Saturday, September 23, 2017

Take up your cross

Proper 17A September 3, 2017

A Palm Sunday prayer sums up today’s Scripture lessons: “Almighty God, whose most dear Son went not up to joy but first he suffered pain, and entered not into glory before he was crucified:  Mercifully grant that we, walking in the way of the cross, may find it none other than the way of life and peace; through Jesus Christ our Lord.  Amen.”

Jesus tells his disciples, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” He asks, “what will they give in return for their life?” St. Paul says in the Epistle, “1I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. 2Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect.  3For by the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think of yourself more highly than you ought to think, but to think with sober judgment, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned.” Since the 16th century we have prayed, “here we offer and present unto thee, O Lord, ourselves, our souls and bodies, to be a reasonable, holy, and living sacrifice unto thee . . .”

The only way of true life and peace is the way of the cross, the way of self-offering in union with Jesus’ self-offering on the cross. Our final goal in life is God, and God’s way of life, his way of final peace is the way of the cross. God gives us life, and God makes it possible for us to give that life back to him. The more we give, the more we receive. We don’t have to fear that we will “give out.” God loves us and gives us the gift of love. God wants what is best for us. God is all-powerful and all wise, and God gives us what is best for us.

I remember a painted clay ash tray I made in 3rd grade and gave my mother. We were living in Philadelphia and on a school trip to the science museum I had been fascinated by the stegosaurus dinosaur – the one with the small head, big body, long tail, and the plates that stick up along the back. The ash tray was more or less shaped like a stegosaurus, painted red and blue, and so ugly only a mother could love it. But I remember how proud I was when I gave it to her, and I remember how she said she appreciated it. The ash tray was really ugly, but she received it in love.    We give God our lives, all our lives, ugly and misshapen as they may be. And God receives our gift in love, and God makes us beautiful, and holy, and acceptable. We have all fallen short; we have all made a mess of least parts of the lives God gave us. But God receives our self-offering, and God makes us beautiful, and holy, and acceptable.

God makes us worthy by the cross, by the complete self-offering Jesus made on the cross. Jesus died on the cross to defeat the power of sin and death and Jesus rose from the dead to offer new life to all who will receive him.

Try as we might, we can do nothing to make ourselves acceptable, holy, worthy to God. God has done it all in Jesus Christ. We receive the new life God in Jesus offers us, and offer ourselves in thanksgiving and service.  The cross we are called to carry is this gospel, the good news of God’s perfect love in Jesus Christ, who died for our sins and rose to give us new life.

The cross and the gospel are not acceptable by the standards of this world. By the world’s standards, we are measured by the acceptability of the things we have. By the standards of the world, we don’t give; we buy and sell. The world is basically me-centered, not God-centered. When we conform to the standards of the world, we think of ourselves - first, and last.

But St. Paul says, “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what the will of God— what is good and acceptable and perfect.” St. John learned in his exile on Patmos that Jesus Christ is the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end of the alphabet, the first and the last. When we are made new people in Christ Jesus, we think of God first, and last.

As new people in Christ we learn a new way of life. We learn to put God first, to live the good news of God’s perfect love in Jesus Christ, who died for our sins and rose to give us new life. It takes regular practice. It takes daily self-offering in prayer and worship and thanksgiving. And God makes us worthy to bear that cross.

 “Almighty God, whose most dear Son went not up to joy but first he suffered pain, and entered not into glory before he was crucified:  Mercifully grant that we, walking in the way of the cross, may find it none other than the way of life and peace; through Jesus Christ our Lord.  Amen.”

Reconciliation and Forgiveness

Proper 18 Sept 10, 2017  Pentecost 14

Alleluia. In Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, entrusting the message of reconciliation to us. Alleluia. Reconciliation and forgiveness are possible only by the power of God working through the spirit of Christ is us. 

In today’s gospel reading Jesus gives his disciples God’s direction to deal with conflict. He gives three steps: First when we are offended, speak directly one on one. Second, if that doesn’t work, try again with one or two others. And third, only then, seek the help of the whole community.

I, and others generally don’t work that way. When I am offended I don’t tend to deal directly. I go not to the person who offended me but I go look for a sympathetic ear, for someone who will agree that I have a right to be offended, who will support and affirm me. I’ll tend to minimize or excuse. “He didn’t mean it; it’s not that important.” And I’ll nurse that grievance.  I’ll remember it in the middle of the night – and other times. Sometimes I’ll try to avoid dealing with the person, avoid contact, “unfriend them” on Facebook. Left to my own devices, I’ll try hard to avoid conflict and confrontation.   If I can’t avoid the person sometimes I’ll deflect my anger and try to hide what’s really bothering me, picking on something else. Frequently I’ll find myself doing this without noticing it.

