to use Reformation to proclaim the love of God revealed in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth. Tell the story of his love for the world, his healing ministry and battle with the demonic forces of death and hell. And I will also leave you with two other areas for consideration: The Reformation and Justice, and a Trinitarian reflection on a hymn by Luther.

The Reformation and Justice

What does the Reformation have to do with justice? Everything. The Reformation began with an act of justice.

On October 31, 1517 an Augustinian brother, parish priest, professor of Scripture and chair of the department of theology at the University of Wittenberg, posted 95 theses for debate. These theses focused on the issue of Indulgences. By making a donation to the church, one could receive one of these indulgences, a piece of paper signed by the pope granting pardon from the earthly penalties for one’s sins.

50-60% of the population of Saxony was living in destitute poverty. Luther was concerned when he saw peasants who were barely able to feed their families, spending money on indulgences, because they believed they were rescuing their dead relatives from purgatory.

Listen to just a few of Luther’s 95 Theses:

27. They preach only human doctrines who say that as soon as the money clinks into the money chest, the soul flies out of purgatory.

28. It is certain that when money clinks in the money chest, greed and avarice can be increased; but when the church intercedes, the result is in the hands of God alone.

39. Christians are to be taught that whoever gives to the poor or lends to the needy does a better deed than one who buys indulgences. 

44. Christians are to be taught that whoever sees a needy man and passes him by, yet gives his money for indulgences, does not buy papal indulgences but God’s wrath. 

45. Christians are to be taught that, unless they have more than they need, they must reserve enough for their family needs and by no means squander it on indulgences.

If one can, with earthly wealth, purchase spiritual benefits, then where does this leave the poor? Samuel Torvend, a member of the Department of Religion at Pacific Lutheran University in Tacoma, Washington, and a former Luther Leaguer in our former bishop, Paul Blom’s first parish, wrote a phenomenal book called Luther and the Hungry Poor. Torvend digs deep to help us understand the socio-economic realities of late Medieval Europe. Luther’s objection to the sale of indulgences, which spurred the 95 Theses and eventually the Reformation, was not just theological. Who but the wealthy could afford to purchase the paper indulgences that the Church said were necessary for eternal life, when 50-60% of the people were living on the edge of subsistence? Where did this leave the huge population of working poor, landless, destitute, and homeless who could never afford to endow churches, commission religious artwork, or even purchase an indulgence?  That one’s place in heaven was determined by one’s wealth on earth was more than Luther could bear. It was unfair. Unjust.. “Now,” he wrote, “the church fishes for the wealth of men.”  Widows, orphans and the hungry poor could not participate in the spiritual economy of the late Medieval Christianity.

The poor would spend money they didn’t have, buying themselves and their dead relatives out of purgatory. Furthermore, Luther was concerned that this spiritual economy actually perpetuated poverty, Torvend argues, by taking resources that could otherwise alleviate hunger and homelessness and funnelling it to finance the Church, which already had more wealth than ancient Rome. Some say the church owned 2/3 of the land in Europe.

The Church lifted up poverty as a virtue; Luther saw poverty as a something to be eliminated, not emulated. We must be concerned, even today, any time the church uses superstition to gain wealth. Luther felt poor Christians should not be using their meager financial resources to build St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. The wealthy should redirect their resources to alleviate poverty as opposed to building mansions in heaven. Christians should be taught that it is better to give to the poor than to buy an indulgence. Those who ignore the poor, he says, and spend their money on church parchment, purchase nothing but the wrath of God.

Perhaps Luther, responding to his intense biblical studies, his conscience and his Anfechtung could not have foreseen that challenging the spiritual economy was also challenging market economy of his day and all who benefitted from it. Within a very short time, his ideas would be condemned by those in power. You don’t sock people in the wallet and get away with it.

Luther called for the sale of monastic, mendicant and ecclesial properties, so that the money could be kept in a common chest to be used for the poor. The chest was to be administered by a board of directors that consisted of two people from the parish congregation, two from city council, three town citizens and three peasant farmers. These orders were put in place in Wittenberg and Leisnig within six years of the 95 Theses.

