Monday, September 26, 2011


15th Sunday after Pentecost                                      September 25, A+D 2011
Matthew 21:23-27, Philippians 2:1-18

On such a happy day as the annual German Meal, we might prefer to consider uplifting subjects, perhaps faith, or hope, or love.  But our readings drive us to humility.  The Lord lifts up the humble.  Christ Jesus humbled Himself, making Himself nothing.  And Paul tells us to have the mind of Christ, that is Paul tells us to be humble.  We prefer to talk about faith, hope and love, but humility is the first necessary trait for Christians, because humble is what we truly are, and even more because, humility is essential to Jesus, to His identity, to His work, to His life. 

Jesus didn’t need to be humble.  He knew it wasn’t robbery, that it wasn’t improper for Him to declare Himself equal with God, because He was.  And is.  All glory, laud and honor, to the Man, Jesus.  And Jesus did affirm His Godly authority, various times, including the many “I AM” statements of the Gospels, which led the Jews to want to stone Him for blasphemy, for applying God’s personal Name to Himself.  Jesus also showed His Godly power over the creation through many miracles, and accepted the praise and worship of people around Him, who through these miracles recognized He was the Lord God come down from heaven.  For Jesus to present Himself as God was no robbery, no proud theft of Godly status.  He is God. 

But He is very selective in revealing this truth, often demurring, as in His debate with the Chief Priests and Elders this morning.  Any student of the Old Testament prophecies of the Christ knows who Jesus has to be, unless all His work and ministry were fraudulent, unless all those clean-skinned lepers and suddenly walking cripples had been faking it all along.  Who else but God could perform miracles.  Who else but God could know the hidden thoughts and feelings in the  hearts of men?  Who else but God could preach with perfect authority?  But the Chief Priests and Elders refuse to acknowledge Jesus, instead trying to trap Him in His words.  So, for a moment at least, Jesus is more cagey than humble. 

The setting is the first Holy Week, just days before Good Friday.  Jesus has accepted the praises of the crowds at His Palm Sunday entrance to Jerusalem, and has driven the moneychangers out of the Temple.  The Chief Priests and Elders want to know where Jesus gets off doing these things, who He thinks He is, where His authority comes from, hoping that Jesus will proudly and publicly claim His authority from God the Father, and so give them a clear reason to arrest Him. 

But it wasn’t quite time for that, so Jesus turns the tables.  “Tell you what,” He says, “You fellas tell me where John the Baptist got his authority to preach and baptize, and then I’ll tell you where I get mine.”  The Priests and Elders don’t want to give John credit for being a real, called-by-God prophet, but they are also afraid to deny this, because the crowds love the martyred John, and might riot if the Priests and Elders were to deny his call was from God.  So they punt, replying, “We don’t know,” and Jesus in turn declines to answer.  Pretty clever, pretty cagey on the part of our Lord, not prideful, yet not exactly humble.  But, in the many times Jesus through His words and actions did make clear His divine authority and power, He always did so in a humble way. 

His great miracles were never in service of Himself, but always for others.  His words glorified His Father in heaven, not Jesus of Nazareth.  His efforts were always toward revealing truth, not winning popularity contests.   Jesus humbled Himself, constantly, and so, as the Christ is humble, so also Christians are humble.  Humility is a necessary character trait for those who follow Jesus. 

But humility is a problem for you, isn’t it?  It is for me.  As Trinity congregation collectively tries to put her best foot forward today, serving the community with food and fleischkuechle and friendliness, we are particularly tempted to reject humility, because our brats are outstanding.  But it’s not just today, being humble is a constant problem for all of us, every day.  Now, we stick in the mud liturgical Lutherans should be ahead of the game a bit, since we quite regularly confess our sinfulness and need for salvation in crystal clear words of humility: I a poor miserable sinner, confess unto You…  We have sinned against You in thought, word and deed, … and we justly deserve Your temporal and eternal punishment.  Pretty humble words.  And it is a wonderful thing that we regularly confess our sins and our sinfulness this way, since we are sinners.  Most of all, it is wonderful to confess our sins because God is gracious to forgive our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.  Still, humility comes hard, especially today, living as we do in a proudly self-infatuated world.  