But I’m a sinner saved by God’s grace in Christ Jesus. And sometimes God gives me both the insight to see more clearly what’s really bothering me and the  courage to do what Jesus tells us to do. In Christ I will find some way to speak one on one, andtry to speak directly, not in accusation, but simply reporting my feelings.  “When you did - whatever, I felt – what I felt – disrespect – or whatever I felt.”  That kind of language tends to reduce automatic defensive reactions. I’m not making a direct accusation; I’m simply reporting how I felt.  Generally the response I get is, “I’m sorry you felt that way,” followed either by an explanation of what the other person was trying to accomplish or by an offer of some action in mitigation. I’ve never had to go back with witnesses or take the matter to the church.

My witness is that the gospel pattern, when we use it, really does work better than the pattern we learn in the world. It works because God acts through Christ’s spirit to help us see our situation clearly and to give us the courage to do what Jesus tells us to do.   

In Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, entrusting the message of reconciliation to us. Reconciliation and forgiveness are possible only by the power of God working through the spirit of Christ is us.

Since 1983 The Church of the Savior has been a witness to the power of the spirit of Christ Jesus to bring together Lutherans and Episcopalians in one congregation. When I served in Shelby in the 1980’s  Bishop William Weinhauer of this diocese was the Episcopal co-Chair of the national Lutheran Episcopal Dialogue.  

Let me briefly review some of that history. From 1969-72 in the United States the Lutheran Council – then including the Lutheran Church in America, the American Lutheran Church, and the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod – and the Episcopal Church committees met in dialogue. Worldwide Anglican-Lutheran International Conversations from 1970 to 1972 led to a “Pullach Report” recommending mutual recognition.The American dialogue resumed in 1976 and agreed in 1982 to Interim Eucharistic Sharing.

In 1988 the ELCA was formed and continued dialogue leading in 1999 to the Called to Common Mission agreement for full communion and shared ministry. In Europe from 1994 to 2010 Anglicam and Lutheran national churches have come to share communion under a Porvoo Common Statement. And in 2001 the Waterloo Declaration established full communion between Anglican and Lutheran churches in Canada.

The ELCA has been in full communion since 1997 with the Presbyterian Church, USA, the Reformed Church in America, and the United Church of Christ, since 1999 with the Moravian Church and since 2009 with the United Methodist Church  I helped write the 2012 Moravian- Episcopal full communion agreement. Recently a United Methodist and Episcopal full communion proposal was published. It will take 6 to 8 years for that to pass the national conventions. Other Christian and interfaith dialogues continue. Issues of history and theology are complex.    

As a society and as individuals we all badly need the good news of forgiveness and reconciliation. Alleluia. In Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, entrusting the message of reconciliation to us. Alleluia. Reconciliation and forgiveness are possible only by the power of God working through the spirit of Christ is us.  Our good news is in Jesus we forgiven sinners have our part in his redeeming, forgiving, and reconciling ministry. Thanks be to God. Amen. 


77 or 70x7?

Proper 19A   Sept 17, 2017 Pentecost  15

 In the Great Thanksgiving today we say, “we give thanks to you, O Lord God Almighty, not as we ought, but as we are able.”  In our gospel reading Peter asks Jesus, “Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?” Jesus said to him, “Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times.”

Because Jesus died on the cross for us, God forgives us all our sins – all our sins – unconditionally and eternally. God forgives us many more than 77 times. The Greek text says ebdomekonta’kis epta, translated in the King James Version as 70 times 7 or 490 times.

Two passages of Hebrew Scripture relate to today‘s gospel. One is about 77 times and the other about how many times we should forgive. In Genesis 4:24 Cain’s 6th generation descendant Lamech says to his wives “If Cain is avenged sevenfold, truly Lamech seventy-sevenfold.”  The Hebrew text has 77; the Greek version of the Hebrew bible, the Septuagint, has the same words as St. Matthew, ebdomekonta’kis epta, translated 70 times 7. 

The second passage is at the beginning of the prophet Amos, “For 3 transgressions of Damascus and for 4 I will not revoke the punishment.”  From that passage the rabbinic tradition drew the rule that one must forgive 3 or at most 4 times. So when Peter said forgive 7 times he was doubling the usual number.

