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Sermon for Sunday 20 September 2020

First Reading                                        Isaiah 55:6-9

6“Seek the Lord while he may be found; call upon him while he is near; 7let the wicked forsake his way, and the unrighteous man his thoughts; let him return to the Lord, that he may have compassion on him, and to our God, for he will abundantly pardon. 8For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, declares the Lord. 9For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.”

Psalm                                                             Psalm 27

1The Lord is my light and my salvation; whom then shall I fear? the Lord is the strength of my life; of whom then shall I be afraid? 2When evildoers came upon me to eat up my flesh, it was they, my foes and my adversaries, who stumbled and fell. 3Though an army should encamp against me, yet my heart shall not be afraid; 4And though war should rise up against me, yet will I put my trust in him. 5One thing have I asked of the Lord; one thing I seek; that I may dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life; 6To behold the fair beauty of the Lord  and to seek him in his temple. 7For in the day of trouble he shall keep me safe in his shelter; he shall hide me in the secrecy of his dwelling and set me high upon a rock. 8Even now he lifts up my head* above my enemies round about me. 9Therefore I will offer in his dwelling an oblation with sounds of great gladness; I will sing and make music to the Lord. 10Hearken to my voice, O Lord, when I call; have mercy on me and answer me. 11You speak in my heart and say, “Seek my face.”  Your face, Lord, will I seek. 12Hide not your face from me, nor turn away your servant in displeasure. 13You have been my helper; cast me not away; do not forsake me, O God of my salvation.

Second Reading               Philippians 1:12-14, 19-30

12I want you to know, brothers, that what has happened to me has really served to advance the gospel, 13so that it has become known throughout the whole imperial guard and to all the rest that my imprisonment is for Christ. 14And most of the brothers, having become confident in the Lord by my imprisonment, are much more bold to speak the word without fear.

19… {F}or I know that through your prayers and the help of the Spirit of Jesus Christ this will turn out for my deliverance, 20as it is my eager expectation and hope that I will not be at all ashamed, but that with full courage now as always Christ will be honored in my body, whether by life or by death. 21For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain. 22If I am to live in the flesh, that means fruitful labor for me. Yet which I shall choose I cannot tell. 23I am hard pressed between the two. My desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better. 24But to remain in the flesh is more necessary on your account. 25Convinced of this, I know that I will remain and continue with you all, for your progress and joy in the faith, 26so that in me you may have ample cause to glory in Christ Jesus, because of my coming to you again. 27Only let your manner of life be worthy of the gospel of Christ, so that whether I come and see you or am absent, I may hear of you that you are standing firm in one spirit, with one mind striving side by side for the faith of the gospel, 28and not frightened in anything by your opponents. This is a clear sign to them of their destruction, but of your salvation, and that from God. 29For it has been granted to you that for the sake of Christ you should not only believe in him but also suffer for his sake, 30engaged in the same conflict that you saw I had and now hear that I still have.

Gospel                                             Matthew 18:1-20

1At that time the disciples came to Jesus, saying, “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” 2And calling to him a child, he put him in the midst of them 3and said, “Truly, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. 4Whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. 5Whoever receives one such child in my name receives me, 6but whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him to have a great millstone fastened around his neck and to be drowned in the depth of the sea. 7Woe to the world for temptations to sin! For it is necessary that temptations come, but woe to the one by whom the temptation comes! 8And if your hand or your foot causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to enter life crippled or lame than with two hands or two feet to be thrown into the eternal fire. 9And if your eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away. It is better for you to enter life with one eye than with two eyes to be thrown into the hell of fire. 10See that you do not despise one of these little ones. For I tell you that in heaven their angels always see the face of my Father who is in heaven. 12What do you think? If a man has a hundred sheep, and one of them has gone astray, does he not leave the ninety-nine on the mountains and go in search of the one that went astray? 13And if he finds it, truly, I say to you, he rejoices over it more than over the ninety-nine that never went astray. 14So it is not the will of my Father who is in heaven that one of these little ones should perish. 15If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother. 16But if he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, that every charge may be established by the evidence of two or three witnesses. 17If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church. And if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector. 18Truly, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven. 19Again I say to you, if two of you agree on earth about anything they ask, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven. 20For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them.”

