Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Sermon - Luke 18:9-17 - Pentecost 23

“Two Kinds of People”
Luke 18:9-17

There's an old saying, “There are three kinds of people in the world:  Those that can do basic math, and those that can't.”  (Think about it)

Today Jesus, in our Gospel reading, presents us with two people, and by extension two kinds of people.  And I don't mean “Democrats” and “Republicans”.  There are two kinds of people in the world.  Pharisees and Tax Collectors.  The proud and the humble.  The self-righteous, and those who claim no righteousness of their own.

This Pharisee.  His hubris is almost unbounded.  In his very prayers he expressed how full of himself he is.  “God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector.”
First he begins by claiming superiority not just over the tax collector, but over “other men”, indeed, implying he's far above most (or even all) men.

They are extortioners, but not me.  They are unjust, but not me.  They are adulterers, but not me.  And then there's this lousy tax collector.  I'm sure glad I'm not like HIM.  Everyone else is bad and sinful and worthy of derision.  But not me.  If the pharisee were alive today, surely he'd have chosen a side in politics and convinced himself he was far better than the scum of the earth on the other side.  He would see everyone else's shortcomings, real or imagined, and count himself far better.

Because on the other hand, he brags to God, “I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get” And if you pressed him, he'd probably prattle on and on about all of the other righteous outward deeds and works on his resume.  He'd probably sound a lot like the rich young man who told Jesus, regarding the commandments, “All these I have kept from my youth”

And then there's the tax collector.  “But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!”   First, he stands far off.  As if he's not worthy to be in the presence of other men, certainly more righteous than he.  He further shows his humility, by not even lifting his eyes to heaven as he prays.  Surely if he's not good enough for other men, he has nothing to show before God.  And his sorrow for sin is also shown outwardly in beating he breast, a very demonstrative expression of guilt and shame.  This man is broken.  This man is crushed by the law.  We don't know what his sin is, or maybe they are many.  But he is plagued, vexed, and tormented.  He can only beg God, “have mercy on me, a sinner!”

Could there be a greater contrast between these two?  Outwardly, the pharisee has his act together, and the tax collector is a mess.  Before man, the pharisee is a pillar of the community, and the tax collector is a low-life.  Ask any ancient Jew who you'd rather be:  the pharisee.  Ask them who would inherit the kingdom:  the pharisee.  But not so fast, says Jesus.

This man, the tax collector, went home justified.  For here is the principle:  whoever exalts himself will be humbled.  And whoever humbles himself will be exalted.

These men, who appeared so different, weren't so different at all.  For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.  That means not only tax collectors but pharisees, too.  The main difference between these men was repentance and faith.  The pharisee was living a self-righteous self-delusion.  The tax collector saw the truth with clarity.  Neither man was righteous, of himself.  But only the tax collector who acknowledged his sin went home righteous.  For he fell on the mercy of God, and received that very mercy.

The application is so clear, my friends.  Put away your self-righteous delusions.  Don't think you can impress God with your fasting and tithing, or your church-going and volunteering.  Don't claim you've kept even the least of the commandments.  Don't pretend that you can stand before the withering accusations of the law and hold up for a moment.  God knows your heart.  He sees what's inside.  All the window dressing of good works may impress your fellow man, but God will not be mocked.  Sinful pride has nowhere to hide from the Righteous Judge of all.

Rather come before him in humility.  Own your sin.  Confess it.  Hold nothing back, but lay it out there before him.  “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.  But if we confess our sin...  if we confess our sin.... God who is faithful and just, will forgive our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.”

The same Jesus who cleanses lepers and gives sight to the blind, the same Jesus who casts out demons and heals all manner of disease.  The same Jesus who responds in compassion to so many calls for mercy, even from a poor sinful tax collector  – This Jesus has had mercy upon you.

Jesus so often breaks the expectations of the world, and turns them upside down.  “If you are the Christ, save yourself!”  they mocked.  Ah, but he is the Christ, and his precise plan was not to save himself, but us.  He conquers by his own seeming defeat.  He destroys death by being destroyed.  He takes away sin by becoming sin.  And his cross, where he is shown no mercy -  is precisely how he is merciful to the sinner.

The final section of this reading also contrasts two kinds of people:  children and grown-ups.  Now in Jesus' day children were not idolized as they are in our culture today.  We have gone to the other extreme of placing many children on a golden pedestal, where they can do no wrong.  Some parents very purposely won't even say 'no' to their children.  Some raise them with the assumption that the child will know best how to choose his own values, and we adults should stay out of the way.  And many believe that children are innocent, paragons of virtue born without wicked inclinations.

But in Jesus' day children were often regarded as far less than adults.  Adults were the valuable and productive members of society.  People who have gained the wisdom of life the hard way – by living it.  People who understand and can grasp Jesus' teaching and interact, ask pertinent questions.  Many people, even Jesus' own disciples, couldn't be bothered with children, and didn't imagine Jesus would bother with them either.

But Jesus welcomes children.  He receives them, blesses them, and sets them before the adults as an example – not of good works – but of faith.  “The kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these”  But why?  Not because the children are our future.  Not because they are morally superior.  But because they show us that the kingdom of heaven is passively received.  Jesus commends their faith.