And 7 is a biblical number of perfection. God created the world in 6 days and on the 7th rested. “Remember the Sabbath day and keep it holy. Six days shalt thou labor, and the 7th rest. Luther’s comment on this commandment is, “We are to fear and love God, so that we do not despise preaching or God’s word, but instead keep that word holy and gladly hear and learn it.” (Page 1160 in the Worship book.)

God forgives us our sins against him, and as we are forgiven sinners, God gives us grace to forgive those who sin against us. We can pass only what we have received. Because we know God’s forgiveness we also know that God makes it possible for us to forgive others. We don’t have to hold on to grudges; we really can let them go. And when they come back to bother us in the middle of the night we can let them go, and let them go, and let them go again  And so the circle of God’s love in Christ Jesus expands wider and wider to include more and more lost sheep.

This is grace, free grace. It is not cheap grace. It costs. It cost Jesus his life on the cross. It costs us the effort and the shame of climbing down from our peak of moral superiority and letting go – taking the sting out of the memory. Forgiveness does not excuse evil. Forgiveness recognizes evil.  Joseph’s brothers sold him into slavery, but Joseph forgave them and his forgiveness served to save the people of Israel.  Forgiveness recognizes that bad things have been done, recognizes that people have been hurt, and sometimes badly hurt. Forgiveness recognizes that we have done bad things, that we have hurt other people, and ourselves. Forgiveness recognizes that bad things have been done to us, that we are hurt, sometimes badly hurt. And forgiveness lets it go, and lets it go, and lets it go. Forgiveness lets us out of our debtor’s prison of mind and memory and soul.  

In Jesus Christ God makes it possible for us to break the cycle of evil and revenge for evil. Cain’s 5th great grandson Lamech could not do that. He said, (Genesis 4:23b) “I have slain a man for wounding me, a young man for striking me. If Cain is avenged sevenfold, truly Lamech seventy-sevenfold.”  Lamech’s way is the way of “don’t get mad, get even,” the way of reciprocal wrong-doing, tit for tat, eye for eye until all are blind.

God in Jesus offers us the gift to see how to break cycles of sin and revenge. Because we are forgiven, we can forgive. God in Jesus forgives eternally and unconditionally. God’s love is unconditional and eternal.

But we are not God. We have limits, reasonable limits. Scripture can be misinterpreted, and this teaching of Jesus has been misinterpreted to mean that we must set aside issues of reasonable safety and self-protection. We can forgive sins done to us, but we don’t have to put ourselves in situations where we are likely to be injured again. God has given us a precious self. We are to preserve it. On rare occasions some of us may be called to dangerous situations, but only with great care and for the sake of others. We forgive and we continue to forgive up to our limit. That limit is different in every person and every circumstance. We don’t judge one another.

So in Holy Communion “we give thanks . . . not as we ought, but as we are able and in life we forgive “not as we ought, but as we are able.” We forgive because we are forgiven, and we forgive as much, and as often, as we can, with no arbitrary limit, but because God in Christ forgives us eternally and unconditionally.      

Pecking order in the vineyard

Proper 20 September 24, 2017

The University of Greifswald was established in 1456. It is the 4th oldest German university. From 1648 to 1815 it was part of Swedish Pomerania. At Greifswald on May 12, 1921, Thorleif Schjelderup-Ebbe defended his Ph.D. dissertation, “Gallus domesticus in seinem t├Ąglichen Leben.” – the daily life of chickens.  Thorleif, a 27 year old Norwegian scholar, drew on 17 years of observation and study to introduce the concept of pecking order in chickens. The technical term is “Dominance hierarchy.”  In social living groups members compete for access to limited resources and mating opportunities. Rather than fight each time they meet members of the group develop a set of relative relationships – a hierarchy that lets the participants know the proper order.

Such hierarchies are universal. We have ranks in the military, pay scales in business and the professions. The Pay Scale website says that in 2015 six of the highest paid CEOs make more than 300 times the salary of their typical employee. The average is about 70 to 1. In 1965 it was about 20 to 1. That is an economic hierarchy. Stockholders vote for boards of directors who approve executive compensation. Dominance hierarchy is the way of the world.

In today’s gospel reading Jesus calls the church to be different.  “The kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard.” Those who heard Jesus – and Matthew – immediately thought of Isaiah 5:5 “For the vineyard of the Lord of hosts is the house of Israel, and the people of Judah are his pleasant planting . . .”  The vineyard owner went out to hire day laborer because when the grapes are ripe lots of hands are needed to pick them. In Israel as today there is a place where day laborers go to be hired. And there is a dominance hierarchy to determine who gets first chance at any available job.