Humility has never been popular, but I think never more unpopular than in 21st century America.  The vast majority of the proclamation you and I hear day after day comes from voices that consider humility a temporary crutch at best, needed only when you’ve messed up big time.  A humble face is needed only to smooth over your embarrassments until you’re ready to seize the moment and scramble to the top of the heap again.  Think of Tiger Woods.  For a decade he appeared to be the perfect combination of skill, determination and pride, dominating his chosen field like no one ever had, his disdain for the mere humans he competed with always seeming to be just below the surface.  Millions of people became sports fans of a game that’s hardly a sport, not because golf changed, but because Tiger’s proud domination captivated us, we loved to watch him. 

Then came the revelation of the other Tiger, undisciplined, hurtful, perverse.  Pride feeds on adulation and fear, both of which Tiger’s fall destroyed, so he checked himself into the Celebrity Recovery Program, complete with the somber news conference, the biting of the lower lip, the display of public humility.  Maybe Tiger’s humble show was real.  But typically, such staged public humility doesn’t last, but in truth is just a necessary step in a plan to get back on top, to be number one again, proud and victorious. 

You and I may, or may not have as frightening a set of weaknesses as Tiger or other big celebrities, but we tend to handle sin and especially public embarrassment for sin in the same way.  Humility is not popular.  We don’t like it, and the culture doesn’t embrace it, because it doesn’t sell.  Nobody’s buying it, nobody really wants it.  We like to be proud.  We are encouraged to take pride in ourselves, self-esteem being a regular subject in school these days, alongside reading, math and science.  And we professing Christians especially like it when our religion puffs us up.  The most popular preacher in America, based on Sunday attendance and television ratings, is arguably Joel Osteen.  I seriously do not recommend you ever listen to his false teaching, but if you do, you will not hear a message that points out your sin and smallness.  No, Osteen’s goal is to build you up, to make you believe in yourself, so that you will feel good and achieve great things, maybe even achieve your best life now, a life you can be proud of.   Such faith in yourself may make you a better person in this life, but it will not make you a Christian.  For Christians believe in Jesus, for this life, of course, but especially with an eye toward the best life still to come, with God in heaven. 

It’s not just Joel Osteen of course.  We quite naturally prefer to feed our spirits with anything but God’s truth.  This is the primary reason that churches where God’s Law and Gospel are rightly preached aren’t always very popular. 

There are dozens of ways for you and I to feed our prideful spirits.  We could devote most weekends to sports, whether your kids’ sports, or your hunting, or the NFL.  We could devote ourselves to building up a business or fixing up a home, seven days a week, there’s always more work to do.  Someone might even devote his pastoral ministry to winning a numbers contest, reaching out in order to feed the ego, instead of to save sinners.  The first step in this last plan is to get rid of all that harsh sin and crucifixion talk, which isn’t very seeker friendly.       

If we pursue these things, if we make self-fulfillment our religion, we will probably feel pretty good, most of the time, for a while at least.  There’s just one problem: you and I and our loved ones will not find forgiveness in a sports arena, or in a successful business, not in a beautiful home, nor even in a glowing church statistical report.  When guilt and sin and failure conspire to burst our bubbles, neither the Minnesota Vikings nor the most impressive church attendance growth stats in town have the authority to forgive our sins.

Repent.  You don’t need to repent of having fun.  You don’t need to repent of trying hard to do well in life.  But do repent of making a false god out of your life and your achievements and your pleasure, because that’s a dead end.  Literally, a proud life spent seeking the self is a dead end, not just a coffin and a hearse in a few years or decades, but rather an eternal existence spent apart from God and every good thing.  For God is the source of every good thing, even the good things we tend to make into idols.  That is the greatest irony, that we take good gifts from God and turn them into idols, false gods which cut us off from the true God, both today and forever. 

Repent, and have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, and did not consider it robbery to be equal with God, nevertheless made himself nothing, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men.  And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.  Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name,  so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ, Jesus Christ, the crucified and resurrected one, is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.

