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September 18, 2005 (Sunday 25 · Time after Pentecost)
Intern Pastor Joshua Graber
Jonah 3:10-4:11; Philippians 1:21-30; Matthew 20:1-16
Webmaster's Note: At LCH, most preachers deliver their sermons from the center-front of the altar platform. Intern Pastor Graber began preaching from the reading stand.
Grace and Peace to you from God Our Loving Creator and Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ!
Since this is my first sermon I've been trying to decide where I should preach from. I've got to tell you, I'm a fan of the pulpit. It makes me feel like I've got a certain added authority behind me, and if I rewrite (or , let's be honest, "write") my sermon on Saturday night, it's easier to get through an unmemorized manuscript if I've got my notes in front of me here. When I preached this summer in Northern Minnesota I took comfort in having a pulpit to hide behind. I think this is especially because I'm self-conscious about looking young, (I think I've looked eighteen ever since I turned 18) and so I like to give the message a little extra umph...in case people see me as a kid, not capable of preaching the Word. There's nothing wrong with preaching from the pulpit and I hope you don't mind if I do preach from here every once in awhile. But I'm not going to today.
(At this point, he moved to the center of the altar platform.)
Being out in front like this is a little different for me. It's a little intimidating. I hope I can get used to preaching from here. But even though I'm covered by my alb, I feel a little exposed when I'm up in front like this, like I'm in speech class in junior high or something. My voice still breaks on occasion when I get nervous, by the way, so please don't laugh if that happens. But I'm not going to preach from here today, either!
Today I need to preach from a different location. Today I have a message that's very personal and I need to preach from a place where I believe all sermons come from and where all sermons should be received: (At this point, he moved again.) The Foot of the Cross.
I need to be here today because this week I was reminded that while I often think that in order to preach and be heard, you somehow need to achieve a higher level of personal authority or spiritual authority, through having some exceptional wisdom, or by being an example of Christian ethical perfection. I think we often look to pastors to be that representative, as someone who has life, and good Christian living, figured out and they're up here to teach us how to do it. I think we sometimes start to expect that pastors should deliver sermons as if they were a self-help book or a product you'd buy from an infomercial.
But today with these texts especially and because of an experience I had this week, I am reminded that my authority as a preacher comes from right here: My perspective and understanding of being at the foot of the cross. Being at the foot of the cross is a theological concept that means remembering the immediacy of God's saving love through the real action of Jesus Christ on the cross, not just as a general idea but for you personally, right now, as something that really happened for me because I needed it. Being at the foot of the cross is also about repentance, where knowing what Christ has done for us, we can no longer point to ourselves as righteous and others as unrighteous, but instead we know we must point to Christ as our righteousness and direction for living. Try as I might to be a good person and earn my reward and my own righteousness (or my own authority), I know I am in need of Christ's forgiveness when I stand at the foot of the cross.
And so that's where I want to preach from today, because this week I really screwed up and was reminded that this, what is normally seen as weakness, is actually my authority. This week I was in a car accident. And it was my fault. Completely my fault. I can't blame anyone else but myself.
It was not a high velocity crash, and thankfully no one was injured. I proceeded into an intersection shortly after the light had turned red, and two cars hit me on either side. I had been paying attention to the street signs to see if the upcoming street was the correct one for me to turn on and took my eyes and my mind off the light at the intersection for an instant, and in the next instant glass shattered, tires squealed, and steel, plastic, and fiberglass that had never met before, were formally introduced. I've been on the other side of accidents before, but it's never been my fault. And that takes awhile to sink in.
It's a strange sensation, not one I recommend if you haven't experienced it. I thank God that no one was hurt, but the idea that someone could have been is terrifying to me. Life is so fragile and even though we try to control it, to somehow not screw up and to always do the right thing, we always fail and find ourselves back in this place [the Cross] in need of God's Grace.
I was thinking about that after I was able to get the car out of the intersection, and shortly after I crawled out of the passenger side door (the only door that still opens without a crowbar). I was immediately surrounded by those that my mistake had affected. One of whom happened to drive a Jaguar.
And I started thinking about my sermon. I was given a new insight into the texts from my new perspective of having the finger pointed at me.
It's normally easy for me to associate with Jonah's complaints against the Ninevites in our Old Testament Lesson and with the workers in the field in the Gospel Lesson, who seemingly have been cheated by the land owner. These are people that do what we all find ourselves doing on occasion, forgetting God's grace for us, while demanding God's judgment of others. We too can complain about the way God manages the kingdom. And we also sometimes complain about God not being fair. That's where I often find myself, that same place Jonah stood.