In the parable the owner goes out 5 times to hire pickers – at daybreak, at 9, 12, 3, and even at the last hour of daylight. Monastic communities traditionally pray at those 5 hours - daybreak, 9, 12, 3, before the evening meal and also Compline before bedtime and a night hour before dawn. The first time the vineyard owner agrees with the workers for the standard wage - one silver coin a day. To the other workers he simply says, “I will pay you whatever is right.”  And so they went. Better to take what you can than not work at all. The difference comes at the end of the day. The first laborers hired receive their agreed-on wage. Hierarchical thinking is an hourly wage. Part-time work gets part time money and no benefits. Half day half pay, and so forth. But the owner pays all the workers a full day’s pay. That upsets the hierarchy. Those who “have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat” thought they should have received more than they had first agreed to.

What are we working for?  In the parable everyone receives a day’s wage, regardless of how many hours he worked. We receive not a silver coin, but a relationship. Our Creator offers us his unconditional and eternal love; he offers us his unconditional and eternal forgiveness for all our sins; he offers us a clear conscience; he offers us a relationship with his Son, our Lord Jesus. Jesus dwells in our hearts by faith. The Holy Spirit of truth and power guides us into all truth and gives us the power to do that truth. We get it all. All of us get it all, always. The relationship is permanent. Jesus’ resurrection assures us that this relationship of love continues through the gate of death into everlasting life.

So the last will be first, and the first will be last.”  The Christian community is radically egalitarian. As we enter the church we leave behind the hierarchies of the world. When we are baptized into the one Lord, Jesus Christ, we receive a fundamental identity as a child of God.  Saint Paul wrote to the church at Philippi in northern Greece, “standing firm in one spirit, striving side by side with one mind for the faith of the gospel,” Paul wrote to the church in Galatia in Asia Minor “You have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, bond nor free, male nor female; you are all one in Christ Jesus.”  (3:28)

No more dominance hierarchy, no more of Thorlief’s chicken pecking order. All share equally in God’s unconditional and eternal love. All share equally in the forgiveness of sin through Jesus’ death on the cross. All share equally in his new and eternal life. All share equally in the gift of the Holy Spirit of truth and power.

Our task as a church, our task as Christian people in all of our relationships, is to live as much as we can in this new paradigm of love. In this world the chickens continue in a pecking order and all creation is bound by a dominance hierarchy, but we are spiritually free from these constraints, free to treat one another as loved and forgiven children of God, as St. Paul says, “standing firm in one spirit, striving side by side with one mind for the faith of the gospel, and in no way intimidated by our opponents.”

Saturday, July 29, 2017

At the end of the age Proper 12A

“So it will be at the end of the age. The angels will come out and separate the evil from the righteous, and throw them into the furnace of fire; there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”  The furnace of fire, the destruction of evil, and the reward of the righteous is Scripture, Scripture we seek to understand, Scripture that reveals to us the will of God.

 So will it be at the end of the age.” The end is coming. In the end, we will face God's judgment on our lives. God's judgment is perfect and filled with love. We are assured of our eternal salvation. In the burial office we pray, “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of the living God, we pray thee to set thy passion, cross, and death, between thy judgment and our souls, now and in the hour of our death. Give mercy and grace to the living, pardon and rest to the dead, to thy holy Church peace and concord, and to us sinners everlasting life and glory ...” (Prayer Book page 489)

St. Paul reminds us we are saved by God's gracious gift received in faith and not by our works. God has chosen to save all humanity by the death of his son, our Lord Jesus, on the cross, and God has chosen to give us new life in Jesus' resurrection. He has chosen us, called us, justified us - made us right with him - and he glorifies us in his love and service.. In words familiar from their use in the burial office, today's Epistle proclaims that nothing in all creation will be able to separate us from the love of God in Jesus Christ our Lord.

That said, and it needs to be said, we also cannot forget that the perfect justice of God requires that both good and evil be clearly identified, that good be rewarded and evil destroyed forever. In this life good and evil are so mixed together that we can easily be confused about particular thoughts and actions of life. In very few situations can good be easily or clearly distinguished from evil. But neither the difficulty of the task, nor the assurance of eternal salvation, removes from us the responsibility to exercise godly wisdom and good judgment.