And that faith is the same as the tax collector who had nothing to offer God but his plea for mercy.  These children had no grand life accomplishments.  They had nothing to boast about like the pharisee.  But they were excellent examples of receiving by faith all that the merciful Father gives.  They come to Jesus, and he blesses them, freely by his grace.

Truly, there are two kinds of people in the world.  Not some good and some bad – for all have sinned.  Some repent and some do not.  Some have faith in Christ, and some do not.  Some want to be grown-ups who can do everything themselves.  Some have a childlike faith that receives the gifts from the giver of all good things.  Some think they are something when they are nothing.  And some know they are nothing, but are made something by grace.  Two kinds of people.

Depart in peace.  Children, you have received the kingdom.  Go home justified.  In Jesus Christ our Lord.  Amen.


Monday, October 10, 2016

Semron - Luke 17:11-19 - Pentecost 21

Luke 17:11-19
October 9th, 2016
“Mercy for Lepers”

“Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!”

“Well, friends, first you have to ask me into your heart.”  No...

“Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!”

“You do your part, and I'll do mine.”  No...

“Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!”

“Oh, but what have you done for me lately?”  No...

“Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!”

“Go, show yourselves to the priests”.  In other words, “I'm way ahead of you, fellas.  The healing is already a done deal.  No strings attached.  I have had mercy on you, in fact I'm all about mercy.  No need to pay me for this, you couldn't afford the price anyway.  But receive this gift.  Just go and make it official, now, with the priests.”

So our merciful Lord, in yet another example of his great compassion, heals the 10 lepers.  He saved them, as only he could, from a fate worse than death.  For apart from the physical horrors of leprosy, their disease also made these men ritually unclean.  And even worse than bearing the shame of such a condition, they were cut off from society, friends and family.  The were exiles.  Castaways.  Dead men walking who were not even afforded the comfort of loved ones, as the grave stared them in the face.

But Jesus makes clean the unclean.  He heals the sick.  He brings even the dead back to life.  Leprosy is no match for him.  Nor is the root cause of all earthly suffering and disease.  Christ conquers death, by bearing its wages upon himself.  He goes to the cross!  He carries that cross outside the city.  And there he lays down his life as a ransom for many.  Into his own flesh he takes all that is or ever was unclean, and he casts it, with himself, into the darkness.  He takes it, even to the grave.  But there it stays.  For his part, a resurrection follows – and his body is restored not just to life but to exaltation.  And it is verified, shown not just to a few priests, but to all the witnesses of the resurrection – including at least 500 people on one occasion.

Of course, he does so also for you.  Sure, you may not see outwardly what those lepers did – the rot and stench of sin's consequences.  But surely, sin has left its mark in your life.  As you grow older, and your little box of regrets becomes a closet, and then a storage facility.  As you see the chaos sin unleashes in your relationships – and don't you go thinking it's always the other person's fault!  Sin may not bring leprosy, but it eventually rears its head in our aches and pains, our chronic and acute conditions, disease, and finally death.  You can only live in denial of sin for so long, until the wages of sin come due in the starkest fashion, and it's undeniable.

When you see it, when you know it, confess it, Christian!  Call for help to the only one who can save!  Beg for mercy from the one who is always merciful.  “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!”

And, of course, he does.  He heals.  He restores.  He cleanses.  He even bestows new life.  Although he doesn't always do so outwardly, in the fashion we desire and on the timetable that pleases us.  Even Christians, even the most faithful Christians, still get sick and die.  Christians bear crosses in this life – problems that sometimes have no earthly solution.
None of this means you aren't a Christian.  None of this means God has forgotten you, is angry with you, or is punishing you.

Sometimes all we can do is keep faith and know that God works in all things for the good.  Faith trusts that God knows best.  We walk by faith, and not by sight.  And faith also looks to the horizon, that final day when the dead in Christ rise, and our eternal inheritance is fulfilled.  Then we will see, in our restored flesh, the final “yes” to all God's promises in Christ.

And that prayer of the lepers, the prayer of blind Bartemaus, is the prayer, really, of all Christians - “Lord, have mercy!”  We prayed it already this morning in song, the “Kyrie Eleison”, Greek for “Lord, have mercy!”  It's always an appropriate prayer because it calls on the merciful character of God, and of Christ.  It trusts God to both know and do what is best.  It asks for help, not because we are worthy, but because faith knows that God delights in showing mercy.  So we can pray:  forgive me my sins, Lord have mercy!  Save me from death, Lord have mercy!  Bless the helpless, Lord have mercy!  Comfort the distressed, Lord have mercy!

But there's a second part to this story.  It's not just that these men beg for mercy, and Jesus grants it.  9 of them are, at least outwardly, obedient to his command – they set out immediately to “show the priest” the healing Jesus bestowed.  They are eager to get on with their lives, see their friends and families, perhaps get back to work and life as normal.  And can that be so wrong?

But the one, the one of the 10 returns and falls on his face, to give thanks.  And this one, a Samaritan.  The other 9 we assume were Jews.  But here is the outsider amongst the outsiders. The one who the Jews would expect to set the bad example.  But he alone returned to give proper thanks.

There's a reason that this is the text appointed for our Thanksgiving Day services every year.  This leper, now cleansed, this Samaritan, shows us by his example the pattern we ought to follow:  We see our unclean, wretched state.  We cry to God in Christ for mercy.  We receive the very mercy we need from Christ.  We return to him proper thanks for all his benefits.

