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.

Monday, July 04, 2016

Sermon - Pentecost 7 - Luke 10:1-20

Luke 10:1-20
Pentecost 7
July 3rd, 2016
Rejoicing with the 72”

God bless America. Here on this national holiday weekend in which we celebrate America and its birth, we Christians can give thanks for the blessings God has bestowed on our country, even if we recognize its flaws. Even if it seems to many of us that the United States, at least culturally, is moving more and more away from being a “Christian nation” (if, indeed it ever truly was). And as we see America do and condone foolish and sometimes even evil things, we may wonder where this is all going.

It is an interesting coincidence that this Gospel reading tends to fall on the 4th of July weekend. With national pride on the minds of many, Jesus reminds us of how many in this world reject us Christians, and reject him and therefore also the Father who sent him. But it's not all bad news, either, as he also reminds us to look beyond what we see, to consider our ultimate citizenship is not of this world, and to rejoice that our names are written in heaven. Let's take a closer look.

After this the Lord appointed seventy-two others and sent them on ahead of him, two by two, into every town and place where he himself was about to go.

In an orderly fashion, our Lord appoints 36 pairs of disciples to go before him and preach in the towns he would visit. Even then, he entrusted his message to mere men, though the matter was to be confirmed by the two-fold witness. He sent them ahead, like little John the Baptists, to proclaim that in Christ, the kingdom was at hand. They were to prepare the way.

Today, he appoints various tasks to you. It may not be a call to preach, though for some it is. It may be a call to parenthood or friendship, citizenship or as a student or employee. He may call upon you at a given time to give answer for the hope that is within you. Or he may call you to acts of mercy and service for the least of these among you. You are, every Christian, to be mindful of his kingdom and supportive of its work. You are, every Christian, to serve and love one another. You are, every Christian, to support the preaching of the Gospel with your time, your talents and even your treasures.

And he said to them, “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few. Therefore pray earnestly to the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest. 

Even before they go, Jesus instructs them to pray for help. That these laborers sent into the harvest would be joined by many others, for the harvest is plentiful and the workers are few.
We tend to think the harvest is scarce and the workers are plentiful. Like Elijah, we become discouraged, thinking ourselves the last faithful few in a sea of worldly unbelievers. But God always preserves for himself a remnant. His Spirit will not fail to garner his harvest. He is the Lord of the harvest, after all. We needn't worry that the salvation of the world rests on our shoulders, as if our lack of missionary fervor is keeping God from accomplishing his purposes.

Nevertheless, we must not be lazy in our zeal for the kingdom. And if we are, then we ought to repent. The laborers are few. It is not good for us to sit around and assume someone else will pick up the slack. Ours is to go where he sends us, answer when he calls, and pray that many others will do the same. He does not need us. But he chooses to work through his appointed servants, lowly and unqualified as we are, to accomplish his purposes.

Go your way; behold, I am sending you out as lambs in the midst of wolves.

He's quite up front with them about the dangers of the mission. There will be opposition, perhaps even persecution. The unbelieving world preys upon the church of Christ as ravenous wolves devour helpless lambs. This is not a mission of conquest, a triumphalist endeavor in which God's messengers tout his mighty power, as much as it is a calling of sinners to repentance and faith in Christ.

So, today, the church preaches a message of the cross. The cross, where Jesus the lamb of God was encircled by the dogs who pierced his hands and feet. The Gentiles who had no use for him, and the Jews who wanted him dead but good. A band of wicked men who divided even his garments among them. But this lamb of God opened his mouth not in bleats of protest, but in gracious words of mercy, “Father forgive them, for they know not what they do”.

Lambs in the midst of wolves, even today, trust in the true victory won by the Lamb of God. A victory that looked like a defeat. A cross of death turned into our very source of life.

Carry no moneybag, no knapsack, no sandals, and greet no one on the road.

They needn't over-prepare for this mission. For when God calls us to action he also prepares us with what we need. There can be no distractions. There should be no delay.

Whatever house you enter, first say, ‘Peace be to this house!’  And if a son of peace is there, your peace will rest upon him. But if not, fit will return to you.

They were also to bring his peace. That is, they were to bring the forgiveness of Christ that brings true peace with God. This is no mere polite greeting of “shalom”. But instead the peace that only Christ gives, as the world cannot give. A “son of peace” is one who receives Christ and his message in faith, and therefore knows the peace that passes understanding.

And remain in the same house, eating and drinking what they provide, for the laborer deserves his wages. Do not go from house to house. Whenever you enter a town and they receive you, eat what is set before you. Heal the sick in it and say to them, ‘The kingdom of God has come near to you.’

The kingdom of God and the preaching of the Gospel are not some fly-by-night organization. Jesus means for his people to hear and receive the depth of his message. So he has his disciples stay a while. Get to know the people. And the people support the preachers to do so.