Today's Gospel has 5 parables of Jesus, all about wisdom and judgment. The first two stories are told to the crowd. They are about the growth of the kingdom, growth that reminds us of the greatness of the love of God.  “The kingdom of heaven is like a grain of mustard seed . . . the smallest of all seeds.” Every part of God's creation, and every person God has made and loves, is worth our careful attention and respect.  “The kingdom of heaven is like yeast...” Yeast makes dough rise and double in size and double again. God gives us the Holy Spirit, his spirit of truth, his spirit of power, so that we may be like yeast in the world, turning flat dough into nourishing bread. 

Then in St. Matthew’s gospel follows the explanation to the disciples of the parable of the grain and the weeds that we heard last Sunday, and then three parables about the wisdom of single minded attention to God's will.

“The kingdom of heaven is like treasure . . . someone sells all that he has and buys the field.” The merchant found “one pearl of great value,. . . sold all that he had and bought it.” We can so easily be scattered in mind, conflicted in our various roles and responsibilities. The Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard wrote, “Purity of heart is to will one thing.” When our priority is to do the will of God, the other responsibilities and pleasures take their proper place.

“The kingdom of heaven is like a net that caught fish of every kind. . . they put the good into baskets but threw out the bad.”  When I was a boy I’d go deep sea fishing with my father. We'd catch rockfish or sea bass or mackerel or flounder, and sometimes sea robins or blowfish or other inedible “trash fish.” We'd keep the good fish and throw the trash away. I was a kid, I didn't know the difference, but better fishermen knew, and knew what to do.  They had good judgment, judgment based on knowledge and experience.

We are all called to exercise good judgment, judgment based on our knowledge and experience of the will of God. Good judgment is not easy. Our capacity for self-deception is as wide and deep as the ocean. There are no easy answers, no quick algorithms that allow us to plug in the data and generate an answer that is always correct.  But we can rely on the guidance of the Holy Spirit of truth and power, and when we fail, we trust in the never failing love of God in Jesus Christ. Thanks be to God!

 “So it will be at the end of the age. The angels will separate the evil from the righteous, and throw them into the furnace of fire; where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”

Saturday, July 22, 2017

The Sower and Hope

Proper 10A July 16, 2017
        We live in hope.  Today we pray that we “may know and understand” what we “ought to do, and also may have grace and power faithfully to accomplish” God’s will in our own lives.  The prophet Isaiah tells us that God’s word “shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and succeed in the thing for which I sent it.” St. Paul  tells us “here is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” And we hear both Jesus’ Parable of the Sower and the explanation of that parable. 

        The Parable of the Sower is explained as a parable of soils – the hard-packed road, rocky ground, thorns, and finally good soil that bears much fruit.  A friend has a compost pile; we put in garbage and she gets out good black dirt for her garden. 

Our lives include all the kinds of soil. Parts of our lives are as spiritually hard as a well trodden dirt path in a drought; parts of us are full of rocks; much of us is prickly with thorns. But in every one of us there is the potential of good soil bearing fruit.  None of us are naturally good soil, but by God’s grace working in us we can become so. Our spiritual task is to increase the good soil in our lives, digging out the rocks and thorns, breaking up the clods, softening the ground with the water of tears of repentance, digging in the compost and digging out the weeds with the hoe of faith and good works.

When we are honest with ourselves all of us know from personal experience that we “have all sinned and come short of the glory of God.”  Despair is always an option. We can look at our own lives and see our missed opportunities, see how our misbehavior has influenced our present situation. We can look around us to what appears to be increasing political conflict and nasty behavior. It is sometimes hard to hold on to the conviction that those with whom we disagree are simply wrong, but they are not evil. The temptation of pride is strong - to think that we are moral and they are immoral degenerates. That temptation is a false one. We are all sinners saved by grace. 

The good news that by his death and resurrection Jesus has set us free from the need to sin and given us a new life. And St. Paul rejoices, “there is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.” He ends, “he who raised Christ from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies also through his Spirit that dwells in you.”

        An alternative to despair in our personal and political lives is hope. Isaiah wrote that God’s word “shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and succeed in the thing for which I sent it.” We know from St. John’s Gospel, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. . . . All things were made by him; and without him was not any thing made that was made. In him was life; and the life was the light of men.And the light shined in darkness; and the darkness comprehended it not.” The darkness of despair does not understand light, does not understand hope, and the darkness cannot cover the light, can never put out the light.