Luther’s theology of the cross meant that God is revealed in the suffering Christ on the cross. God is present where least expected, in humility, shame, weakness, suffering and death.  In Luther’s commentary on Matthew 25, Luther says Christ invites his followers to encounter him in the hungry, the stranger, the homeless. A church that wants to encounter God must be willing to encounter the suffering in their community.

Luther understood sin as people and communities encurvatus in se (turned in upon themselves). Self-centeredness was inbred, so we should not be surprised that greed usually wins the day, even in the church, since we’re all simul Justus et peccator.

 Grace, however, at work in the life of the Christian has the power to turn people and communities outward (curvatus ad extram). Communities not outwardly focused are simply not Christian. Luther critiqued the fraternities of his day as being self-serving. I wonder how our congregations would fare under his scrutiny.

The Sacraments for Luther had socio-economic implications. Sharing one bread and one cup in the Eucharist meant being one body: becoming part of a community that has all things in common so that no one has need.  He grieved that many gladly share in the benefits of the sacraments, but were not willing to share in the costs, like serving the poor, working for justice, especially at personal risk. “They are self-seeking persons, whom this sacrament does not benefit.” Luther linked sacramental practice and social welfare. “Learn that this is a sacrament of love.”

While Luther’s early theological writings have had much play (The Freedom of the Christian, Letter to the Christian Nobility, The Babylonian Captivity of the Church) during this same period Luther also published works on trade, international commerce, banking practices, state regulation of business and so on. Luther critiqued predatory lending, what he calls usury, loaning money at high interest rates, and asking payments that only cover only interest, not principle, so the poor are kept in perpetual poverty.

So, the Reformation was not about some abstract, hypothetical, theological controversy. It was a pastoral concern about real people living in real poverty. It was about economics and justice. It was about encountering Christ through feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, welcoming the stranger, visiting the sick and in prison. It was then and it is today.

Today indulgences still exist, as a graceful proclamation of forgiveness, but they are not used in the same way that they were 500 years ago. Instead of harping on indulgences, we might look inward and ask: How are we addressing injustice today? How might we be guilty of using superstition to create a false economy, that perpetuates poverty? How might we overturn those schemes that promote predatory lending, and redirection of resources away from those who need them most?

We All Believe In One True God, ELW 411: A Hymn by Martin Luther

We All Believe1 We all believe in one true God,

 who created earth and heaven,

 the Father, who to us in love

 has the right of children given.

 He in soul and body feeds us;

 all we need his hand provides us;

 through all snares and perils leads us,

 watching that no harm betide us.

 He cares for us day and night;

 all things are governed by his might.


2 We all believe in Jesus Christ,

 his own Son, our Lord, possessing

 an equal Godhead, throne, and might,

 source of ev’ry grace and blessing;

 born of Mary, virgin mother,

 by the power of the Spirit,

 Word made flesh, our elder brother;

 that the lost might life inherit,

 was put to death on the cross,

 and raised by God victorious.


3 We all confess the Holy Ghost

 who, in highest heaven dwelling

 with God the Father and the Son,

 comforts us beyond all telling;

 who the church, his own creation,

 keeps in unity of spirit.

 Here forgiveness and salvation

 daily come through Jesus’ merit.

 All flesh shall rise; we shall be

 in bliss with God eternally. Amen.

Text: Martin Luther, 1483-1546; tr. composite

Text © 1941 Concordia Publishing House

Tune: WIR GLAUBEN ALL (see LBW #374)


We All Believe in One True God, WIr glauben all an einen Gott, is a paraphrase of the creed by Martin Luther, first published, as far as we know, in Johann Walther’s Eyn geystlich Gesangk Buchleyn.

The original text is the Creed of course. This is a Late Medieval paraphrase dated around 1524, set to a tune by Martin Luther that is an adaptation of a 14th century Latin Credo melody.

Think Luther the rapper. Would it surprise you to know that Luther wrote rhyming versions of the Creed, the Ten Commandments and the Lord’s Prayer? He set the major parts of the catechism to meter and rhyme.

(Sing a stanza of Luther’s Ten Commandments Hymn, but not the sixth commandment.)

Sing a phrase of “Out of the Depths.” Written in 1523 and based on Psalm 130, this hymn was sung ON May 9, 1525, at the funeral of Luther’s friend and patron, Frederick the Wise, in the Castle Church in Wittenberg.

