Sermon – October 5, 2014

Proper Credentials

If you have ever been in my office, you would notice that on one part of the wall I have all my sheepskin. I have my undergraduate diploma from the University of Minnesota and I’ve got my Master’s of Divinity degree from the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago. I have my commission as an Army officer, and I have my discharge papers from the military. I have my call to this church framed and hanging on the wall. I have my Rotary plaque and some other stuff from Habitat for Humanity and the Exchange Club up just for good measure. These, after all, are my credentials. If you walk into my office while you can see that I’m a very important person.

On the other side of that same wall I have a collection of crosses, crosses that were given to me by well-wishers and people from my hometown in North Dakota when I graduated from seminary. There is a cross from the church that my great-grandfather built along the Grand River in North Dakota. There is cross brought by a friend from the Vatican. Some from various retreat sites and venues that some of you have gone to and brought me. Crosses representing various events in my ministry. Crosses in contrast to my sheepskin. Symbols of my faith, artifacts that represent the crucifixion. The chief symbol among believers of whom it is we serve.

Each time any of us confront those two worlds, those two realities, the consciousness of our own accomplishments and the risk, then of our own self-justification, and the gift of our righteousness before God in Christ we are challenged to stay clear about our centers.

The credentials of the followers of Jesus are the mark of the cross made on our foreheads in baptism as God’s Holy Spirit filled us, prepared for us a bed for faith, and claimed us forever as God’s child. And sometimes when I’m sitting at my desk, I am starkly reminded of the difference between my credentials, my bona fides, and the only thing that matters.

St. Paul presents a far more impressive resume today in his letter to the Philippian church. One who is unambiguously righteous under the law, whose pedigree is indisputable. He was of the tribe of Benjamin, circumcised on the eighth day. A Hebrew’s Hebrew who’s learning, actions, and zeal for the faith earned him the reputation and title as a Pharisee. The Pharisees were chief among those who saw as their responsibility to steward and protect the law. He was one who had recognized and acted upon his call. And he would be one regarded by his peers and the greater community as having succeeded, and succeeded quite nicely, in his role. Moreover, he had in his mind confidently achieved the righteousness of his own by the keeping of the law. Paul did well.

The first thing that came to my mind when I read this was the account of Paul’s zeal in the book of Acts. Paul in action. Paul’s convictions and credentials took him down a path of resistance against this innovation that the followers of Jesus embraced, and it was aggressive and sometimes violent. He was pretty good at his job, so he was approved for a mission to Damascus to round up any men and women who belonged to The Way, as the church was described. On the way, he encounters the risen Christ and his path is turned. He did indeed make it to Damascus, but not to continue his work against the church, but to be commissioned to bring the gospel to his own people and beyond his own lands.

While we remember the dramatic account of Saul’s conversion on the road to Damascus, here in his own words Paul articulates his conversion, his new life, his freedom. Paul dismisses the accolades to his former credentials with words in the Greek that could only be described as scatological. He does so, because what Saul encountered on the road to Damascus was the unbound, radical loving grace of God. Here, Paul bears witness to the change that the persistent forgiveness of Jesus can bring. It wasn’t his indisputable credentials that brought him onto this path. It was grace. It is rich irony that nearly everything the church has to say about our justification before God, our righteousness before God is in the Pauline language of justification by grace through faith in Jesus Christ.

I wondered as I read this whether Paul, as he heard the reports of Jesus’ ministry, ever encountered the parable that we read today. If so, surely he would have recognized this as a pointed family feud, a heated exchange common in the family and surprising to the outside observer. . . and he might have seen at the heart of it. . . . . a crazy landlord so desperate to be in relationship with these tenants that he will do anything, risk anything, to reach out of them. This landowner acts more like a desperate parent, willing to do or say or try anything to recover a beloved and wayward child than he does a businessman. It’s the kind of crazy that comes from being in love, as preaching professor David Lose observes. Paul’s response, had he heard this, would no doubt have tended to the resolution the parable seeks which is to establish Jesus as the cornerstone of our lives. He would have noted that the condemnation came not from Jesus, but from Jesus’ opponents. And he would have borne witness to a different question, not what will the Landlord do, but what he did, and that his to send his Son, even to raise him again, to come back to us again, again and again for our healing, for our hope, for our restoration. Paul’s life bears personal witness to this truth. And, Paul would have understood and lifted up the common metaphor of Israel as God’s beloved vineyard, a God finally revealed as merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love. And his experience of grace would tell him that God does not abandon God’s vineyard.

I think if we look back at those times when we really mess up, when we have put everything at risk, we discover that we may have replaced the cornerstone, undermined the foundation of that particular relationship. We can boil just about everything down to one thing on which they hinge, can’t we. In marriage, it’s commitment, in friendship it is trust, in the church it is faithfulness. And if that is undermined, if that cornerstone, is replaced with another stone, then the whole structure is jeopardized, the entire relationship can dissolve, no matter how long it has been maintained.

For believers, our cornerstone has always got to be Jesus Christ. Always must be the one whom God sent and established as the foundation for God’s kingdom, as the foundation of our faith. We are fond of making that claim as a church, but often we deceive ourselves. Too often we are satisfied with the bona fides of the world, confirmed in wealth and titles and attributed to a God who rewards the diligent. Here we replace the cornerstone of the cross with the cornerstone of the dollar bill and the earned credentials. What is happening there is we are hiding our own purposes behind the guise of Christ. In spite of that, God will persist with us. We can mess that up, break our own promises, but once the promise of God is made, God will not break it.

Here is the good news in this parable and Paul would have understood that. Despite the betrayal by the tenants, God did not tear up the vineyard. God did not break God’s covenant. Instead he came and comes again and again, seeking to change, forgive, renew.

That’s not to say that the cornerstone did not change. The intention of God was revealed in a new way with Christ, bearing a new understanding. The good news is that God did not tear up the vineyard, in fact it has flourished and grown.

And it matters. All this could sound like theological posturing and it would be if it didn’t matter. But with faith as the cornerstone of a person’s life, it matters. Listen to what I read once U.S. News and World Report.

What is the best guarantee that an American youth will avoid drugs or crime? “Regular worship attendance turns out to be a better predictor than family structure or income, according to a study by Harvard University.” . . .and, “ Duke University Medical Center found over 30 studies that show a correlation between religious participation and avoidance of crime and substance abuse.” And, regular participation in a church community has positive effects on marriage and mental health.

Of course it’s not the showing up that is fundamental, but what one discovers there. . . the words of hope and grace, the comfort and the power of a community fellowship, the promise and presence of the one upon whom our lives are built, must be built, and the assurance that God does not walk away from the deal God made with humanity.In the church we are often fond of speaking of the economy of God’s kingdom. In that economy, this crazy God does all the giving, takes all the risk and we receive all the benefits. We do not get what we deserve, which would be our undoing, but instead, through Christ, we receive God’s gracious gifts of forgiveness, hope and salvation. Through Christ, the wealth of the kingdom is the relationship of hope and certainty that we have in God. And it is in this gracious economy where our true lives are held and it has nothing at all to do with our credentials, but only to the assertive love of a persistent God, for our credentials are established not on sheepskin but on a cross.

It matters that Christ is the cornerstone in our lives. It strengthens us. It protects us. If this relationship is sound, then all those other relationships where we mess up can be shored up, reconstituted and forgiven.

Because the cornerstone has made it so. Because God will not abandon his vineyard.

Thanks be to God.