Monday, September 27, 2010

Sermon - Luke 16:19-31 - Pentecost 18

Luke 16:19-31
September 26th, 2010
“The Rich Man and Lazarus, Faith and the Word”

Once upon a time, we are told, there lived a rich man - dressed in the best and living high on the hog. And at his gate, poor Lazarus, begging for crumbs and getting none, licked by the dogs. No happy ending or just desserts in this world, Lazarus dies in poverty. Mr. Moneybags dies too, but apparently enjoyed his great wealth to the end.

But justice is served, as the rich man goes to torment. Lazarus goes to paradise, even stands with Father Abraham. We could end the story right here, but Jesus doesn't. The real point isn't that the good and the poor go up, and the rich and the wicked go down. The real point is to come....

In torment, the rich man begs for mercy, but it is too late, and the chasm is too wide. What's done is done. Abraham respects God's judgment and won't change it. And this should rightly terrify every sinner. For sin brings suffering, and we deserve it now, and forever – temporal and eternal. And if we are sinners – the rich man is us!

But perhaps there is hope. Lazarus made it out from a living death to a life after death – a life in glory – a blessed hope. How is this done? Can we receive the same? Must we become poor and sick and live a life with the dogs? Take a vow of poverty and live in a monastery?

But wait, the patriarch Abraham was one of the wealthiest men of his day. He had kings paying tribute to him! So it can't just be that wealth is damnable, and that anyone well off is automatically doomed. There must be more...

Maybe if we just tried hard to be nice to people, or at least to poor people. Remember, Abraham was nice to Lot – he gave him his choice of the good land or the poor land. Abraham even risked his own life to save Lot when Lot was taken captive. But then again, Abraham wasn't so nice to poor Hagar and Ishmael – when he exiled them to the desert with few provisions.

It's worth us asking, how do we treat the poor? Must we automatically give to everyone with his hand out? Or are we so stingy that we never help another, give to one in need, or provide a morsel for the truly hungry? Surely we sin when it comes to our care of the poor. Surely there's a Lazarus at our gate from time to time that we fail to love as a neighbor. And for these sins let us repent, lest we share the fate of the rich man in torment!

But proper use of our wealth isn't what gets us to Abraham's bosom, or into God's good graces. Only faith saves, and only that faith in God's son.

Abraham had it. He believed God's promises of the Messiah, and God reckoned it to him as righteousness. Abraham was a rich man, but he was far richer in faith – as God gave him an astonishing trust in the promises of progeny, land and salvation.

Lazarus had it, or he would never have made it across the chasm. It wasn't his poverty that saved him, his lowly state. Though it isn't spelled out in the story, he too must have trusted in God's promises for an eternal dwelling. He had faith.

And we have it too... for the same God gives it to us. And there's only one way he promises to give it.

The rich man in torment finally showed concern for someone else. It's a testament to how terrible God's judgment is – that even this wicked man doesn't want anyone to suffer what he does. So he begs Abraham to send Lazarus back from the dead to scare his brothers into repentance.

But it won't work. Even if someone rises from the dead, they will not believe. Rises from the dead. Now there's a clue! Who in fact did rise from the dead? Jesus, telling this story, drops a not-so-subtle hint about his own destiny.

He would die. Powerless and humble like poor Lazarus. Thirty. Surrounded by dogs (that's what Jews called the Romans). Jesus would, however, suffer the torment of the Rich Man, indeed the wrath of God for all. And there was not even a drop of mercy to soothe that suffering. The full force of God's anger over all sin was upon him, Jesus.

But this is the good news for us. Jesus did rise from the dead. And this ultimate sign of his divinity, this ultimate proof of his authority, this ultimate seal of approval by the Father on his perfect sacrifice – the resurrection means everything for us believers. Paul says without it, our faith is in vain.

For the unbeliever, even a resurrection won't convince them. But for us the risen Christ is everything!
And Abraham points us in one final direction. He says that the rich man's brothers “have Moses and the prophets”. In other words, the Word of God.