Luther believes the Christian motto, Lex orandi, lex credendi. What you pray you believe. What you sing leads to faith. Liturgy begets theology.

For years confirmation students would tell me they just couldn’t memorize the catechism, or the Scriptures. And yet I would listen to them highly complex lyrics of popular rap or hip hop tunes. There’s something about singing that taps into the brain’s memory capacity. (I wrote a song to teach kids the books of the Old Testament. Yeah, I’ll spare you that one.)

This was consistent with Luther’s desire for worship and theology to be in the language of the people. He wanted to teach the faith by singing the faith. He wanted to help people learn their faith through didactic songs.

Luther wrote his Small Catechism to teach the basics of the faith. Yogi Berra once said, “The main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing.” For Luther, the main things were:

  1. Commandments
  2. Creed
  3. LP
  4. Baptism
  5. Confession
  6. Sacrament of the Altar

Let’s sing stanza one of “We All Believe in One True God.”

music luther

1 We all believe in one true God, who created earth and heaven,

 the Father, who to us in love has the right of children given.

 He in soul and body feeds us; all we need his hand provides us;

 through all snares and perils leads us, watching that no harm betide us.

 He cares for us day and night; all things are governed by his might.  


Luther relied on an earlier medieval attempt to versify the Creed, but that poem tried to cover the entire creed in a single stanza. Luther expanded the structure to three stanzas to reflect the three parts of the Creed, one for each person of the Trinity. That larger structure required more material, and so he infused the hymn with sections of the Catechism. This we sing that God feeds body and soul. God guides and protects us.

And Moving away from the standard liturgical plainchant of his day, Luther writes this hymn in four parts, so that people can sing the part and enjoy a new style of music that will catch on. So he explained in a preface to a 1524 hymnal:

These songs were arranged in four parts to give the young – who should at any rate be trained in music and other fine arts – something to wean them away from love ballads and carnal songs and teach them something of value in their place.

Luther thought about hymns as a way of instilling the Word of God in people. What do you sing in your quiet moments? When you’re driving down the road? What melodies and texts are committed to your heart?  Are the words holy? Do they reinforce a joyful, transformational, sacramental view of life?

The first stanza was on God the creator. The second is on Jesus Christ, God’s only Son our Lord, who was conceived of the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, buried and raised from the dead. Luther doesn’t have time in this stanza to hit every part of this longest article of the creed, but he hits the main points. He keeps the main thing the main thing, but still gets in some commentary, that Christ is our elder brother, and a source of every grace and blessing.

For Luther Our faith and Our hope is in Christ, and Christ alone. This is what we proclaim 500 years later. In this violent world hell-bent on self destruction, it is the way of Christ, or it is curtains for the world. Let us sing together stanza two.

2 We all believe in Jesus Christ, his own Son, our Lord, possessing

 an equal Godhead, throne, and might, source of ev’ry grace and blessing;

 born of Mary, virgin mother, by the power of the Spirit,

 Word made flesh, our elder brother; that the lost might life inherit,

 was put to death on the cross, and raised by God victorious.


The final stanza of the hymn is on the article of the Creed: God the Holy Spirit. The earliest versions of the Symbolum Apostolicum included these parts of the third article: The Spirit, the Church, forgiveness and the resurrection. Luther hits all four points in his third stanza.

The Spirit, the comforter, dwells with the Father and the Son. That spirit keeps the church, the Spirit’s creation, in the one true faith. In that church forgiveness is spoken and resurrection is proclaimed.

Brothers and sisters in Christ, the 500th anniversary of the Reformation is not about reviving any ancient conflict. It is about proclaiming the one true faith of the apostles in the language of the people, in the purity of the Gospel. That is who we are. It is about announcing the unimaginable, God’s free grace, love and forgiveness for all, with the hope of salvation and the gift of eternal life.

Let us stand and sing together the final stanza of “We All Believe in One True God.”

3 We all confess the Holy Ghost who, in highest heaven dwelling

 with God the Father and the Son, comforts us beyond all telling;

 who the church, his own creation, keeps in unity of spirit.

 Here forgiveness and salvation daily come through Jesus’ merit.

 All flesh shall rise; we shall be in bliss with God eternally. Amen.


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.

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