Yes, first of all, even in worship.  The leper fell before Christ, that's what the word often translated as “worship” really means – going face down, prostrated.  We humbly, reverently, yet joyfully and thankfully acknowledge, first of all, the gifts and the giver.  This is the pattern laid out in all of scripture, in the Psalms - “let us come before him with thanksgiving” (Ps. 95), “Enter his gates with thanksgiving” (Ps. 100) “Give thanks to the Lord for he is good, and his steadfast love endures forever” (1 Chr. 16:34) and Paul writes, “And whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.” (Col. 3)
A thankful, grateful heart, living in the Christian, is part of the fruits of our faith.  But it doesn't stop with simply saying “thanks” to God.  Faith also expresses its gratitude in love for our neighbor:  That we would show how much we appreciate the mercy of Christ by showing mercy to others.  That we would help as we have been helped, love as we have been loved.  A Christian does these things not to earn or gain what we already have – rather, out of thankfulness we exercise our faith in service to our neighbor.

Truly, we are nothing, and we have nothing apart from Christ.  We are just as bad off as a leper colony.  Separated from God by sin, and careening toward a pitiful death.  But here comes Jesus.  We cry out, “Lord, have mercy!” And he does.  We are made clean by his blood.  May we also return thanks where it is due, not only in word, but also in deed.

So you, too, rise and go.  Give thanks to God.  Your faith in Christ has saved you.

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Sermon - Pentecost 18 - 1 Timothy 2:1-15

Sermon – September 18, 2016
18th Sunday after Pentecost
Hope Lutheran Church, Warren, Michigan
1 Timothy 2:1-15
Hope. In This Place.”

What a blessing and privilege to return here for Hope's 50th anniversary year. I thank you for the invitation, and for your hospitality. Brenda and I lived here in 1997 and 98 when I served as Hope's second vicar. It was a year of great learning for me, in which so many of you showed us great kindness. It's been great to catch up with so many of you. Hope Lutheran Church will always have a special place in our hearts.

Now, 18 years have passed, and much has changed, but much is the same. I see that Hope remains a place in which the Gospel of Jesus Christ is proclaimed in word, and the love of Jesus Christ is shown in deed. Throughout these 50 years this congregation has been blessed, and also been a blessing to many.

With that in mind, I'd like us to focus today on our Epistle reading from 1 Timothy 2. Here you have one of Paul's “pastoral” letters, written to Timothy, a young pastor for whom Paul had lots of helpful instruction and advice. You might say that Timothy was almost like Paul's vicar.

Last week, this series of readings from 1 Timothy began, and Paul talked about his own path to the public ministry – that he was a persecutor, blasphemer and insolent opponent of the Gospel – and yet even as the foremost of sinners or chief of sinners, he was saved by God's grace because Jesus came into the world to do just that – save sinners. And here we see Paul was appointed as an apostle to the gentiles.

Those of us who serve in the Holy Ministry can certainly relate. Each of us brings the baggage of our sins, our personality flaws, all our shortcomings to the office. None of us is Jesus Christ. None of us is even St. Paul. But nonetheless God appoints pastors, calls and ordains pastors, to serve his church, to preach his word, for the good of his people. He works through these imperfect servants to bring you his gifts – His Word of grace, Holy Baptism, and the Sacrament of Christ's body and blood.
So we have the Church and her Ministers – two holy institutions established by God for our benefit. And just as Hope has benefitted from the faithful preaching of faithful preachers these 50 years, so has Hope also served others by training and sending men out to serve in other places in that same ministry.

Just as Paul sent Timothy to be a pastor, and just as the apostles appointed men to preach in various places, churches were established throughout the world as the Gospel went forth from Jerusalem, to Judea, to Samaria and even to the ends of the world.

So too has Hope Lutheran Church, in Warren Michigan had a hand and influence in the preaching of the Gospel throughout the world – and in places near and far, Wisconsin, Texas, and Singapore... and many other places.

Paul writes, that men in every place should pray.... in every place... There is a universality to this Gospel message, its invitation for Jew and Gentile, slave and free, men and women, rich and poor. All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God and are justified freely by his grace in Jesus Christ.

But there is also a particularity to all this, too. You are a certain person, in a certain congregation, in a certain place. A location. With local people as neighbors, that is, those God places near you.

Paul also says here that Jesus is the one mediator between God and man. As a mediator, or a go-between, that means he takes your place before God. He takes the place of sin, the place of punishment, the place of the cross. And he gives you a place you could never have earned, a place prepared for you even in the mansions of Heaven. A place in his kingdom, even in God's own family.

And God sends you, his people, pastors – places them in your midst - to tell you this good news, week in and week out. That even though you sin, though your sins are as scarlet, in Christ they are as white as snow. That in Christ, they are as far away from you as the East is from the West. That in Christ, God remembers your sins no more.

For this we give thanks. For this we lift up holy hands in prayer. Yes, holy hands – hands that have been sanctified by the blood of Christ to pray - “supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings... for all people, for kings and all who are in high positions, that we may lead a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way. This is good, and it is pleasing in the sight of God our Savior”

You are, Christian, a part of something far bigger than yourself. You are, Hope Lutheran Church, a part of something far bigger than just a local congregation. You are part of the body of Christ in the world, and have been these 50 years, and God-willing for many more.