If you don't hear the word and believe it, you won't even believe a miracle. But we are directed to the word. For faith comes by hearing. The Good News of Jesus gives the faith that it demands. So we hear, and so we believe!

Just as you have come to believe through the preaching and teaching you have heard – so do all believers in Christ.

Just as you received the gift of faith in the watery word of baptism, so do all who are sealed for eternity in Christ.

And as Jesus words of testament still stand promising grace in his body and blood, given with bread and wine, even today we hear the word, receive the word, and with it all the riches of his Grace.

He, Jesus, bridges the chasm between heaven and hell for all believers in him, through his word. He, Jesus, suffers and dies to free us from suffering and death. He becomes poor to make us rich – not in earthly riches – but with eternal blessings.

And then there's that other Lazarus, the brother of Mary and Martha – the one that Jesus did raise from the dead. Perhaps a good reminder that his promise is the same for us. At his return, we too will rise. At his coming, we will live with him in glorified bodies and souls.

Rich or poor, high or low, hear the good news of Jesus – believe in his word – and trust in his promises of life even though we die. Life with all the saints and with him forever. Amen.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Sermon - 1 Timothy 2:1-15 - Pentecost 17

1 Timothy 2:1-15
September 19th, 2010

Law and Gospel. The Sacraments. A Christ-centered approach to Scripture. Lutheran theology brings us many important and unique understandings, often missed by other Christians. One of those will be helpful for us today is the doctrine of Vocation. Your vocation, or your calling, is any role or station or office into which you have been called and in which you rightfully serve. Your vocation isn't simply your job – butcher, baker, candlestick maker. It's much more. What roles do you fill? Father, mother, husband, wife, child, student, employer, employee, citizen, office holder, pastor, parishioner, or even the calling of every Christian.

The fact is, God calls us to various places and stations in life, roles and tasks, relationships and offices. And we all have multiple vocations. And in each of those callings, God sets forth certain parameters and guidelines. Who do you answer to? Who do you serve, and how? What are your responsibilities? What are you NOT called to do? You might look at the “Table of Duties” in our catechism – it's on page 328 of they hymnal – for a brief reminder of some of these.

Understanding vocation is helpful especially when we come to a passage like 1 Timothy 2. A difficult passage for some, perhaps, in a cultural setting which has other ideas.

But God is a God of order. Just look how he created the world. First he formed the sky, the sea, the land. Then he filled the sky, the sea, the land. He created man in his own image. He created woman from the man. He set them in a garden and gave them a vocation – to tend to it and work in it. But even then, he had different roles in mind for husband and wife – even before the fall.

The husband was created first – and was the head of the wife. God still preserves this order today. Ephesians 5 tells us the husband is the head of his wife as Christ is the head of the church. That doesn't mean he bosses her around, but that he does what Christ does for the church – he dies for her. His servant leadership puts her first. Still, he takes the initiative and holds the responsibility of headship.

Woman, created from the man, is called in Scripture the “helper”. She is called to submit to her husband as Christ submits to the church. While our culture bristles at even the word “submit”, a godly woman rejoices in her calling and honors the husband's God-given headship. This is how God created us to be – though we so often, male and female, fall short.

Eve transgressed and was deceived first – she took the leadership place she wasn't called to take. Adam shirked his role and followed his wife into sin. They both failed in their callings – failed God and each other.

And in a similar way, as we read here, 1 Timothy tells us that according to God's order, women are called to some things and not to others. They are called to dress modestly, and be self-controlled. Women are not called to be pastors – to hold the authoritative public office in the church. This is not a matter of power and honor, but simply what callings are given to whom.

Not even all men are called to preach. Certainly not all are called to apostleship, as Paul was appointed. But God gives such an order for our good. And he gives us all honorable callings, though they are different.

Paul goes on to quickly remind us that women are given the calling of motherhood. And it is an honorable calling as well, for it was through the birth of a child that all people are saved. But we'll get there in a minute.