God’s Call Continues

Before I begin this morning, I’d like to share four statistics with you: 2%, 6%, 6% and 86%.  Please keep these percentages, 2%, 6%, 6% and 86%, in mind as we consider our readings for today.  As most of you have come to learn, Terry and I like to watch reality shows on TV.  One category of shows we watch, from time to time, are talent shows that feature illusions or magic.  I like to see if I can guess how they perform their tricks, but truth be told, most of the time I’m completely stumped.  But one thing’s for sure, I’m always thoroughly entertained. 

One of these shows is hosted by Penn and Teller, one of Las Vegas’ leading magic show headliners.  The object of the show is for budding magicians to come onto the show and impress Penn and Teller and, if possible, fool them.  Needless to say, the majority of the contestants fail in their attempts, and Penn and Teller are able to tell the aspiring illusionists how the trick was performed.  As they find out, no matter how hard they work, it’s hard to fool a professional.

With that in mind, recall if you will, that beginning in Exodus chapter 9, God sent Moses to free the enslaved Israelites.  When Moses appeared before Pharaoh, demanding that the Egyptian demigod-king “let my people go,” he threw down his staff at Pharaoh’s feet and it was miraculously transformed into a roiling, slithering serpent.  For the average person, this would be pretty impressive wouldn’t it?

I’m fairly certain that many in the king’s audience gasped in amazement.  However, there was one group of onlookers who were completely unimpressed.  These, as we learn from the story, were the royal magicians.  For the magicians and conjurers of the royal court, I’ll bet they simply snickered and summarily dismissed God’s sign as nothing more than a basic parlor trick.  You see, trained magicians like Penn and Teller — whether in the court of Ramses or onstage at some Las Vegas venue — are the last people to actually “believe” in magic, in miracles, or in any kind of paranormal mystery.  As far as magicians go, they know too much.  They have studied and know that “magic” is nothing more than tricks and techniques, smoke and mirrors.  But there’s a huge difference between a miracle, an act of God, and some parlor trick.

As each new plague swept over the land, it was explained away by Pharaoh’s all-knowing magician-advisors.  After all, they knew everything there was to know about magic.  Unfortunately for all of Egypt’s first-borns, they knew nothing about God.  The last plague could not be explained away, and the Pharaoh reluctantly released the Hebrew people. 

In the first “Men In Black” movie, agent “J” played by Will Smith, at first refuses to believe agent “K”, played by Tommy Lee Jones, that the earth is playing host to thousands of creatures from other planets.  K dismisses J’s “knowledge”: “Fifteen hundred years ago everyone KNEW the world was the center of the universe, five hundred years ago everyone KNEW the earth was flat, and fifteen minutes ago you KNEW we were alone on this planet.  Imagine what you’ll KNOW tomorrow!”  Sometimes what we think we know, and the truth are two very different things.

For those of you who are, or have been, involved in teaching, whether it’s teaching history to a room full of bored eighth graders, or teaching dog obedience to a bunch of frisky pups and their masters, or teaching Sunday School, you quickly come to one conclusion: the more you attempt to become learned, the more you define yourself as a learner.  The more we “know,” the more embarrassingly obvious it becomes how much we still have to learn.

By way of analogy, consider this; did you know that the big island of Hawaii is actually getting bigger?  Now for those who lend credence to our global warming experts, according to the scientists, our coastlines are eroding, and the sea level is rising.  This means the land masses we live on are getting smaller.  However, Hawaii apparently is different.  Hawaii has two active volcanoes that keep spewing out lava flows, both of which are building up more elevation and landmass and flowing out into the surrounding sea.  The more “island” there is, the more shoreline is created.  Learning is like that growing island.  The more “knowledge” we amass, the more new, unexplored edges of understanding are revealed.