And in this church each of us has differing and varying gifts. In this church, each of us has different and varying callings, tasks, roles. Paul makes it clear here, the office of the ministry is reserved for men. Likewise, the role of childbearing is reserved for women (thank God!)
And it is through this godly calling that God brought salvation into this world – when the Son of God was made man, born of a woman. But there are many callings, vocations, ways to serve in response to His grace.

Some are musically inclined. Others serve the needy. Some give a hug when needed, others make a meal for someone who's lost a loved one.
Members of one body all – the hand and the foot and the eye and the mouth – all need each other. All have a part to play. All have a place.

You see, the church is a communion of saints – a community – placed in relationship with each other, to love and serve one another. And each local congregation is an expression of that. A gathering of believers to first of all hear and receive the gifts of God, but then also to share and reflect his love to one another. To bear one another's burdens. To encourage and strengthen. And to love whatever neighbor God places in our path in whatever way he has equipped us to do it. First of all, to those of the family of faith, but even to all people as we have opportunity.

I've lived in many places now in my years on this earth. Baltimore, New York, St. Louis, Wisconsin, Singapore, even Warren Michigan. Schoenner Ave. and 13 mile road. But whatever place I've been, people are really the same. Sinners all, just as fallen and frail as the next, facing the same grave that awaits us all. But Christians in every place are also the same – faithful people of God who trust in Jesus Christ for salvation. People who appreciate the good news he brings. People like you, at Hope, who know the grace of God in Jesus Christ, and seek to serve him by serving your neighbor. Thanks be to God for these 50 years. And God grant many more, for Hope Lutheran Church, in this place. Amen.

Sunday, September 11, 2016

Sermon - Pentecost 17 - Luke 15:1-10

Sermon – September 11, 2016
17th Sunday after Pentecost
Luke 15
“Savior of the Lost”

24-year-old Welles Crowther was an equities trader at the World Trade Center on September 11th. He helped at least a dozen people get out, and then he went back in with firefighters to save more.  They later recovered his body in a collapsed stairwell.

Ron Bucca, a 29 year army vet who served also 23 years as a firefighter, entered the burning building to help in the rescue, and was last seen on the 78th floor of the second tower.  His remains were later recovered at the site.

Rick Rescorla, a security officer for Morgan Stanley, was responsible for saving more than 2,700 lives.   He sang songs to keep people calm while they evacuated.  He was last seen on the 10th floor of the South Tower, heading upward to look for any stragglers. His body was never found.

Why do these stories of heroism strike us so poignantly?  What is it about the self-sacrificial actions of the hero that lead us to honor them?  Perhaps especially for us as Christians, we see in these stories a picture, a reminder, of the one who left everything behind to save the lost.  They show us in a small way what Jesus Christ has done for us in the grandest way – laying down his life for the sheep.

“What man of you, having a hundred sheep, if he has lost one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the open country, and go after the one that is lost, until he finds it?”

Now, at this time, Jesus was only sacrificing his reputation in order to eat with sinners and tax collectors.  But he would soon give much more for many more at the cross.  Nonetheless, it's an opportune time to teach the Pharisees and us the true purpose for which he came.  He tells these two parables, and later in the same chapter, the parable of the Prodigal Son or the “Lost Son”.  So this chapter of Luke 15 has sometimes been called the “Lost Chapter”.

But are you, truly lost?  The Pharisees didn't think so.  They looked at the prostitutes and tax-collectors and said, “Surely these sinners are lost!  Surely they are outside the pale of salvation!”  And it befuddled them why a great teacher would give these ne'er-do-wells the time of day, let alone the courtesy of table fellowship.  What gives?

And in a way, Jesus agrees with them.  These are the lost!  The parable he tells compares them to the lost sheep who has wandered off.  Or the coin that rolled under the couch.  They are lost in their sins. They've wandered from the path.  They are not where they need to be.  But that is why he came!  Not to confirm the self-righteous in their self-righteousness, but to seek and save the lost!  He's the Savior, after all, and here's for those that need to be saved.  He's the Finder, who comes to find those that are lost.

So the question is, are you lost?

Sometimes, we don't see our lost-ness so clearly.  Sometimes we are like the Pharisees.  And if you don't see your sin, you won't see much need for a Savior.  If you can't admit you're lost without him, then you won't see much need for him to find you.  Because you think you've got it covered. Repentance, what's that?

Isaiah writes, “All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned—every one—to his own way”. And it is just so true.  The “99 righteous persons who need no repentance”  are not really righteous at all, and they do need repentance.  They are even worse off than the prostitutes and tax-collectors. They just don't see it.  Friends, don't let this be you.

Take a good look in the mirror of the law, to see just how lost, how far off course you are.  See all the little gods you make for yourself and bow down to.  See your negligent prayer habits and your too-casual regard for God's holy name and word.  Admit your inclination to rebel against authority, the murderous hatred that lashes out from your heart.  The lusts of the flesh.  The greed and avarice for things.  The way you drag your neighbor's good name through the mud.

We're such pretenders.  We act so often like nothing's wrong.  We've got it together.  We're not lost! Sin is no big deal.  We need to be convicted, called to account.  For only then do we turn from sin, and turn to Christ.