Now, teachings like this might offend some of you. And if so, you need to repent. God's word is holy and it stands as our judge – we are not the judge of it. We may not like what he has to say and how he orders our lives, but that doesn't change what it is – the authoritative truth which teaches us all.

Likewise, you might agree with me that yes, this is God's word, but you might just be a little embarrassed about it. This too shows a need for repentance. If you're ashamed in the least to follow these clear instructions of God, will you be ashamed of his other hard teachings? Will you confess him or deny him before men?

Or perhaps you don't know exactly what to think about tough teachings like this. Maybe it just doesn't matter to you. Then you too have some repenting to do, for every word of God is not only useful for teaching and reproof, but when we ignore or neglect the teaching of his word, we despise him who speaks it. If you don't know what Scripture teaches, what God says, then you need to study harder and listen closer.

We all stand convicted. For we all struggle to hear and understand and live out the teachings of God – especially the tough ones. We all struggle to navigate the waters of a world that just doesn't get it – doesn't have ears to hear. A world which wants us to come along with them, and forsake the narrow path. And we all fall at times – perhaps much of the time.

We are called to pray and we fail. We are called to love our neighbor and we fail. We are called to not quarrel or be angry and we fail. We are called to work and serve and be humble and modest and decent and moral and we fail, fail, fail.

And so, we are all called to repent. We are all called to confess our sins. And we are all called to receive the forgiveness that comes to us in Jesus Christ.

Now here is one who knew his calling. He, the one true mediator between God and man. He, the one who was called to be born of a woman – so that all who are born in sin could be saved. He the one who was called to live and fulfill the law, so that all lawbreakers could be pardoned. He, the one who was called to die a sinners death so that sin and death would die forever, and sinners like you and me will live. Jesus Christ – called, anointed as our savior. He knew his calling, and he humbly submitted to it all, even death on a cross, scorning its shame, for you and me.

He was also called to life again – raised by the power of the Father. Called to take back his throne in majesty. And one day he will return to call forth the dead from their graves, and to call all his people to himself, and to an eternal rest prepared for them – for us.

He gives you your callings. And he knows your weakness and struggle. He is the ransom to free you, the captive, from your sin. Your first and highest calling as a Christian is to simply receive such a gift, believe it, trusting the giver to deliver on his promises.

Such a faith empowers you in your many callings to begin anew each day, doing what is given to you – living out your callings, for the one who has called us is faithful. And by his Spirit he will continue to enlighten you, sanctify you, until he finally calls you home in Christ.

We all have our callings, and they are from God. Let us listen not to our own voices, or those around us, but always only to him, who calls us also to repentance an faith in Christ. Amen.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Thanks, Friends

Scott Diekmann, an internet friend and fellow Lutheran blogger, recently posted a nice little piece thanking his friends (real and "virtual"). Thanks, Scott, for giving me the idea.

Here are some of the other friends I'd like to thank:

My wife, who keeps me humble and balances me out in so many ways - and is way more awesome than she'll ever realize.

Pastor Jim Roemke, who has become one of my best friends and always gets me to laugh.

Pastor Randal Poppe, for being an awesome partner in the Ministry, and being the "brake" to my "gas pedal". We're so different, but our theology is the same and that makes all the difference.

Along that line, everyone at Grace Lutheran Church, Racine - an absolutely awesome congregation - supportive of her pastors, hungry for the Word of God, not perfect - but growing in wisdom and the fear of the Lord all the time.

Jim Pierce of letting me virtually cry on his shoulder late one night when I was thinking of quitting.

Issues Etc. for just total awesomeness

obviously I can't thank everyone who I should so I'll just stop there...

Sunday, September 05, 2010

Sermon - Luke 14:25-33 - Pentecost 15

Luke 14:25-33
September 5th, 2010
“Counting the Cost”

Sometimes the teachings of Jesus are hard to swallow. For those with only a shallow view of our Lord, or a twisted understanding of what the Christian faith is about – an honest look at what Jesus actually says could be rather puzzling.

