Proper 28A Sermon (2023)

Proper 28 (November 13-19)
Texts: Matthew 25:14-30;
1 Thessalonians 5:1-11

Facebook Live (sermon begins at 26:03):


Today, I’d like to offer a short Bible study, along with a personal testimony, rather than a regular sermon. As we finish the year of featuring Matthew’s Gospel, I think it’s important to give an overview of both where we’ve been this past year and then also where we finish next week on Christ the King Sunday — when we read the extremely important prophecy from Jesus about the “Son of Man” judging all the nations of the earth. In fact, next Sunday’s Gospel is so important that I include the entire passage in today’s Sermon Notes.

This Bible study also gives me a chance to introduce to you where I’m coming from. Last week, we focused on a well-known conversion story, that of Ebenezer Scrooge in Charles Dickens’ beloved story, A Christmas Carol. The Good News of Jesus Christ begins with personal conversion stories like that. But notice how Dickens make this not so much a story about religious conversion but much more basically about Scrooge’s conversion at being human in a much more peaceful and generous manner.

The plan is that I will be your pastoral leader on Sundays at least through December, and then we’ll see beyond that. In the interest of full disclosure, then, I want to share this morning how I’ve undergone a conversion of sorts in the forty years of my being a pastor. Not nearly as dramatic as good ol’ Scrooge. But it will be my personal testimony, so to speak. Over these past forty years I’ve been witness to a behind the scenes conversion in the basic theology and biblical interpretation of those who study these things, both those who teach in the seminaries but also pastors who have come to write about it. I myself have started to write about it.

My passion in remaining a pastor and preacher is that I believe it’s a conversion that all of you need to be witnesses to, here in the parish, too, if the church is to survive and begin to thrive again. It means truly a conversion from the way most of us grew up thinking about the mission of the church. We were raised that our mission primarily involves converting people’s religion so that they can go to heaven when they die. But many of the pastors and theologians have come to read the Bible to understand that our mission extends far beyond that. Our mission is to be human in some fundamentally different ways so that this world can be a better place. God sent Jesus not just to save a few souls for the afterlife but to save the world. To save the good creation which God has made. We know that verse well: “God so loved the world that God gave the only Son to save it. . . .” (John 3:16)

Brothers and sisters in Christ, let me ask you this: why are our children’s and grandchildren’s generations mostly missing from our churches? I believe that one of the answers is that our mission has become mostly irrelevant to their lives. If the mission is largely to undergo religious conversion so that they can go to heaven when they die, then they’ve got that part down. Those who still call themselves Christians consider themselves ‘good-to-go.’ They can do the basics without coming to church every Sunday. They need more time to struggle for their livelihoods in this seriously messed up world we’re leaving to them. They have little time left for church — if it simply means believing certain things in order to go to heaven.

And many, many others of our children’s and grandchildren’s generations don’t even believe in the religion anymore. They look around at the world and see religion as more of the problem than the solution. Can we blame them? They’ve left church for good — unless we can begin to show them in real and substantial ways that our church mission can be part of the solution to the many crises they face.

So what can we do? First, we can learn to read our Bibles anew and see that what we’re called to is working with God to make this world a better place. And that centers not on conversion to a certain religion but conversion of what it means to be human — so that our religions, if we practice any at all, are converted, too. Do you think more people would sign up for that?

So let me give you a brief overview of what I’m talking about with Matthew’s Gospel. We’ll begin to feature Mark’s Gospel in December, during Advent. How would we sum up this past year with Matthew. I’ve come to see Matthew presenting Jesus as the culmination of Hebrew prophecy for how God means for us to be human. And this means a fundamental change to our nations and cultures, too. The prophets weren’t concerned so much with ‘personal salvation’ as they were with guiding their people, their nation, onto a better path to full life. So from beginning to end Matthew gives us a contrasting comparison between human kingdoms and the kingdom of heaven, between Jesus himself and people like King Herod, who tried to kill Jesus by killing all the male babies in Jerusalem. Talk about “collateral damage.” Brutal.

In your Sermon Notes page, I show how Matthew’s Jesus teaches us that we need to be human in at least two fundamentally different ways: First, we need to begin to trust more in the power of love and nonviolent means of challenging injustice, instead of our age-old trust in the power of force fueled by fear, hate, and division. Second, we can only build flourishing communities based on the economic justice of ministering to the least in our human family, rather than giving central place to the wealthy. The power of nonviolent love and economic justice are the twin pillars of the successful way of being human that God designed for us. Your Sermon Notes give you an overview.