But sometimes, our predicament is clear.  Sometimes the building is burning around us and the smoke is choking us and the exits are blocked and there appears no way out.  And then when the voice of the savior calls out, “this way!” we are eager to hear and follow.  We may know we are lost when our sins are set before us, when they slap us in the face, when they weigh on us like a ton of bricks. Sometimes sins' wages of death stare at you with a cold gaze that makes you wonder if there's any hope at all.

And if this is you, then you need to know Jesus has come to your rescue.  He saves you not from a burning building but from the fires of hell.  He saves not just your life for a little while, but your body and soul forever.  He rescues from sin, death and devil.  He delivers from the very wrath of God. Because he steps in the way of it, takes it into himself at the cross.  And promises you paradise in return.

The Good Shepherd leaves all behind to find the one, the one that is lost.  But the mystery is that we are all lost.  And he comes to find each of us.  His saving work is without limits – for the whole world – and yet it is also very personal.  He seeks out the one, the you, who is lost.  He finds the sheep, but not to give it a beating for wandering off.  He's there in compassion.  And it's not just that he leads you home by example, oh no.  He picks you up, carries you on his shoulders, and takes you back home.

For he picked up his cross, and on it all the guilt and gunk of sin.  All the lostness of all who ever wandered away – he met there on Calvary.  Casting himself, instead, into the darkness of God's wrath, he became lost for you.

Or take the lost coin.  The woman lights a lamp and gets to work – there's no waiting till morning! This is urgent!  She tears apart that house, sweeping and searching, until she finds that coin.  How much more the urgency when God sends his own Son to seek and save us sinners?  He brings the light, he is the light, that shines in this dark world.  So we are not lost in the dark, forgotten in the couch cushions.  We are instead his own prized possession.  Won by his own sweat and tears and even blood.  Paid for with everything he had.

For this, heaven rejoices.  And so do we.  What a thought, that every time a sinner repents, there's a party in heaven!  When you see your sin and turn to Christ in faith.  When you confess and believe in the forgiveness he proclaims.  Even in the Holy Sacrament of the Altar, when Jesus' words invite sinners to come – and your faith says, “Yes, I'm a sinner!  I need you, Jesus!” - and you receive him, his very body and blood.  Heaven rejoices.  Angels do a happy dance.  For your sins are forgiven, and you are no longer lost!

Rejoice this day to repent and be rescued.  Rejoice this day to be lost and yet found.  Don't be like those pharisees, who pretend to have their act together.  Be like the rotten sinners who know it, but who looked to Jesus in faith.  For he is the Savior of the soul and the Finder of the lost.  And his love will never forsake, but always find you.

And rejoice with the angels and all the company of heaven that you are not alone, but that many other sinners repent and come to faith and come to his table in fellowship.

Monday, August 29, 2016

Sermon - Pentecost 15 - Luke 14:1-14

Humility at the Feast”

So the scene today is a dinner party on a Sabbath day, probably after the weekly synagogue meeting, in which Jesus is invited to dine with some Pharisees in the home of a ruler of the Pharisees. But this was no mere social event. The pleasantries and hospitality were colored by the shadow of the Pharisees' glare. Luke says, “they were watching him closely”. Jesus is under the microscope.

Who knows what legalisms and protocols there were to follow in that gathering? But be sure, the Pharisees were very concerned that everything be done the right way, just so. The food would have been prepared a day before, so as not to “work” on the Sabbath. They had laws upon laws to help them get everything right, and they followed them closely. “But what about Jesus? We've heard some strange things about him and his teaching?” And likely this dinner gathering was as much as anything, a chance to trap him. To catch Jesus saying or doing some pharisaical no-no. An opportunity to gather ammunition for the confrontation that was sure to come.

And, behold! Look! Luke, says, “there was a man with dropsy.” That is, a fluid build up or edema of some kind. Perhaps this was one of the servants who would have tended to the meal. Jesus shows his characteristic compassion and heals the man, but not without also teaching the Pharisees a lesson. “Is it lawful to heal on the Sabbath, or not?” Silence. Crickets. Now they are the ones in the trap. But he presses them more, “Which of you, if your son, or even your ox, falls into a well on a Sabbath day, will you not pull him out?”

This same Jesus would later clarify that the Sabbath was made for man. But these Pharisees got it backwards. Their whole approach to the Sabbath, indeed their conception of God himself, was entirely upside-down. Their religious observances and self-righteous piety were absolutely backwards. And Jesus is here to set them straight. And you and me, too.

He goes on to tell a parable. He sees the way these proud men are jockeying for position – seeking the higher and more honorable places at table. It's one of the favorite past-times of the sinner. Comparing our status with others. Keeping up with and surpassing, if we can, our neighbors. Making ourselves look good. Looking out for #1. A selfishness and self-righteousness that rears its head in multiple ways, but always lurks in our dark heart. And at our core, we would even de-throne God himself if we could. It's the original temptation. “You will be like God...”