He humbled Himself, that your sins be forgiven.  And they are!  Believe in Him.  He humbled Himself, that you might share His good Name.  And you do, because He put His Name on you in your Baptism.  You have been called through Water and the Word into the family of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, called into God’s family through Christ.  This is why you are called Christians, Christians who are to be proud of this: that Jesus has humbled Himself, for you, to remove your guilt and your sin.  Jesus humbled Himself, so that He can one day lift you up to where He is right now, at God’s right hand in glory.  Your humble Savior is there, right now, preparing a place for you.  Be proud of Jesus, and rejoice in His humility, Amen. 

Monday, September 19, 2011

Getting to Work

14th Sunday after Pentecost, September 18th, A+D 2011
Matthew 20:1-16

     The kingdom of heaven is like a master of a house who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard.

     It’s great to have a group of people motivated to do a job.  In college a friend came back to the University of Idaho after finishing the Marine Officer Basic Course, and he stated emphatically that with a platoon full of Marine 2nd Lt.’s, he would take on the world.  At the time I mostly thought he was slamming the Army, whose 2nd Lt’s are not nearly as impressive, but over the years I have come to realize that this truth applies to many different motivated groups of workers.  It doesn’t take a bunch of strong young jarheads to accomplish things, just people who understand the work in front of them and are willing to work together to git’r done. 

     Like the ladies at St. John and the annual Yard Sale, where mountains of junk, I mean treasures, were turned into $1,600 for missions, in the space of a weekend, the mess all cleaned up and everything put back in place by Sunday morning.  Or consider Trinity’s German Meal, an event where men and women actually work together in a kitchen, with knives, and have fun, and provide a great meal to the community, all the while raising thousands for missions and charities.  Or we could talk about last Monday night at Trinity’s  Board of Directors meeting, where I, with no prior warning, announced that we needed to move all the stuff they had already moved from the wet places in the basement when the groundwater started coming in.  All of it needed to be moved again so Arnie Thiel from Johnson’s could come in and lay carpeting.  Seven men, a clear objective, short work, it was the best part of the meeting, working together to get a job done. 

     And then we have our parable today.  God has a vineyard, and He is looking for workers.  It’s very tempting for pastors to use this as a motivational text, to try to get people to do this thing or that thing for the Church.  This is particularly tempting for me today, since I have recently begun talking, to some congregational leaders, and now to you, about bringing a vicar, a seminary student on internship, to Sidney and Fairview next year.  We are in better shape financially than we have ever been in my time here, and we have received some gifts which we might consider using as part of funding a vicar, who, among other things, could help us expand our outreach to our growing community.  It’s an idea worth considering, and it would be easy to use today’s Gospel as a pre-text to try to guilt you into getting behind the idea, to suggest that Jesus in this parable is telling you to open your wallets, to do your part, so God will be able to accomplish His mission.  Doesn’t God need us to be committed if He is going to accomplish His mission?  Doesn’t the future of the kingdom depend on you, and me, on all of us, doing good work? Isn’t that what Jesus is telling us today?  

     Well, no.  That’s not what our Gospel reading is about, and that is not how the Church really works.  God does want workers, and there is work for all of us to do.  But to suggest that the growth of God’s Church depends on our efforts is false, a dangerous lie that can lead us astray from the way of Christ.  So, before I begin to encourage you toward the idea of bringing a vicar here next year, let’s first understand this parable rightly.  And the first thing to notice in this parable is the Master, who doesn’t seem too concerned about how much His employees are going to accomplish.  He seeks laborers throughout the day, even at the 11th hour, 5 or 6 p.m., just before quitting time.  The Master then pays these late hires as if they are just as valuable as the 1st hour workers, who toiled for 12 hours in the heat of the day.  

     There is very different from how you and I understand normal business-employee relations.  Which makes sense, because this parable is about the Kingdom of Heaven, not life in this world; why would we expect things to be the same?  God’s thoughts are not our thoughts, His ways are not our ways.  There are lots of differences, like how the businesses we know spend tremendous time, energy and money trying to find good workers.  In the kingdom of heaven, the quality of the workers being hired is not decisive, or even important, apparently.  From eager early-birds to late day slackers, the Master makes the same agreement with all of them.  And in fact, this agreement is the key part of this parable; the actual work to be done in the vineyard is never actually discussed.  The key thing in this parable is not the tasks the workers will complete, but rather the agreement that the Master makes with them. 

