28 September 2008

Sermon for the 20th Sunday after Pentecost: "Words and Deeds"

Not too long ago I developed a pretty bad teacher's crush. Her name is Susan Briehl and she's worked in a number of different capacities in the church over the years: pastor, liturgist, lyricist, poet, teacher, and so on. Three years ago, she spoke at our pastors' retreat on a lake in northern Minnesota, and I was smitten. Hard. She's a solidly Confessional Lutheran. She loves her some Small Catechism. She can quote the Large Catechism from memory. She reads Luther's Works for inspiration. We spent our time talking about the lesser known aspects of Luther's work – the fact that Luther was a professor of Old Testament before he became the great reformer, and spent years working with the Psalms as a teacher of the church. All of these wonderfully Lutheran things, coming from a woman who had rarely been to the Upper Midwest and doesn't have a drop of Scandinavian blood in her. Hmmm. I think I STILL have a bit of a teacher crush…

In our time together, Pastor Briehl told us a great Luther quote. The first half of it is, "A person is not justified by works." You've probably heard me and other Lutheran pastors say those words before. They are beautiful words – and you should know that, as a writer, I love beautiful words. Words are important – possibly more than we can ever imagine. How important? Just try living in my shoes if I haven't said "I love you" to my wife more than once a day. When Kristin and I get home at night, it's check-in time; time for words about our day. Kristin loves to quote the study that estimates men need to speak about 7,000 words per day, but women require a few more: 20,000. So when we check in, if I know what's good for me, I listen as Kristin gets the last of her 20,000 daily words in. AND woe be unto me if she asks me, "How was your day?" and I reply, "Good."

Words are important, in pleasurable and painful ways. Think about the impact of these words:

Thank you.

I'm sorry.

Excuse me.


I now pronounce you husband and wife.

I'm pregnant.

I'm not pregnant.

I love you.

I hate you.

I promise.

The surgery was a success.

I'm sorry: your father has died.

Words have power – power to hurt, power to heal. Poets and writers have known this as long as we've had language, and they've been using words to change our lives from the moment we started recording things in words. Words are contextual – they mean different things at different times, and from different people. When we say, "I love you," a beautiful phrase, it means many different things to any different people, and if we use it incorrectly or inappropriately there can be very unpleasant consequences to suffer.

I love words – I always have. There are books galore in my office here at the Lutheran Center, and also in our house. I spend a lot of what little free time I have left reading words, and as a preacher words are a very important aspect of my vocation. It pays for me to be a connoisseur of words, but in this parable from Matthew's gospel, all these beautiful words come up against one harsh word from Jesus our Lord: words alone are not enough.

Two young men gave their word to their father. From one, the word was plain: I will not work for you in your vineyard. From the other, the word was just as plain: I will Neither of them kept their word, but Jesus said that one of them was right with his father. They both broke their word, yet one brother did the deed According to what Jesus taught, our deeds can outweigh our words.

I mentioned half of a Luther quote earlier. The whole thing goes like this: "A person is not justified by their works; but no justified person is without works." Lip service doesn't accomplish anything in the kingdom of heaven. Even a lover of words like me has to admit that words lose their power if they are not accompanied by deeds. I can say "I love you" to my wife and kids until I'm blue in the face, but if I abuse them, treat them with contempt or neglect, my words come to mean nothing. Without works to match our words we fall from grace and find ourselves bound to our own brokenness. The best example of empty words I can give you comes from my own life. When I was a teenager, I was irresponsible, selfish and lazy. (some of you are thinking, "as a kid?") Somehow, though, I developed the idea that if I said "I'm sorry" often enough, I could get away with whatever I wanted. That all ended one day when my dad finally had enough and said to me, "You know, I wish you'd say you were sorry a whole lot less and mean it a whole lot more." My works and deeds had made my words empty, meaningless, a lie even I no longer believed. How does our confession go? "We confess that we are captive to sin, and cannot free ourselves. We have sinned against you in thought, word and deed, by what we have done, and by what we have left undone." Our captivity to sin holds everything we hold dear. Even our precious words are broken and stained by sin.