Surely Jesus knew the Proverbs, and well could have had in mind this reading from our Old Testament passage today:

Do not put yourself forward in the king’s presence
or stand in the place of the great,
for it is better to be told, “Come up here,”
than to be put lower in the presence of a noble.
(Proverbs 25:6-7)

But there is a deeper point here, too, than just a lesson in etiquette. This is not Jesus acting like Miss Manners. He's striking at the sinful pride of each of us. He's pulling the rug out from under us who think we are something when we are nothing. The Pharisees needed to hear it.

You and I need to hear it, too. You don't deserve to be at the head of the table. You don't qualify for the place of honor on the right hand of the host. Your sins make you unclean, and not just in a ritualistic pharisaical sense. We're talking about a blackness of the soul.

But our delusional self, our puffed-up pride wants to bend reality. Put all the perfume you want on a corpse, it still lies dead. Put lipstick on a pig, but that doesn't make a pig a prom queen.

Rather, take the lowest seat at the table. And you will find yourself exalted. Or even better, be like the gentile woman who confessed herself a dog, but whose faith looked for the crumbs that fell from the master's table. Jesus not only granted her request, but commended her great faith! “For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled. And everyone who humbles himself will be exalted”.

And Jesus Christ knows about humbling oneself. He is the grand-master of humility. He came from the highest throne of heaven to take up residence in an animal feed trough. The Son of God became a man, and a simple, humble man at that. He had no place to lay his head. He had no particular beauty or majesty that we should regard him. He ate with sinners, associated with fishermen and tax collectors, and even stooped to wash their dirty, stinky feet.

He put aside his rightful crown of glory in exchange for a crown of thorns. He swapped the praises of the seraphim for the fellowship of condemned criminals. And this man of sorrows, when you think it couldn't get any lower, saw his own Father turn his back on him in the darkest moments of his suffering. And then Jesus died. Death is the great humiliator of all men. It brings us all low. He didn't even have his own grave, but had to rely on the kindness of others to provide this last bit of respect.

All this he does for you. His humility is your exaltation. His making himself low, brings you up, from the dregs of sin, from the darkness of death, into the light of eternal life and heavenly bliss. He took his seat at the very worse place – on the cross – to procure for you even a place in heaven, and a crown of righteousness.

And having been thus exalted, having seen the loving humility of Christ which brings us from sin's lows to heaven's heights, our love for the lowly can only grow.

In this last section of the reading, Jesus imagines the one who hears these words of his throws a banquet of his own, and invites some unusual guests. Not the high and mighty, the noble and the powerful. Not those who can do something for me, or bring me some benefit. But rather, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame and the blind, for they cannot repay you. And you will be blessed!

What a radical shift of world-view! But isn't this what has first been done to us? Weren't we, already, the poor, the crippled, the lame and the blind? And hasn't Christ invited us to his banquet, and called us from the lowest place at the table to his very side? Now, you, go and do likewise. Show the love for others that has been shown to you. And let God sort out the rewards at the resurrection. Exalt the humble. Regard the lowly. Serve the undeserving, for so it has been done to you.

And so it is, even today, when we gather for the meal that Jesus sets before us in his Sacrament. Here we come in great humility, confessing our sins. With contrite hearts, and bended knees, we take our lowly places at invitation to his table. And he will lift you up. For here your sins are forgiven. Here are far more than crumbs from the master's table, but a feast of heaven's finest food. The very bread of life. Here is Jesus, for you.

Lay aside your sinful pride, turn from it, and come in repentance to the feast. Take the lowest place, the place of the sinner, and see how Christ will raise you up. For he became lowly, that you might attain heaven. And he calls you to humble service of others, for his name's sake. Repent and believe live in him. In Jesus' Name. Amen.

Sunday, August 21, 2016

Sermon - Pentecost 14 - Luke 13:22-30

Sermon – August 21, 2016
14th Sunday after Pentecost
Luke 13:22-30
“Striving for the Narrow Door”

I saw a statistic this week that said, out of all the high school athletes who compete in swimming, you have a roughly 1 in 5000 or 6000 chance of making it to the olympics.  That's the numbers for men and women's swimming respectively.  That's also just for one sport – it varies of course by the sport, but in any case, to make it that far as an athlete you really have to overcome great odds.  And that's just getting there, whether or not you win a medal.

Today we have a question of statistics posed to Jesus.  He's on his way to Jerusalem, and someone asks him, “Lord, will those who are saved be few?”

And as he often does in these kinds of situations, Jesus seems to dodge the question. Our Lord could have simply answered yes or no.  Or he could have said, “Well, I figure about one out of every five.” or, “it's really about 50-50.”  or “1 in 6000”. But rather than answer the question directly, as he so often does, he responds with what one needs to hear rather than what one may want to hear.  Of course, he always answers well.

And here the answer may well give a clue to the agenda of the questioner.  Why would someone ask, anyway, how few will be saved?  Likely, to comfort himself in his own worthiness.  Hoping to hear, no doubt, that the way is broad and easy and open.  And if that's the case, then I can rest assured for I am certainly better qualified than most people.  I pay my taxes.  I go to church.  I don't abuse my family.  Sure I have some little issues, but not as much as that guy or that guy.  So, I'm good.  I'll get in.  I just know it.

“Strive to enter the narrow door”.  At first this sounds like law-talk, doesn't it?  As if Jesus is saying “try really hard to do lots of good works, and earn your reward”.  Like an athlete who practices day and night, over and over, to get stronger and stronger... is Christianity a sort of spiritual work-out routine?  Sweating to the commandments?  Law-bo?