        Jesus did not return empty to the father. He returned with the only man made things in heaven, the marks of the nails in his hands and feet, the wound of the spear in his side, but the hands and the feet and the wound were healed wounds. And at Pentecost Jesus sent his Holy Spirit to all who have faith in him. He is the spirit of truth and the spirit of power.   

        This morning we pray that we “may know and understand” what we “ought to do, and also may have grace and power faithfully to accomplish” God’s will in our own lives.  We have the assurance of guidance and power in the Holy Spirit. We can live in hope.

        So what do we do?  We pray, opening all our lives to God and asking the guidance and power of the Holy Spirit. And we listen. We listen to God the Spirit working in our minds and in others who know and love us. We read the Bible and seek to learn God’s will there revealed. We confess our sins to God and we receive the spiritual strength of the sacraments. And having done all, we stand. We stand up straight in faith, in trust, and in hope. 

        A sower went out to sow. And as he sowed, some seeds . . . fell on good soil and brought forth grain, some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty. Let anyone with ears listen!” 

Wheat and Tares

Proper 11 July 23, 2017 

The slaves said to him, ‘Then do you want us to go and gather them?’ But he replied, ‘No; for in gathering the weeds you would uproot the wheat along with them. Let both of them grow together until the harvest;  so will it be at the end of the age. The Son of Man will send his angels, and they will collect out of his kingdom all causes of sin and all evildoers . .”

We are again blessed with both Jesus’ parable to the crowd on the beach and with the explanation to the disciples. Jesus discourages hasty judgment and too quick action against evil. And St. Paul encouraged the church in Rome to “wait … with patience . . . while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies.” 

Church leaders and leaders in all areas tend to get in trouble over misuse of power, and sex, and money. When wrong is done we need to act. But today’s gospel reminds to act with care.  Today’s collect reminds us that we are too often unworthy and blind – or at least short-sighted. Church history has many examples of action taken without due care for all concerned.

This year marks the 500th anniversary of the beginning of the Protestant Reformation. The Reformation had many causes, but the precipitating event was a protest against misuse of spiritual power, a misuse related to money,  Martin Luther’s 95 Theses begins, “When our Lord and Master Jesus Christ said, ``Repent'' (Mt 4:17), he willed the entire life of believers to be one of repentance.” Luther goes on to attack the whole penitential system of the late medieval western church.

That system was based on the two ideas of Purgatory and “the Treasury of Merit.”  Purgatory comes from the truth that none of us is worthy by our own behavior to stand before the God to whom “all hearts are open, all desires known, and from whom no secrets are hid.” From that experiential appreciation of our natural unworthiness came the idea of an intermediate state between death and the fullness of the glory of heaven in which the souls of the departed were purified until they were ready for heaven. But the idea of purgatory is hard to reconcile with the New Testament, particularly with the radical teaching of St. Paul in Romans, “For all who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God. For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received a spirit of adoption. When we cry, “Abba! Father!” it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ-- if, in fact, we suffer with him so that we may also be glorified with him.”

The “treasury of merit” is the idea that the saints have done “acts of supererogation,” good works beyond their duty to God, and that these acts somehow add to the sacrifice of Christ on the cross for our redemption, and that the church can draw on these acts for the benefit of souls in purgatory.

We all draw on the merits of Christ Jesus for our salvation, but Paul’s teaching that “all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God” denies that anyone but Christ Jesus can add to the “treasury of merit.”

That said, in the late 1400’s the popes centralized the authority to draw on the “Treasury of Merit” and issued documents of indulgences remitting the penalties of purgatory. In the early 1500’s financial contributions or payments in thanksgiving for these indulgences helped rebuild St. Peter’s church in Rome. Archbishop Albert in Germany promoted this project heavily, and Luther wrote in response to Albert’s efforts. From our perspective this was another misuse of spiritual power for money.

Other conflicts used the Reformation to stir up the people, but a result was 130 years of war that devastated much of central Europe and bitter division in the Christian church that we are only slowly beginning to heal.

That’s one historical example. There are lots of others. Today’s gospel reminds us to act with care.  Today’s collect reminds us that we are too often unworthy and blind – or at least short-sighted. We need to be very careful when we act to be sure we act with due care for all concerned.

 Almighty God, the fountain of all wisdom, you know our necessities before we ask and our ignorance in asking: Have compassion on our weakness, and mercifully give us those things which for our unworthiness we dare not, and for our blindness we cannot ask; through the worthiness of your Son Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.