As we’ve learned from the Bible, Jesus didn’t choose a bunch of “know-it-alls,” or the learned scholars of the day, as His companions.  Jesus called the common folks, the average Joe, as it were, to be the messengers in His kingdom.  Jesus Himself was a teacher and those He called were His “disciples.”  Another word for “disciple” (mathetes) is “learner.”  When Jesus gave the Great Commission to His disciples, He didn’t tell them to go and simply be “teachers.”  He also called them to claim their status as life-long learners and to pass that love for learning along to the world: Go therefore and make ‘disciples’ of all nations, baptizing and teaching. (Matthew 28:19).

A call to discipleship is a call to enroll more and more people in “the school of discipleship” — a school from which none of us will ever “graduate.”  An old Hasidic custom has a child’s first Torah teacher drop honey on the first page of the new student’s book.  The student then licks the honey off the page when he/she turns the page.  The sweetness of this honey is forever linked to the act of learning.  The sweetness of learning is to be a lifelong craving.

How many of you remember the controversial TV ads “My Baby Can Read”?  These ads claim that babies, as young as 9 months old can read and respond to flashcards with words on them.  The ads claim that these babies read the flashcards and then respond to the printed message.  The card reads “clap” and the child claps.  The card reads “dog” and the baby points to the dog.  The company forwards that by age two, children exposed to these cards will be reading complete sentences.  By age three, they can consume whole books.  Most people, including the folks at the Federal Trade Commission, “know” that the average child of age two can only master simple tasks like walking and stacking blocks.  But who knows what we’ll “know” tomorrow?

When the Hubble telescope began to peer into the deep darkness of the universe, one of the first cosmic secrets it revealed was that the universe was in fact expanding, and at an ever-increasing rate.  Astrophysicists have dubbed the force behind this cosmic expansion “dark energy.”  The most current cosmological models suggest that this “dark energy” accounts for about 74% of the total mass energy of the universe.  In other words, everything we’ve been able to “know” about the universe, up to now, encompasses maybe 25% of an ever-expanding whole.  

The more the universe expands, the more of it is defined by this mysterious dark energy.  The bad news is, we’re observing and comprehending less and less of the universe as it expands further and further.  The good news is we’re getting smarter and smarter about how dumb we are.  Isaiah cautioned the Israelites not to think they had God all figured out.  It’s a caution that we today need to take seriously.

Instead of a triumphant return to power, and an end to their physical and political exile, Isaiah offered the image of a Suffering Servant.  Instead of judgment for the wicked, a come-uppance for those who had embraced the gods of their captors, Isaiah revealed a divine invitation to a new table, “Come, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and he who has no money, come, buy and eat!  Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price (Isa. 55:1).  Instead of judgment and punishment, Isaiah promised God’s mercy and pardon.  How do we comprehend the rules and regulations of such a God?  How do we perceive thoughts, beyond our comprehension? (Isa. 55:8a).

In the beginning, God created us, gave us life, gave us the world, gave us a Garden of Eden, and gave us one rule; don’t eat of the one tree in the center of the Garden.  We broke Rule One.  Then came Truth or Consequences.  The consequences of our choice.  We were kicked out — out of paradise, out of a perfect relationship with God.

So, God makes a new Rule: God establishes a covenant with Abraham and all of Abraham’s descendants.  Eventually Abraham did well on the “many descendants” part of this divine deal, but, as the Hebrew people’s history proves, following one God was a rule easily and repeatedly broken.  So, God provides a new rule, or more accurately, a new set of rules.  These new rules were handed down by God as part of the Sanai covenant.  These rules, the Torah, were designed to provide an answer to every possible situation the people might encounter.  The problem was, having more rules meant that there were more rules to break.  So, God intervenes again.