Next, Jesus offers some harsh words of warning – knowing that some will reject the message. He speaks in general terms, of whole towns – those who do not receive the gospel of peace, the proclamation of his kingdom. Woe to you, Chorazin, Bethsaida, Capernaum. For you did not repent and believe.

The one who hears you hears me, and the one who rejects you rejects me, and the one who rejects me rejects him who sent me.”

And here is a principle that still holds for today. When the church and its preachers are rejected by the unbelieving world, we should not be surprised. When the unbelieving world rejects us, we should not take it personally. When they reject us, it is for what we believe – and so they are not really rejecting us, but the one who sent us. The one who died for us. The one who has made us his own. And by rejecting Christ, they also reject the Father, even if they give lipservice to a generic god. Even if they claim the moral high ground. Even if they present themselves as the ones truly loving and good, and us as the evil hypocrites. God will not be mocked. His judgment will be rendered in due time.

The seventy-two returned with joy, saying, “Lord, even the demons are subject to us in your name!” And he said to them, “I saw Satan fall like lightning from heaven. Behold, I have given you authority to tread on serpents and scorpions, and over all the power of the enemy, and nothing shall hurt you. 

Sometimes the church meets with outward success. And that can be very intoxicating. We are even tempted to distraction and idolatry by such things. Look how big that church is! Look how many they've reached! Sometimes the church seems to prosper and grow in spite of our halting and faltering efforts. And when we see it do so, we can rejoice with the 72, and with all faithful Christians who have earnestly prayed to the Lord of the harvest. We rejoice with the angels who celebrate every sinner who comes to repentance and faith in Christ. And we give thanks to God for all his good gifts, and that he even stoops to give them through unworthy servants such as we are.

Jesus tells the disciples this is just the tip of the iceberg. Satan has fallen from heaven. Christ has already won the victory. He will send these disciples to preach not just in Judea and Samaria, but even to the ends of the earth. Their message, his message, would be confirmed by miracles and other signs. And many, people of all tribes and nations and languages would come to believe. All the power of the enemy comes crashing down when God's kingdom comes in Jesus Christ. Thanks be to God! Rejoice!

Nevertheless, do not rejoice in this, that the spirits are subject to you, but rejoice that your names are written in heaven.”

That is, don't rejoice only in the small victories. But see the big picture. And know for yourselves, personally that your names are written in heaven. Your eternal destiny is secure. Your sins are forgiven. You have a place in the mansions of heaven.

On this earth, some will reject, and some will receive. The church will prosper and grow, and there will be times of persecution. We may see missions begun and thrive, and we may see old churches close their doors for lack of faithful worshippers. In all these things rejoice. In all these things give thanks to the Lord of the Harvest. Do not be discouraged. Neither let the mission be neglected. There is an urgency, but there is a comfort and peace, a resting in God's provision.

Is America going down the drain? Is the church here going to last? Will our society and culture crumble to the point where Christians cannot worship and live in peace? Perhaps. Even so. Live a life of repentance and faith in Christ. And remain faithful, work for the good, work for the kingdom, according to your callings.

Or will we turn the corner, experience a renewal, repent as a nation and avoid the fate of the Chorazins and Bethsaidas and Capernaums of the world? Will the church here grow and prosper and see an abundant harvest for the kingdom? Perhaps so. But whether we see outward blessings or are called to bear the cross, nothing can change the source of your joy.

For in Christ, your names are written in heaven. Like the 72 faithful preachers, like the apostles and prophets and martyrs. Like all the faithful who have gone before us – rejoice, for in Christ you are part of that great company. Christ's blood has sealed it. And his resurrection makes it sure. Peace be to you. Rejoice! In Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Monday, June 20, 2016

Sermon - Pentecost 3 - Luke 7:11-17

Pentecost 3 – June 5, 2016
Luke 7:11-17
"Jesus Saves Widows, Dead Guys, and You"

If you've ever suffered loss... you probably know how well meaning people can say some of the least helpful things. Things that they intend to help you feel better. But things that might even make you feel worse.

Sometimes it's hard to know exactly what to say to someone grieving, and sometimes it's better just to say nothing at all. A warm embrace, or your mere presence can be of some comfort. Maybe.

But I think most of us would be hesitant to say to a woman who's just lost her only son, “Don't cry”. And someone who does say such a thing surely seems to know little about suffering and grief. Someone who says such a thing seems to have little compassion for what this poor woman is going through. Maybe someone who would say this is insensitive. Maybe he's just mad. Or maybe, just maybe, he's the Lord of Life and Death, and he can actually do something about the cause of all her tears.

Jesus, of course, knows just what he's doing, and what he's saying. He is the Savior of widows, of dead guys, and of you. Let's take each one in turn.

This poor widow. Grief upon grief was added to her. She had lost her dear husband who knows how long ago. And while that is hard today, it was far harder back then and there, when a woman had to rely entirely on the provision of a man. But at least she had a son to care for her. Until just now, when the young man also died, leaving his mother without family, and without worldly support. She might end up begging for her daily bread. She might not make it herself. When Scripture encourages Christians to care for the “widow and the orphan”, we are being directed to some of the neediest of the needy.