Take his teaching in our Gospel reading today. Hate your family? Renounce your very life? Carry your cross? This is not the self-help guru Jesus that many have come to believe in. This is not the love and peace Jesus that many think he is. “Count the cost of discipleship”, Jesus teaches today. And the cost is high.

It's worth noting, perhaps, that Jesus gave these hard words as his popularity was reaching a fever pitch. “Large crowds followed him”. And perhaps not for the right reasons. Whatever they were looking for, it wasn't what Jesus had come to do and be. I think it's much the same today.

You look at some of the largest churches, the fastest-growing with the big budgets. Their pastors are on TV and they buy old sports stadiums to hold the crowds. But if you listen to the message – it's empty. There is little talk of sin, and therefore no need for a savior. Jesus, if he's mentioned at all, is reduced to a rule maker, an example to follow, or just somebody who wants you to be happy with yourself.

And we can see why the temptation is so strong. Even though we are at a church which takes its doctrine seriously, which is well grounded in the gospel but not afraid to speak the law. Even though Grace Lutheran Church in Racine seeks to be faithful to our Lord and his teachings, and to all that we hold dear. Still, we are sinners. And our sinful nature wants success. It wants glory. It wants numbers.

We look at the bulletin and the numbers aren't what we want them to be. And this makes us uncomfortable. Anxious, maybe. Where is our faith that no matter what, the Lord will care for us? Aren't we tempted to measure our success by the outward growth we see here, and not by how faithful we are to the Word? What will happen to our congregation if it continues like this, we worry.

The same holds true for our personal lives. Living as a Christian means sometimes we don't have all the goodies, the success, the pleasures of our worldly counterparts. Sometimes it means trouble. It could even mean strife in your family, suffering, shame or loss. You might even have to die for your faith, as so many Christians have.

Jesus says to count the cost. If you want to be his disciple, it means an ordering of priorities that is at odds with the world. Seeking first his kingdom and his righteousness. All these other things, good gifts that they may be, come after that.

And so again, it's a matter of Law and Gospel. To those seeking glory and earthly success and worldly things – Jesus throws a roadblock. You better think twice. Being my disciple is no walk in the park. It's like a king going to war – he knows there will be bloodshed and turmoil, even death.

But for those who are already broken, suffering, and dying... For those who aren't so concerned about offending their earthly family as the offense they've given their heavenly Father... for those of us who bear the weight of our guilt, Jesus speaks a different word – the Gospel. A different way of counting.

So what really counts? Jesus calls us to count differently. He turns our corrupted wisdom on its head. The first shall be last. The least shall be the greatest. In death there is life. That's how God counts.

He reckons faith as righteousness. He gives his greatest riches as a gift. He sends his only son not to condemn as we deserve, but to die in our place, to take the punishment we deserve. God becomes man, to save man fromour own rebellion.

And certainly God knew the cost – when he sent Jesus to do the work of salvation. And Jesus knew the cost – blood, a cross, a tomb. The cup of God's wrath. A far cry from the glory of the crowds – but the cry of crowds for his blood – crucify him!

So Christianity is both easy and hard, depending how you count it. It's both costly and free.

If you would cling to the things of this world – your sins and the corrupted creation – even your family or your life – then it seems very costly indeed. Maybe too much so for some people. A burden, a chore, a downer and a drag. Who would want to be a Christian anyway? This is the way of the Law.

But to those who have ears to hear, the Gospel shows the true kingdom is free. Disciples are born, not graduated. We don't earn our way in, we are adopted as sons. And our Lord continues to do the work of discipling us, teaching us, strengthening us. He continues to give freely and without cost, according to this Gospel. Holy Baptism, Holy Absolution, Holy Communion, the free and clear proclamation of His grace. All of these come at no cost to you, all for the sake of Jesus.

It's a wise person that knows that nothing in this life is truly free. The bigger the sign and the more exclamation marks, the more closely we should look at the fine print. But it's a wiser person who knows even better. That in Jesus there are no strings attached. In Jesus salvation is truly free for sinners. That in Jesus Christ our Lord, our cost is covered, and it's on him.