Is that what he's saying?

It better not be.  For if so, all of us would be automatically, and permanently disqualified.  Scripture is clear, as I ran across Psalm 14:3 again this week, “They have all turned aside;  they have together become corrupt.  There is none that does good, no, not one.”

Lord, will those who are saved be few?  Well, if salvation depends on your works and your merit and your level of qualification before God then the answer is, “NO one will be saved.”  Zero.  Everyone tied for last.  No medals, no trophies, no reward in heaven.  Only weeping and gnashing of teeth. Only being cast out by a God who doesn't know you, and isn't impressed with your weak and corrupt attempts to prove your mettle.  A just God cuts through all the baloney we tell ourselves, and applies his law to us with terrifying results.  Depart from me all you workers of evil!  And SLAM goes the door.

Well that's one scenario.  That's the way it goes if you strive to enter based on your striving.  If you think you can do it, you can't.  You need Jesus.

“Oh, but we know about Jesus!” some might say.  Jesus anticipates this, too.  Some will say, “Hey look, we saw you in the streets and heard you teach in our synagogues.  Some of us even ate with you!  C'mon Jesus don't you remember us?”  But knowing about Jesus means nothing.  It's not the outward acquaintance that counts.  Luther puts it this way:

“For even though you know that He is God's Son, that He died and rose again, and that He sits at the right hand of the Father, you have not yet learned to know Christ aright... until you also believe that He did all this for your sake, in order to help you!” (AE 30:30)

Faith in Christ is that narrow door.  And the door is in the shape of a cross.

Just as the people of Israel were spared from destruction by the blood of the lamb on the doorposts and crossbeam, so are the people of the New Israel, you believers in Christ, saved from destruction by the blood of the lamb shed on the cross of Jesus.

The kind of striving for the narrow door Jesus means is not an exertion of effort, but an exercise of faith – and that faith in him.  “Strive for the narrow door” means, “Have faith in me, Jesus!”

For he is, himself, the gate for the sheep.  He is himself, the stairway to heaven. He is the door.  He is the way, and the only way to the Father.  But what a way he is!

At first this way may seem narrow and hard.  But the mystery is this, when we finally despair of ourselves and trust in him – we find the door has been opened wide.  So if you are weary and burdened, he invites you to come and rest.  “My yoke is easy,” he reassures us, “and my burden is light”.

So how few or many will be saved?  Jesus says “people will come from east and west, and from north and south and recline at table in the kingdom of God”.  And that seems, after all, like quite a few!

Now we also see a few more things here.  One, salvation is for all people from all nations – north, south, east and west.  It's not just for good Jews who have all the right lineage.  Nor is it only for white bread Americans of German descent.  In Christ there is no Jew or Greek, slave nor free, male nor female.  But he calls people from all nations with his wide-ranging and far-reaching gospel.  So there's even more hope for you, no matter where you come from.  Isaiah already saw this coming, as we heard in our Old Testament reading today.  And it is fulfilled in Christ.

And the second thing is that we find our fellowship in him at the table.  Reclining at table, that is, sharing a meal, in the kingdom of God.  The final celebration of God's people in glory is often pictured as a meal, even a grand feast.  But it is a meal that we have a taste of, even here and now.

Yes, he feeds us that meal – he gives bread that is his body and wine that is his blood - to all of us from the four corners of the earth, and throughout all the generations.  We are united as one in the great company of heaven.  Even those who have gone before us and now rest from their labors join in the great feast with us, transcending time and space and even death itself in Christ.

“And behold, some are last who will be first and some are first who will be last.”  In other words, some who you think have the least chance of salvation will be there.  But their sins won't be counted against them.  Their dark deeds will stand forgiven.

But others, who seem to have the best credentials will be left out.  Many will even be surprised by this!  What counts is not race, nationality, or social class.  What matters is not how big of a sinner, or how clean your record.  What matters is Christ, and Christ alone.  Faith in him – the narrow door.

That door stands open to you this day, in the absolution, in the proclamation of his word.  The meal is set before you this day, and he invites you to the feast.  The way to heaven, so narrow on our own, is open, always, to you for the sake of Christ.  Repent and believe.  For Jesus' sake.  Amen.

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Sermon - Luke 10:38-42 - Pentecost 9

Pentecost 9
July 17th, 2016
Luke 10:38-42
"Martha and Mary and Vocation and Faith"

Some years ago a psychologist named Abraham Maslow put forward a theory of human needs which was expressed in the form of a pyramid. At the bottom of the pyramid, according to this system, Maslow recognized the most basic human needs – the physiological. Air, Food, Water. Then, above that, on the next level were the needs of safety. Above that, needs for love and belonging. Then self-esteem and confidence, and on the highest level – the needs of “self-actualization”, which is a little more nebulous, but included things like problem-solving, creativity and morality. For Maslow, the more basic concerns in the pyramid always outweighed those above. If you have no food, you aren't so much worried about being loved. If you aren't loved, you won't be able to feel self-esteem. And if you have no self-esteem, then you will never reach the ultimate goals of human morality and self-fulfillment.