     Literally, when the Master and the workers agree on what is right, they ‘symphony’ about what is just, or righteous.  To symphony is to sound together, that is the Master and the workers sound together, saying the same thing, about what is just and righteous, and then the workers are sent into the vineyard.  What does Jesus mean?  He means that God seeks out people and speaks the truth to them, about righteousness, about how all us sinners completely lack righteousness, but how God in love has given His Son Jesus, the Christ, to be our righteousness, so that God could bring us into His vineyard.  God speaks this message, and the workers repeat it, sounding together this most important truth about righteousness.  Only after this symphony by God and sinner are workers then sent into the vineyard, because entering the vineyard means first you have been saved, and we are saved by grace, through faith, faith which comes by hearing the Word of Christ, faith which leads to confession.  For if you confess with your mouth, ‘Jesus is Lord,’ and believe in your heart that God raised Him from the dead, you shall be saved; you will live in God’s kingdom, forever.  The Master’s symphony is the Good News of forgiveness and new life, given in Jesus Christ.   
     But what about the work in the kingdom?  Aren’t there still things to do?  Oh yes.  And you are rightly moved by the generosity of the Master.  You want to do something, a Godly desire to contribute to the work of the vineyard is stirring in your heart.  Good.  There is plenty to be done.  We just need to be careful not to construct a false idea about what it means to work in the vineyard.  All Christians have tasks God puts before them that serve the advance of His Kingdom, but our accomplishment of these tasks is never the main thing, and never something we should be building our faith on.  As Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 3, I planted, Apollos watered, but God was causing the growth.  So then neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but God who causes the growth.  Not even the Apostles took credit for accomplishing things in the Church.  And so also Paul says in Philippians 2, work out your salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who is at work in you.  Fear and tremble, because Almighty God has taken up residence in you, to cause you both to will and to work for His good pleasure.  Because God is the source of every good thing, and especially because we remain sinners in this lifetime, even after we are brought to faith, all the credit and glory for the kingdom work in which we are honored to participate, goes to God.  God is the one both giving us faith and the will to then live out our faith in good works. 

     One of the joys of working together for a common goal is the pleasure of conversation while you work, greeting the guests at the German Meal, chatting amongst the ladies at the yard sale, talking while hauling racks and boxes at last week’s BOD meeting.  When the work is progressing well, conversation amongst the workers is a great bonus.  And what do you suppose the workers in the Vineyard talk about?  To stay within the metaphor of the parable, there is work to do, grapes to be picked, wine to bottled, and so on.  But what do you suppose they talk about while they work?  In God’s vineyard, the workers talk about the Master and His symphony. 

     The best thing about being a worker in the vineyard is the agreement, the symphony, that the Master has written.  For He is most generous.  The Master Himself seeks and finds each one, telling them about His just agreement, about how He wanted to bring them into His vineyard, even though they didn’t have anything worthy to offer from their side.  Despite their sin, despite their unworthiness, the Master brought them into His vineyard. 

     Some of the workers, sadly, grumble, workers who, through the course of many hours in the vineyard, forget how good a deal for sinners God’s symphony truly is.  These workers begin to imagine that they have somehow earned the right to belong to the Master’s company, even the right to receive special honor and recognition, extra pay.  They are reminded by the Master that He has the righteous power to be as generous as He wishes, which is not to their loss, for He has given them a just wage, everything they need, far more than they deserve.  And so we learn that many who are first will be last, and the last first. 

     And here our reading ends.  Which is too bad, because maybe you are still struggling with all this symphony and just wage talk, maybe the way the Master runs His vineyard still isn’t making sense.  But do not despair; the next couple verses pull it all together.  Listen to what comes next:  And as Jesus was about to go up to Jerusalem, He took the twelve disciples aside by themselves, and on the way He said to them, "Behold, we are going up to Jerusalem; and the Son of Man will be delivered to the chief priests and scribes, and they will condemn Him to death, and will deliver Him to the Gentiles to mock and scourge and crucify Him, and on the third day He will be raised up." 