There is, however, one Word to which we can cling, even in the depths of our sin. There is One who has always been pure in thought, word and deed. Jesus Christ has always been and will always be the Word made Flesh – the Word that Does what it promises. The power of Jesus' Word never fails, because Jesus' Word is always accompanied by Jesus' Deeds. Jesus' Word comes to us in our baptism, joining with plain, ordinary water to drown us in our sin and raise us up in new life. Jesus' Word comes to us in his supper, the holy meal given that we might eat and drink forgiveness, the reminder that no deed was too great for the power of His love. Jesus is the Word that rebuked the Pharisees for their stubbornness. Jesus is the Word who called Peter, James and John from their fishing boats to a life of service. Jesus is the Word who came to Martin Luther and Philipp Melanchthon and the reformers in the darkest times of medieval Europe and offered hope to a people oppressed by a church that had forgotten the voice of her shepherd. Jesus is the Word who came to Susan Briehl and called her to be a pastor, called me to be a pastor, and calls you to seek the kingdom of God and find your role within it. Jesus is the Word who comes today and makes a promise to you, that no matter who you are, the Word of forgiveness will transform your life through repentance, making you "what Adam and Eve were meant to be, only better." This Word, Jesus' Word, is TRUTH.

We don't always like to hear this word of change and forgiveness. We like to think we've had it figured out all along, that our comfortable lives and our level of happiness are proof that we have no need of Jesus' Word of transformation. When Jesus spoke the words in today's gospel reading, he was talking to the established church. He was talking to people like us, the good kids. One scholar notes that "[Jesus'] ministry of transformation and reclamation offends those with a vested interest in reinforcing the status quo…Jesus' transformation of the world requires the self-examination of those heretofore in charge. Or, one can simply resist the transformation and challenge the authority of Jesus himself." [1] It reminds me of one of my favorite stories: "Revelation" by Flannery O'Connor. In "Revelation" we are introduced to Mrs. Turpin, a woman who owns a small hog farm with her husband Claude in the deep South in the early 20th century. Mrs. Turpin sat in the waiting room at the doctor's office and considered out loud how fortunate she was that God made her who she was. She wasn’t white trash or black – she was a woman of means who had the good sense to be thankful for what she had. Finally, a young girl named Mary Grace had enough of Mrs. Turpin's smug self-righteousness. She hurled a book at Mrs. Turpin, tried to strangle her, and then told her, "Go back to hell where you came from, you old warthog!" This shocked Mrs. Turpin to her core, so much so that later that day, as dusk was coming on, Mrs. Turpin found herself standing on the fence of her hogyards, shaking her fist at heaven and accusing God, "Who do you think you are?"

Here Mrs. Turpin receives her second revelation:

[She saw] a vast horde of souls ... rumbling toward heaven. There were whole companies of white-trash, clean for the first time in their lives, and bands of black niggers in white robes and battalions of freaks and lunatics shouting and clapping and leaping like frogs. And bringing up the end of the procession was a tribe of people whom she recognized at once as those who, like herself and Claud, had always had a little of everything and the God-given wit to use it right....They were marching behind the others with great dignity, accountable as they had always been for good order and common sense and respectable behavior. They alone were on key. Yet she could see by their shocked and altered faces that even their virtues were being burned away. [2]

In the end, nothing will matter except Jesus' Words and Jesus' Deeds. Tax collectors, prostitutes, good children, bad children, good church folk, whoever we are, we are only saved by Jesus' words and Jesus' deeds. Jesus Christ is the One who gives us both words and deeds together, whole and pure. You and I are here because God has called us here to receive this word: grace. You and I are here because we are recipients of this deed: forgiveness. Jesus Christ, the living Word of God, speaks and works in you, now and forever, with a power above all other words and all other deeds. Whether it is your sins or your virtues being burned away by Jesus' love, today is a day for both words and deeds, brothers and sisters, because the living Word Jesus Christ is our Lord, and we are his people through the power of his Holy Spirit, to the glory of the Father. And that, friends, is a good word, a powerful word, and the last word. Amen.

[2] Flannery O'Connor, "Revelation." From The Complete Stories. © 1971 by Farrar, Strauss and Giroux. P. 508.

1 comment:

  1. I tagged you for a meme, if you feel like playing.