I'm no expert in Maslow or in the field of psychology, but I'm pretty sure he would be at odds with what our Lord Jesus Christ teaches us today in the Gospel reading. It's a simple enough story. Two sisters, Mary and Martha, are honored when Jesus comes to their home. Mary sat at Jesus' feet, listening to his teaching. But Martha busied herself with all manner of concerns. “Much serving” as Luke puts it. Jesus gently scolds her, “Martha, Martha, you are anxious and troubled about many things, but one thing is necessary.” And he commends sister Mary for choosing the better part, the good portion.

What are we to make of all of this? Be like Mary and not like Martha? Don't worry? Learning is more important than doing? Shall we all go off and live in a monastery, ignoring the concerns of this world and focusing only on those of the one to come? Is it a stark choice between hearing and “doing”? What does Jesus mean?

For one, Jesus is not condemning Christian acts of service and love, in and of themselves. That would be preposterous. It would also not be in accord with so much else of what Scripture us about loving and serving our neighbor. Caring for the widow and orphan. Doing good to all men, especially to those of the household of faith. Jesus himself commends the sheep for clothing the naked, feeding the hungry, visiting the prisoners, etc... In his parables, he illustrates love for the unlovable – like in last week's about the “Good Samaritan”.

Likewise, we Lutherans especially emphasize the doctrine of vocation. That is, that our service to God is rendered most especially not in pious works of religious holiness, but in the everyday callings of life – where God works through the offices of parent and employer and employee and citizen and friend – to accomplish his good purposes. To feed the hungry and help the helpless. To protect the innocent and uphold justice. And even, yes, to clean houses and serve tables.

Martha had a vocation as a servant herself. It fell to her, it seems, to make sure the household was running in order, and she was very concerned to see it done. I imagine she had that home running like a well-oiled machine, with everything in its place and well-made food ready for the hungry guests. And there were probably many, since the guest of honor was none other than Jesus Christ himself. Martha was quite likely surprised when Jesus called her out. She was doing what she thought she was supposed to be doing. She was “serving the Lord”. Wasn't she?

And I suspect she was also a little resentful of her sister, who wasn't lifting a finger to help. Who simply sat there listening to Jesus. Didn't she know there's work to be done? Does she think the meal is going to cook itself?

Luke, of course, doesn't give us a window into Martha's head, but many of us have been in a similar spot. We become so caught up in the doing of the works we're called to do that we may even become prideful. We may become resentful of those who aren't pulling their weight. Especially in the church. But also at home, and at work, and in general. We grade our own works of service on a bit of a curve, but we tend to be somewhat harsh with others when we think they're not rowing as hard as we are.

Or worse, perhaps Martha fell for that universal temptation that plagues us all from time to time- to think that our good works are worth something before God. To think that we, in some manner or fashion, can earn God's favor, love, or our salvation, by what we do. That if we work hard enough, he will overlook our sins. That if we decide firmly enough, or pray earnestly enough, God will know we really mean it, and we'll pass the test. Or that if we sacrifice the good life, spend our spare time doing church stuff, keep the commandments as best we can, and just generally try and help others and be nice...

But it's hopeless. All Martha's cooking and cleaning, and all your serving and working, no matter how hard or sincere, all of it will fall far short of the perfect standards God demands. There is only one who did it all – and did it well enough. Like us in every way, yet without sin. There is only one whose good work is acceptable to the Father, who was obedient in all things, even unto death, even death on a cross. And only with him, do we have hope.

But it's not a hope based on serving him. It is, rather, in receiving, passively, what he gives. It is by grace we are saved through faith in Christ. And faith comes by hearing.

Mary chose the better part. Not because good works and service are bad. But because hearing the word of Christ is so much better. It is the one thing that is necessary. It is the one thing by which God does what he wants most to do – save poor sinners like you and me. By hearing the good news of Jesus Christ. Faith is planted and watered and nourished. And faith grows in us. Faith in Christ's word is the one thing that is needful.
Jesus himself knew it well. When he was hungry, fasting 40 days in the wilderness, the Devil came to tempt him, first of all, where he thought Jesus was most vulnerable. “Take some stones and turn them into bread, IF you are the Son of God.” But Jesus' answer shows he knows the one thing needful. “Man does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.”

Mary was feasting on the bread of life, by simply hearing the Words of Christ. And so you, dear Christians, today, join her at table. As you gather today to hear the word of hope that Jesus brings and proclaims, a word of sins forgiven because of his blood shed. As you hear the absolution from the pastor, recall the promises included in your baptism, and receive the forgiveness given in body and blood under bread and wine. Christ's word is the one thing needful. And he gives it to you freely and fully. Receive it faithfully.

Fred Danker comments on this passage, “Martha made the mistake of thinking she was the host, and Jesus the guest.” Of course, it's the other way around. He's always the host. The meal is his. The work is his. The serving is his. The word is his. And he gives it all... to you.

And it is this word in us, received in faith, worked by the Spirit, that brings about “much serving”. In its proper place, in its right priority, not in worry or anxiety, and never for merit or personal gain, but out of love inspired by the love we've received.

The truth is we Christians are both Marthas and Marys. But let us first be Marys – hearing and receiving the word, the one thing needful, even Christ himself. Let us first and always receive, so that we may be faithful Marthas – fulfilling our vocations, not in worry, but with joy.

For the sake of Christ crucified and risen for us. Amen.