     Here, at the Cross and Empty Tomb, we understand the first becoming last, the very Son of God becoming the worst of sinners, becoming sin itself, so that, in Him, in His death and resurrection, the last might become first, we sinners might become the righteousness of God.  He received our wages, torture, death and the pains of hell, so that we might receive what He has earned, the favor of God, the glory of heaven, and eternal life in God’s kingdom.  This is the agreement, the symphony, that the Master sings to the sinners He seeks for His kingdom. 

     This is the topic of the workers, and, amidst all the grape picking and wine-bottling, this is also how the real kingdom work gets done, when the people of God declare the justice, the righteousness, the undeserved mercy of God, and through that Word, the Spirit reaches a symphony with yet another sinner.  This is our first task, what we do here, and what by the Spirit of God each of you does in your day to day lives, ready to give the reason for the hope that is in you, ready to tell another sinner about God’s way of hiring workers, which is all by grace, through faith, by the forgiveness of sins, in Jesus’ Name. 

     This is what taking on a vicar next year would be about.  Many people are coming to our area for work, giving us an opportunity to also tell them about God’s vineyard.  To bring in a vicar, a seminary student worker, would be a service in the kingdom, both by giving a future pastor the chance to grow in his ability to talk about the Vineyard owner and His gifts, and also by increasing our voice in our community, all so that the Owner of the Vineyard might speak His grace to more people. 

     Think about it.  Talk about it.  But above all, remember that Jesus has earned your place in the Master’s Vineyard.  Your future is secure, so you can rejoice, and even marvel out loud about His great work, for you, and for all people, Amen. 

Monday, September 12, 2011


Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost, September 11th, A + D 2011
Genesis 50:15-21 and Matthew 18:21-35

(Before the service, I announced that a foster child who had been with my family for a year is no longer with us.)   

     Last Sunday I talked about my resolve to deal straight up with the elephants in the room, that is to not sidestep or ignore difficult issues, but to risk addressing them, trusting God and His Word to pick us up when we fall, and bring us through in faith, to the other side.  God is faithful, He will do it.  And so here we are, a problem right before us, in this specific instance a broken relationship, and not some relationship involving people out there, absent sinners we can objectify and turn into a painless parable, but rather a broken relationship involving me, your pastor, and other people that you know and love, including a child.  Lord have mercy upon us.  

     The details of the broken relationship before us are not for public dissection, which would serve no good purpose, but would do great harm.  Nor, for the most part, do I intend to dissect them privately.  It is what it is, the outward form of the problem speaking loudly and clearly enough.  But there are some painful features that every broken relationship tends to share, realities about life under the cross, as well as the lies of Satan, and these we need to talk about, at least a bit, that God might give us understanding and peace.  Because all of us have at least seen a broken relationship, and most of us have suffered one. 

     To announce my broken relationship to you this morning and then ignore it in the sermon would not be the evangelical thing to do.  That is, it would not be the Gospel, good news thing to do, to inform you of a problem, a struggle, a great sadness, and then fail to apply God’s Word to it.  In the days following the attacks of September 11th, 2001, preachers talked about this terrible, evil tragedy, for the sake of pointing hurting people to Christ.  And so, Lord willing, I will preach about broken relationships today, while there is one publicly before us, preaching so that the Holy Spirit might touch us and heal us, and give us strength for the coming week, as we all go back to our relationships, and try to live them out as Christians.  

     We should, and do, receive our greatest joys from our various relationships.  At the same time, we receive our greatest hurts, for there are, sadly, many damaged and broken relationships in this sinful world, like failures between husbands and wives, that take the joy out of life, and all too often end in divorce.  There are estrangements between parents and children, brothers and sisters, hurts and offenses and struggles to forgive that spoil our relationships with the people we want most to love.  Lifelong friends, business partners, next-door neighbors, politicians and constituents, pastors and parishioners, every human relationship carries the potential for failure, because sinful humans are involved in them.  And all too many of them do fail, at least by human standards. 