The free gifts of his kingdom bring us to count differently, too. By his Spirit we consider ourselves no longer #1, but our neighbor. We consider the things above as more precious than the things below. We even see suffering through the eyes of faith – and rejoice amidst our troubles, all for the sake of Christ. What really counts – he has already counted to us – righteousness in him forever. And we can always count on him.

In Jesus Name, Amen.

Thursday, September 02, 2010

What I Learned from the Big Conflict

It's been a year now since our congregation went through its most intense conflict in about 30 years. I haven't spoken much about it outside of our congregation, and I don't think I should. Those of you who are here know the details, and the tragedy of it all.

Now that we've had some time to "cool down" a bit, I thought I'd offer some reflections for the benefit of any others who go through such a fiasco. Some of these are quite obvious, some might not be. And some of these insights I knew in theory, but learned in a whole new way living through them - in much the same way I knew "lots about parenting" until I actually became a parent.

1) Always be faithful, no matter the cost. (Rev. 2:10)
There will be many competing interests and motivations in a church conflict, and temptations to take the easy way out. Remember you are called, above all, to be faithful. Seek God's will first in his revealed Word - and listen to it! The other voices, not so much. The worst thing that can happen in a church conflict is for the faithful to fold and cowardly back down.
Be sure, very sure, though, that if you are fighting this battle - the Lord is on your side. Don't fight a battle over opinions on which Scripture is silent, or worse, in which you are in the wrong. And if you are faithful, He will be with you no matter what comes of it.

2) Sometimes you have to choose sides. (Galatians 1:6-9; 1 Timothy 4:1)
We'd all like to be everyone's friend, especially as pastor. But sometimes this is not possible. Sometimes both "sides" are wrong, but sometimes one side is right. Often times, those who seem to be causing the trouble are really the ones following scripture, and the "innocent victims" are the ones ignoring it - or even seeking to distort and destroy the Gospel.

3) Be prepared to suffer. (Acts 9:16)
Who said any of this would be easy? Certainly not Jesus, who taught us about carrying crosses - or Paul who was no stranger to suffering. Few things are as stressful for a pastor as church conflict. When the sheep "bite and devour" each other, and their undershepherd, it is not pleasant. But think of all the saints before you who have suffered for the Gospel. Think of the prophets and apostles, so many who met a martyr's death. If your chruch conflict gets this bad, then talk to me about suffering! Nonetheless, even then they remained faithful, for their God did not forsake them. Nor will he forsake you in your suffering.

Be prepared, pastor, to be called names. Be prepared to have your integrity and motives questioned. Be prepared for even your family to come under fire. Gossip, lies, and bitterness will bubble up and seethe against the one who speaks the truth that people don't want to hear. But be steadfast and immovable. Fear God more than those who would trouble his Gospel.

4) Be prepared to be surprised. (1 Peter 5:8)
You never know what will happen, but that doesn't mean you can't prepare. While we tried to prepare for all sorts of variables (and often times it was helpful), a conflict is like a battle - and subject to the same "fog of war". You can't be ready for everything. Sometimes you'll be taken off balance, with your guard down. So just be ready to think on your feet, remember people are both sinners and saints, and you don't always know which side you'll see! The Devil has many tricks up his sleeve and he's not ashamed to use them against God's people.

5) Be patient, but not too patient.
Here again a balance should be struck between forebearing patience and acting in accord with the Word. Sometimes the right amount of patience is a matter of applying Law and Gospel - and takes great wisdom. You can't allow some things to go unaddressed forever. Nor can you move with haste in every situation. Knowing when to act and when to wait is a delicate and difficult equation. One tip - if you are the kind of person who tends to act too soon - balance yourself with the counsel of a person who tends to wait too long - and vice versa.