New Rule: God establishes a king and a kingdom His covenant with David, and all of David’s descendants.  But David’s house became a badly developed sub-division.  The mortgage was then taken over by the Assyrians, the Babylonians, the Persians, and then the Romans.  At this point, God decides that rules don’t work.  Instead of rules that establish the way to stay in relationship with God, rules that create a pathway that will enable rule-breakers — that is all of us — to find a way back into relationship with God, God announces the final rule.

Isaiah first revealed the cost of the construction of this road back to God when he named the Suffering Servant.  The bond for this project came due, and Jesus paid the price, in full, on Calvary.  And instead of establishing a whole new set of rules, Jesus left us with only one rule, only one way to respond to God’s gift: Love.  It’s not a rule, it’s a relationship.  As God declares through Isaiah, “My ways are not our ways.  My thoughts are not our thoughts.”  God doesn’t expect god-like comprehension from us.  Instead of big ideas and new knowledge, instead of cosmic insight and a heavenly perspective, God requires just one response from us: Love.  Love God first, and love others like we love ourselves.

Mother Teresa put it like this: “It is a mistake to demand clarity of God.  I have made understanding an idol.  Loving God is the preface to knowing God.”  That’s why that old song, “To know, know, know Him is to love, love, love Him” is less true for the Christian than another song that has yet to be written: “To love, love, love Him is to know, know, know Him.”  As disciples, we long to be in a relationship with God, to learn to love Him and in doing so, learn to know Him.  And in this life-long process of loving, learning and knowing, Jesus has calles us into His vineyard, to do the work of the kingdom.  We know that work is to go, baptize, make, and teach new disciples.  And this call goes out to all the Baptized of God’s kingdom.  But we face two, every growing, problems.

First, we’re in the midst of a growing pastoral shortage.  Already, the number of pastors retiring outpace the number of Seminary graduates.  Current pastors are pushing their retirement dates further and further and are, even after retiring, serving as Interim, stated supply and as supply pastors.  In most cases, heath issues are the only reason a pastor quits serving in some capacity.  According to the Bishop this past weekend, we have less than 45 seminary students in the Seminary system, 2 of which are here in the Carolinas.  It’s projected that we’ll need 300 pastors over the next 4 years to cover current and projected shortages.

The NALC today has 445 churches and is growing steadily.  Many of the new churches coming into the NALC are Mission starts and need pastors.  Here in the Carolinas, we currently have 52 congregations and there are 4 more churches in the process of joining.  According to the last email I received, there are 48 congregations listed on the Congregational Vacancy list, 4 here in the Carolinas.  You can do the math; even if we graduated every seminarian in the system today, and they were called to one of these churches, there’s still a shortage even without considering retirements.  Each congregation needs to be active in identifying and training people, starting with our children, so that they’re ready to respond to God’s call to Word and Sacrament ministry.  Our second problem is just as great.

Recall, if you would, the four percentages I gave you at the beginning of this sermon, 2%, 6%, 6% and 86%.  While these figures are somewhat dated, but according to church growth expert Win Arn, it’s not the pastor that has the biggest effect on new people coming to church, it’s the members.  According to his research, more than 50,000 people over a 10-year period where asked why they came to church, and between 75 and 90 percent of respondents said, “I began attending because someone invited me.”  When further asked about the invitation, those same people said, 2% came because of an advertisement.  6% came because of an organized evangelism campaign.  6% came by the Pastor’s invitation.  If you’ve been adding these percentages up, you know the last percentage is 86%.  86% of the respondents began attending church because they were invited by friends or relatives.  Please let that figure sink in.  86% of the respondents began attending church because they were invited by friends or relatives.

Jesus is inviting each of us to work in His vineyard.  And the truth is, it’s up to each of us to do our part.  We all need to be active in obeying Jesus’ call in the Great Commission.  Each of us must be about the business of the kingdom in reaching out, making, teaching and baptizing new disciples.  We all must be active in training our people and then identifying those who sense a call to Word and Sacrament ministry and finally, we must accept the facts, real growth in this congregation and in the church will only happen if you are involved.  You hold the key.  86% of the new people who come to church will be here because of your invitation.


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