     Relationships fail because of human sin, and we all contribute.  Sometimes one party is overwhelmingly responsible.  Sometimes circumstances beyond our control are the determining factor.  But usually we all contribute enough selfishness, impatience, and failures to love and serve so that the responsibility for the problems in a relationship is shared by all involved. 
     Without excusing sin, it is also true that sometimes the right way forward is for a relationship to end, or change drastically.  Such a decision should not be made lightly, because relationships are gifts from God.  But it may be  a prayerful decision that has to be made, when it becomes clear that God is not laying out a path for the relationship to continue.  This is not a license for any of us to divorce our spouse or reject our friend or dump a business partner, just because we find the relationship difficult now, the other person not so pleasing as before.  We are to work at our relationships, seeking reconciliation.  But even after forgiveness wins, sometimes the relationship cannot continue, at least not in the same form as before. 

     The decision about whether to keep a relationship going or let it go is to be based on your original calling to serve your neighbors in relationships.  A decision to end the relationship is rightly made with the good of the other people involved foremost in mind.  For example, the pregnant woman who is unprepared to care for her child, and so gives her baby to be adopted, is loving her child in an amazing way, even though loving her child means not continuing in their original relationship.  She’s doing the right thing, and should feel good about her decision, even though at the very same time it is difficult and painful, the pain multiplied as Satan whispers in her ear, “How could you?”  But God says, and we should echo, “Well done, you have put the good of your baby above your own wants and desires.”  “By placing for adoption, you have loved this child, this neighbor, whom God has given you to serve.”   

     This example of placing a baby for adoption is helpful, because we are reminded that the fact a relationship ends, even due in part or in whole to our sin, does not mean that the relationship did not have value, or that God did not call you to that relationship.  As a Christian, God calls you to serve your neighbors, and places you in relationships, long term and short term, so that you have neighbors to serve.  If you have a relationship which on your part is not intrinsically sinful, if the relationship you are in is not coercive or designed for evil, well then you may know that you have been called to that relationship by God, simply because you find yourself in it, for God has prepared in advance your good works, the ones He wants you to walk in. 

     There is no parent-child relationship formed outside of God’s will, every conception being His work, no coffee breaks for the Almighty, no accidental babies.  There is no neighbor moving in next door to you without God’s foreknowledge.  Likewise, if to pay your bills you have sought and been offered a job at McDonalds, you may be sure that putting on your uniform and serving up tasty fries to your customers is pleasing to God.  Sometimes the good in a calling can be hard to see, but trust that there is good, because the God who calls you is good. 

     This understanding of callings and relationships as gifts from God, given to us so that we may serve our neighbor, is called the doctrine of vocation, the teaching that God calls us into the various roles we play in life, in order that through us, God can serve the world.  A right understanding of vocation sets us free, free to live, in several ways.  First, it is very good to know that God is actively working for the good of His creation, even still today.  Even more, Christians know the God who calls them into earthly relationships is first and foremost the God who called His Son Jesus Christ into the relationship as the Savior of sinners.  Your first call from God is the call to new life in Christ, by the forgiveness of your sins.  You have been saved by grace, through faith, a free gift from God, and so now you are ready to start living out the life of good works for the neighbor which God has prepared for you.  You serve your neighbor in love not to earn God’s favor, but rather your service to your neighbor is the joyful fruit of the incredible good news that God has loved and served you by freely giving Christ, His forgiveness and His life, to you.  Freed in Christ from the need to earn God’s love, you now have Christ’s love to share, with the neighbors that God gives you, in the relationships He prepares for you. 

     This primary relationship with the Lord is what kept Joseph going, all those years.  His relationship with his brothers was all messed up, Joseph the slightly arrogant favored son never failing to irritate his brothers with his privileges, his special coat of many colors, his strange dreams, ten of his brothers eventually plotting to kill Joseph, stopping just short, selling Joseph into slavery instead.  Joseph, a slave in Egypt, sank lower and lower, became weaker and weaker.  But Joseph’s faith in the God of Abraham, Isaac and his father Jacob never died, and in that faith he was always receiving new opportunities for relationship, new neighbors to serve, and serve well.  Joseph understood these opportunities were gifts from the Lord, and so he served.  Even as a slave, he served. 