6) Teach, teach, teach!
In a conflict situation that is clearly addressed in Scripture, we simply MUST teach what Scripture teaches about it. This is not 'brainwashing' people, but equipping the saints! It may be seen as a self-serving thing to study the Bible's teaching on the conflict in question - but only to those who have already determined you are the bad guy. Christians should never, even in a conflict, be afraid to study the Word. In fact, the worse the conflict, the more essential such study becomes. The more we need his clear teaching. And therefore the pastor must teach it.

This also means, "study, study, study!" I particularly appreciated Walther as a resource during the conflict - as applying Law and Gospel was at the center of the contraversy.

7) Trust God's promise to work for good. (Rom 8:28)
Romans 8:28 tells us that God works all things together for our good. "All things" is a great promise. That would include your present suffering, any conflict or disaster you might go through. Somewhere, somehow, God is working for the good in the midst of it. That doesn't mean that God causes every conflict (certainly we are sinners enough to take credit), but it does remind us of the mystery behind what seems to be only trouble. I'm reminded of the words to the hymn, "God moves in a mysterious way, his wonders to perform.... behind a frowning countenance faith sees a smiling face".

8) Be forthright and open, but careful not to say too much. (Eccl. 3)
Talk to people! Don't avoid communicating, especially with those who are confused and troubled by the conflict. Confusion and ignorance are no friends of the Gospel, but keep the truth under a bushel basket. Darkness hates the light - so speak up! Be honest, even if it's difficult to talk about.
But be careful. Speak lovingly. This is hard, very hard, when emotions are high. Sometimes even hard things (the Law) must be spoken - but keep your anger out of it, and let the word do its own work.

Also, be careful not to say too much. Of course, keep confidences. Don't break the seal of the confessional. But also remember the 8th commandment's instruction to speak well of your neighbor - even the one who is causing you grief at the moment. Sometimes it also takes great wisdom to know when we must speak and when we must remain silent - Ecclesiastes tells us there is a time for both. Discern it well.

9) You will learn who your friends are.
Again, like a battlefield, nothing strengthens relationships more than people going through a difficult time together. With a church conflict, you will find out who your friends are. Those who wish to remain faithful, as you do, who treasure God's word, as you do, will become all the more precious to you. And you, as their pastor, will grow in their favor as well. You may also be surprised who turns up to stab you in the back or spit in your face. But even Jesus was denied and betrayed by those close to him - so should we be any better?
While conflict usually means a minor or major exodus from the congregation - and we had our share leave as well - it also can mean a deeper committment of those who remain. I've heard of other congregations which, after a similar conflict, and losing many members, actually saw an increase in offerings!

And who knows, maybe your reputation for faithfulness will draw even more souls searching for such steadfastness in the midst of the great American buffet of spineless Christianity. Perhaps, after a time of pruning, you will even see new growth, God willing.

10) There is calm after the storm.
More than anything, remember that no such suffering lasts forever - at least not for the child of God. You may even lose the battle, lose your call, your livelihood, many friends, reputation, whatever.... but you cannot lose the kingdom. A mighty fortress is our God, take they our life, goods, fame child and wife - the kingdom ours remaineth!
The conflict will end. There is calm after the storm. It may or may not be the kind of calm you are praying for, but peace will come.

11) Get on your knees, confess your sins, pray like crazy.
A time of conflict can be, and should be, a time of great spiritual growth - especially for the pastor! He should take it as an opportunity to repent, for he will surely sin in the midst of it in many ways. He should take it as an opportunity to pray - even more - and trust in God for rich supply. He should see it as a blessed time to receive forgiveness and preach it to all who would hear - but first to hear it himself. For that's what this is all about, right? Sinners forgiven by Christ crucified? Lose sight of him at your own peril. Instead, even in conflict, fix your eyes on Jesus (Hebrews 12:1-2). Laser beam focus. Jesus is everything, even in the worst of the worst.

I'm sure I'm forgetting many things. These couple of years have been a roller-coaster, and we're still figuring out what it all means. But the worst is now over, and with hindsight I can see the hand of God in it all that much clearer. He has been good to me and to our congregation. He is always good to his people.

I pray you find these reflections useful, too.