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[Extemporize some key points from the Sermon Notes as distributed to the congregation:]

SERMON NOTES — November 19, 2023

Pastor Paul’s personal testimony: over forty years of being a pastor I’ve learned (from seminary professors and other pastors) that Christian mission is:
• Not so much about converting to a new religion for the sake of the afterlife;
• It’s about converting to a new way of being human so that we can help God save God’s good creation

Learning to read Matthew’s Gospel anew brings a good example. Matthew presents Jesus as the culmination of Hebrew prophecy; as the one who shows us the fundamental difference between our:
• Human kingdoms, based on fear, division, hatred, and violence; and on economic structures that favor the wealthy;
• The kingdom of heaven — coming into the world through Jesus, the “Son of Man” (meaning, the “next generation of being human”) — based on the power of love, willing to nonviolently suffer violence; and on economic structures that favor the least in the human family.

Overview of Matthew’s Gospel in terms of the two pillars for being human in a new way, exemplified in the Sermon on the Mount and parables and the modern movements that manifest them:

Pillar #1: Love and Nonviolence vs. Divisive Fear and Hatred Leading to Violence

• Turn the other cheek – Matt 5:38-42
• Love your enemies – Matt 5:43-48
• “. . . the kingdom of heaven is willing to suffer violence, and the violent take it by force” – Matt 11:12

Parables of contrast:
• The wicked tenants who try to usurp the vineyard by murder – Matt 21:33-44
• The tyrant king who slaughters those who slight him – Matt 22:1-14

Modern movements:
• Gandhi: an eye for an eye makes the whole world go blind
• Martin Luther King, Jr.: darkness cannot vanquish darkness, only light can; hatred cannot vanquish hatred, only love can

Pillar #2: Economic Justice that favors the least in the human family rather than the wealthy

• Giving alms in secret – Matt 6:2-4
• “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth . . . For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” – Matt 6:19-21
• “You cannot serve God and wealth” – Matt 6:24
• “. . . do not worry about your life . . . But strive first for the kingdom of God and God’s justice – Matt 6:25-34

Parables: Last Sunday and this Sunday, leading to the prophecy next Sunday

[Extemporization on today’s parable around these points:

• Like last week’s parable the emphasis on ‘comparing’ it to the kingdom of heaven is to highlight the differences: this is a story of a ruthless master who in no way is a model for God’s reign — he’s not unlike an Ebenezer Scrooge before his Christmas Eve conversion.
• The last things said and done by the ruthless master seal the point: (1) he basically brags that the rich get richer and the poor get poorer — the very opposite of what we see next in Matt 25:31-46. (2) Throwing the supposed ‘lazy’ slave out where there will be weeping and a “gnashing of teeth”: the phrase “gnashing of teeth” is used in the OT largely of evil oppressors gnashing their teeth at the oppressed. For example: Psalm 37:12, “The wicked plot against the righteous, and gnash their teeth at them.” (See also Job 16:9; Ps 35:16; 112:10; Lam 2:16.)
• Also like last week, the parable provides a sharp contrast to the measure of God’s reign that we see at the end of Matthew 25: the criterion for success for the rise and fall of nations is how well they take care of the least in the human family. There’s nothing whatsoever like that in this parable; on the contrary, it is an apt description of most human reigns, where the rich get richer and the poor get poorer.]

Modern movements:
• Gandhi: “The greatness of a nation can be judged by how it treats its weakest member”
• Martin Luther King, Jr.: no one is free until we are all free; no one has enough until we all have enough

Next Sunday’s Gospel: Matthew 25:31-46
[Jesus said to the disciples:] 31“When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. 32All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate the nations one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the kids, 33and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the kids at the left. 34Then the king will say to those at his right hand, ‘Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; 35for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, 36I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.’ 37Then the just nations will answer him, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? 38And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? 39And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?’ 40And the king will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.’ 41Then he will say to those at his left hand, ‘You that are accursed, depart from me into the time of fire made ready for the devil and his angels; 42for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, 43I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’ 44Then these nations also will answer, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?’ 45Then he will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’ 46And these will go away into an age of punishment, but the just nations into an age of life.”

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Sermon conclusion: The bottom line is that Jesus, as the “Son of Man,” as the Next Generation of Human Being, came to show us how to be better persons. It’s a conversion of our humanity both as individuals and also as communities and nations. For God’s goal is not just saving a few souls but saving the world. You and I are called to be part of making the world a better place. Is that something our children and grandchildren might be more interested in signing up for?

Paul J. Nuechterlein
Bethania Lutheran Church,
Racine, WI, November 19, 2023

Facebook Live (sermon begins at 26:03):

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