     Eventually, Joseph’s excellent service to his neighbors paid off, and he was made second in command to the Pharaoh.  But when his own brothers come to him to beg for food during a famine, Joseph struggled with the desire for revenge.  But God led him to forgive his brothers, and bring his whole family to live securely in Egypt, broken relationships restored. 

     Then comes today’s reading from Genesis, years later, when Jacob their father had died.  We should understand Joseph’s brothers, for we know how hard it is to believe you are truly forgiven, that your offense is truly forgotten, especially when you’ve done something really bad to someone who now has the power to pay you back.  This doubt led Joseph’s brothers to fear revenge from Joseph after their father Jacob had died.  Perhaps now with Dad gone, Joseph would make them pay for their earlier sin.  So they made up a story to try to protect themselves.  

     But there was no need, for Joseph had no real power to take revenge.  Joseph had plenty of earthly power, but as a believer in the God of all grace, he had gladly given up all his power to avenge himself, and out of his faith in the Lord he forgave his brothers.  Joseph knew the sin that was in him, and in his brothers, but by God’s grace He also knew that the Lord could and would overcome the sinful acts of humanity, even working through the consequences of evil for the eventual good of His people.  The terrible things done between the sons of Jacob were truly evil, but what they had meant for evil, God meant, and God used, to bring about good.  Joseph knew the character and the promises of the true God, who overcame the evil of the brothers, in order to provide for all the family.  This same God has overcome the evil of every brother, indeed every person on earth, by the redemption that is in Christ Jesus.
     God made Joseph weak, in order to work strong things through him, for the good of God’s people, and for the good of the whole world.  That’s how God works through relationships.  We in our sinfulness want to use people to make ourselves happier, stronger, richer, more popular.  We are even taught that struggles are opportunities to improve yourself, that what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.  But in relationships, God instead teaches Christians to be weak, to serve, to even suffer, so that people can begin to see the character of God through the struggles of Christians in service.  When I am weak, then I am strong, for then God must take over.  When you make a mistake in your relationships, do not seek to power through, do not pretend to be able to overcome sin and its consequences by your own strength.  Instead, when you fail, confess your weakness to God, and your neighbor, and learn to depend on Christ all the more. 

     The way of Christian vocation is the way of seeing your relationships as a calling from God to serve, without a guarantee of happy result in your lifetime.  We all want happiness in our lives, and we are free to seek it, and God often gives us much happiness.  But we serve one another not because we think it’s all going to work out, but rather we serve because Christ has first served us.  There is a loss of control in this, a necessary acknowledgement that the results are not in our hands.  To give up this control is scary, but it is true, and, to our surprise, it is also good news.  For we give up control because God has told us He is in control.  We dare to be weak, because God has exercised His strength from the place of greatest weakness, from a cross outside Jerusalem, where Jesus, God’s Son, was broken.  Jesus was broken, in order to heal your relationship to God, and your relationships with others, by His blood-bought forgiveness for all sin. 

     There is no salvation in our earthly relationships.  Instead, right along with our joys and hopes, also come sin and struggle, because we sinners are involved.  There is no salvation in our earthly relationships, but there is forgiveness for repenting sinners, because Jesus was called to this earth to become the Savior of sinners.  When you struggle, God may call you to keep going, or to move into a different relationship with the same person, perhaps only to pray, or to support from afar.  This is God’s call.  But His first concern is repentance and forgiveness, forgiveness for you, and for your loved one, and for you and your loved one to forgive each other.  The master really did forgive the unpayable debt of the wicked servant.  Joseph really had forgiven his brothers for trying to kill him, and selling him into slavery.  And God has this same unlimited forgiveness for your sins, forgiveness unlimited because it is based in the blood of Christ, God’s Son, who died and rose for you. 

     When you struggle in your relationships, confess your sins, those you know, those you suspect, and those you don’t even recognize.  Confess your sinfulness and ask God’s mercy, for He will forgive you, every time.  Confess your sins, and God will give you forgiveness, forgiveness for you, and forgiveness to share, in the Name of Jesus, Amen.