I bet Jonah had a long list to share about the reasons why Nineveh should burn. I bet he had very good reasons he wanted God to take that action. Valid reasons. After all, the Assyrians that lived in Nineveh were the foremost power of Jonah's time; they had war technology that surpassed all other nations around them. Their armored chariots were like tanks that could sweep through the countryside and destroy everything in their path. Israelites like Jonah were terrified of this power. And that's why Jonah felt God needed to show the Assyrians in Nineveh who was really boss. Jonah had reasons. Reasons that may have made us say, "C'mon, God, let's roll. Let's get these guys." We, like Jonah, don't want to just be judgmental; we want to be "divinely" judgmental, "righteously" judgmental. Jonah thought God let him down by being merciful to these people.
We may also find ourselves disappointed by God's mercy. In our time and our culture we collect valid reasons for retribution the same way Jonah does. It may be against terrorists or Saddam Hussein. Maybe we've got reasons to call down God's wrath in some of these cases, but aren't we just as likely to add slightly less dramatic issues to our list of those who are in need of divine judgment. Like the next door neighbor who always lets their dog go to the bathroom in our yard and never cleans it up. We'll always find reasons to add people to the list. We can't escape our desire for retribution and we've always got a list.
But from the foot of the cross we remember that we are most likely on someone else's list, and there is probably good reason for that. God's mercy for others is a little easier pill to swallow when we remember God's mercy for us. Because there is hope for the Ninevites, there is hope for you and me as well.
The work of the kingdom can be frustrating for us. We would like to concentrate on judging others rather than serving them. We'd prefer to write off large segments of the population rather than proclaim the good news to them. After all, what if they believe it? What if we have to accept them as our brother or sister?
There are always plenty of people and issues to complain about, and you can have very good and valid reasons to complain. So that's often how we end up living out our lives as Christians when we forget where we stand with Jesus--when we forget as Paul tells us in today's epistle lesson that for him, because he knows where he stands, "Living is Christ and dying is gain!" That isn't a philosophy of life you can sell on an infomercial. This is a truth that commands you to remember Christ's love for you as immediate. This isn't a secret to life that you can receive if you make 3 easy payments of only $39.99. In this kingdom and this truth that we proclaim, it's not an easy answer; there aren't rewards for living the correct way; it's simply a response to grace. We aren't called to be concerned about who gets judgment and who gets mercy. That's not our job! That's not living Christ.
The way that I read the parable for today, it seems to tell us that when judgment actually comes, we will most likely be surprised, and we will be surprised by the amount of mercy that is given and to whom it is given, not who it is withheld from or who really gets what they deserve!
From the foot of the cross we remember that Amazing Grace is not only amazing but quite surprising, because God might save someone who you don't think should get in, for instance, the writer of the hymn, "Amazing Grace", John Newton, who was himself formerly a slave trader, what we consider one of the most unethical activities we can think of. But we sing with Mr. Newton because we also see that this amazing grace is amazing and surprising because it "saves a wretch like me."
Standing on that curb, this Tuesday, with people telling me, repeatedly, how I had screwed up and not being able to justify myself, I felt a bit wretched. Actually "wretched" is exactly how I felt. And I'd been having such a good day! I recognized that--as much as I make a practice of pointing at others and demanding justice--that I can just as easily be the recipient of those pointed fingers, and that blame, and that call for righteous condemnation. Suddenly I didn't feel like I stood with those in judgment but with those in need of judgment. I felt like I stood with the Ninevites. The similarities were clear. God tells Jonah these people have been saved in part because, "they don't know their right hand from their left." At the intersection of Beretania and Victoria, last Tuesday, I didn't know a green light from a red light. On the sidewalk next to that busy intersection, looking at how I had negatively affected others lives without even trying, I saw clearly that the feeling of being with the Ninevites brought me right back here to the cross.
Try as I might to finally get it right and live error free, I have always screwed up, and I will continue to screw up. I am perpetually in need of God's grace given once and for all time from this place.
Thank God that God's rules are not our rules, and God's ways are not our ways. The last will be first, and the first will be last. it's not about order, or level of reward in this kingdom, or who's doing better or worse. It's about Jesus standing with us and for us in our need. He represents us, guilty as we are. We all share that same need for Jesus, and we all share the same joy in the forgiveness he delivers each of us. That grace is for you, right now. It is when we see ourselves at the foot of the cross, that we are able to see clearly all that Jesus does for us in our own personal need, right now, and it is at the foot of the cross where we recognize that sinner though we are, we have a place in God's eternal grace, now and forever.
May the peace that passes all understanding keep your heart and your mind in Christ Jesus Our Lord. Amen.
Copyright © 2005 Joshua Graber
Comments welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org