Not only did she feel the pain that any mother would feel at such a loss- but this was her only son – and now, she was really all alone.
Even in the crowd of mourners who accompanied her, she was singularly alone in her suffering.

And along with the pure sadness that death makes us feel, there are quite often notes of guilt associated with it. Things I should have said or done for this loved one, and now the chance has passed me by. Perhaps if I would have done something differently, it wouldn't have turned out this way, and he'd still be here, alive and well. Or even, survivor guilt, “why did it have to be him and not me!?”. And all of this is amplified the more with the death of a young person.
Take the widow in our Old Testament reading, when her son dies, she lashes out at Elijah, “You have come to me to bring my sin to remembrance”. Sin and death go together. So it was in the garden of paradise. So it is in the wilderness of today's fallen world.

So here comes Jesus, crashing into the scene, with no invitation and no plea from the poor woman or anyone else. Not like the centurion in the last chapter who pleaded for his servant. Not like so many others who come on behalf of their loved ones for Jesus' help and mercy. Jesus takes the initiative. He comes first, he breaks in to the conversation and stops the funeral procession cold.

And he says to her, “don't cry”. And in this outrageous little sentence is hidden a promise. Don't cry, because you will soon have joy. Don't cry, because your son will rise. Don't cry, because Jesus brings life to the dead.

This is not a power-of-positive-thinking encouragement. That if you tell yourself everything is ok that it somehow will be. It's not a mind-over-matter manipulation of your emotions. It's not a denial of reality. It's a deeper reality, revealed in this miraculous moment, and revealed more fully on Easter Sunday, and yet to be revealed in its fullness at the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come.

When Jesus raises her son, he gives her back more than just her son. He gives her hope.

And this hope is also for the young man. The man who isn't named. Cause of death unknown. Well, we know the root cause at least. It's the same disease that affects us all. A self-inflicted, self-perpetuated illness called sin. The law's diagnosis is clear, we are dead-men walking. In our sins, we are already dead, as dead and helpless as the young man in Nain, being carried to his grave. We can't decide to be alive.

But again, there's Jesus, who comes and touches death and speaks to the dead man, “arise”. And it is so. By the power of his word, he commands life to return, and the Lord of Life gets his way. No one asked for this, or decided on this but him, Jesus, the savior.

And then there's you. Are you a victim of suffering, like the widow? At times, to be sure. Maybe yours even seems worse than others. Maybe you are tempted to grieve without hope. Or are you like the young man, if you will admit it, on your way to the grave because of your sins – however hidden or blatant they may be? Like a condemned death-row inmate, guilty as sin, because of your sin, your own most grievous sin?

If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves. If we say we are alive, we are liars. If we say we are just fine, we're the lunatics. We are lost, helpless, and hopeless – and we deserve everything we get and worse – without Christ.

But Jesus Christ crashes into all that. For the widow, for the dead guy, and even for you. The only Son of the Father, comes to restore the widow's son and all sons and daughters of wrath. The one who suffered and died on Calvary is the man of sorrows, well acquainted with grief. As Mary, another widow, watched her son die under Roman orders, for crimes he didn't commit, the salvation of all was accomplished. He is the lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. He is the one who speaks, “Father, forgive them” and “It is finished”. And he proves without doubt his lordship of life and death, when he leaves death in the dust, stone rolled away, and only the sins of the world left behind.

The one by whom all things were made, who knit you together in your mother's womb, makes all things new, and will raise you on the last day. The one whose voice called the widow's son to rise, has called you to arise already. In the call to faith, proclaimed in the Gospel, your sinful flesh dies, and you live. In the washing of rebirth, your Old Adam is drowned, and your New Creation bursts forth. In the gifts of his table, he brings forgiveness, life, and salvation. His word of promise assures it. And as he would say to the widow, “don't cry”, he would speak words of comfort to you. Your sins are forgiven. Your future is secure. He who lives and believes in me, even though he die, yet shall he live.

We long for that day, when from this vale of tears we depart. We pray for his coming, for the fulfillment of all his promises. We press on toward the eternal hope that is so clear in his word. Christ has died. Christ is risen. Christ will come again. And as we stand in our flesh and see him, with resurrected and glorified eyes, no more harm or pain or suffering or sin or death can assail. And God will wipe every tear from our eyes.

Yes, Jesus himself wept at the grave of his friend, Lazarus. And so he shows us that death is not to be laughed at. It is no friend, but a sad wage of sin. Yet for those who trust in Christ, the resurrection and the life, we see in death the gate to eternal life. And so Paul says we grieve, but not like other men who have no hope. We cry, but ultimately we rejoice. We suffer, but we know comfort. We face our old enemy with a peace that passes understanding.

For the Lord of Life crashes in to our grief. He speaks words of comfort, even to widows, even to dead men, even to you. Believe it, for Jesus' sake. Amen.