Monday, October 29, 2012

Sermon - Reformation Day (observed) - John 8:31-36

Sermon- Reformation Day (observed), October 28th, 2012
Our Savior Lutheran Church, Whitefish Bay, WI
John 8:31-36
“Truth and Freedom and Christ”

Introductions, etc...

A happy and blessed Reformation day to you all. Today, October 31st, marks the beginning of the great Reformation of the western Christian church. On this day, a monk named Martin Luther stirred up quite a debate with his 95 theses, posting them on a church door in Wittenberg, Germany. He wanted to debate the sale of indulgences – documents the church promised would forgive sins – but he ended up rediscovering the Gospel itself. And in the years that would follow, others who discovered this Good News about Jesus which had been obscured for so long – they would come to be known as Lutherans. There's more history to all this, of course, but those are the main points.

So today, many protestants and all Lutherans around the world mark and remember the Reformation. There's a danger here of course. We don't want to fall into the trap of triumphalism. One pastor puts it this way:

“Reformation Day is not simply a self-congratulatory, back-slapping day. It is not V-R Day. It is not "We got it right and everyone else is dumb" Day.
It is a day where we ought to be focused on one simple truth. Because the Church is full of sinners who will wish to twist and corrupt doctrine, who will want to turn away from the clear and pure Gospel and substitute things of their own devising, the Church is always, always in need of Reform.” (Rev. Eric Brown - “Confessional Gadfly”)

In short, the Reformation was and is still about the truth. Maybe that's why John 8 is our Gospel passage today, in which Jesus talks about the truth that sets us free.

We have sayings about the truth – that truth is stranger than fiction. That the truth hurts. That you can't handle the truth. But like Pilate, we might ask, “what is truth?”. Especially in today's post-modern context, anyone who claims to know the truth or have the truth is immediately suspect. You're narrow minded, or arrogant or uneducated or all of the above. Truth itself is under assault in our modern world of thought.

But our God is a God of truth. Jesus is the way, the truth, and the life. And Jesus himself teaches that the truth will set you free. That's another common saying, but many forget that it comes from the lips of Christ. But that begs another question. What truth is it, that's so important, that sets us free?

To the Jews who believed in him, Jesus spoke this strange saying about slavery and freedom. He wasn't talking about earthly slavery or temporal freedom. He was talking about slavery to sin.

It's a form of slavery we are all born into. There's nothing you can do to free yourself from it. Like bonds or shackles – sin is fastened tightly to you, corrupting your entire nature. Everything you do and say, even every thought you think is chained to sin. This is a hard truth – and a truth many people don't want to hear. Original sin, and the total depravity of man.

What makes it all the more insidious is that it's hard to see. But Jesus says even if you simply commit ONE sin, you are a slave to sin! Amazing! We like to convince ourselves that we don't sin that much. Ah, maybe a little. Maybe we are “sinning under the influence” but we're not hard-core, full-bore sinners. We just have a little problem, not an addiction. It's like a cold, it'll go away on it's on. But we fail to see the depth and darkness of sin's hold on us. We fail to see the walls of the dungeon that hold us captive here in these corrupted sinful bodies. We are blind to our own blindness.

The Jews Jesus was talking to didn't see it. “We're Abraham's descendants and have never been slaves to anyone”. They didn't see it. They didn't even know they were slaves. They couldn't handle the truth.

Perhaps they were also ignorant of their own history – and a lesson to draw here today is to know our own. For Abraham's descendants certainly were slaves to someone – named Pharaoh. God went to great trouble to bring them out of bondage in Egypt, sending signs and wonders, and working through the great deliverer, Moses. Throughout the Old Testament God continually reminded the people of these events – not to worship Moses, and not to think they were something in themselves – but to remind them of his great mercy and his mighty arm to save.

Do we know our own history? As Lutherans, we can look back to how God worked in mighty ways to deliver us from the bondage of false doctrine – man-made doctrine – under the power of pope instead of pharaoh. We can remember the man God once used to bring about such freedom – a monk named Luther. But we should first and foremost give thanks to God the true deliverer who brings us to the truth, and frees us from error, so that we may see Jesus our Savior clearly.

He is the true deliverer, Jesus Christ. Abiding in his word, his truth, means keeping him central to our lives and our doctrine. Jesus Christ, born of a virgin, perfect and without sin, the Son of God who sets us free from our slavery by ransoming us in his perfect death on Calvary. This is the point of Reformation day – and of every other day we mark and observe. Christ was crucified for you, the slave to sin. Christ died to set you free from sin.

He reforms you by grace through faith, in the work of his Spirit, and not of yourself but this is God's gift. No one can boast of their own works of righteousness – but we do boast all the more about how good God is to all people in his Son.

Abiding in this truth, the truth of Jesus, the church is always being freed - and reformed. Because individual sinners are being reformed. By repentance and forgiveness, God renews and reforms us toward his own image. He makes slaves to sin into sons of righteousness. He makes helpless and hopeless, wretched and wicked men and women into holy and righteous children of God. He does this for you – in Jesus Christ.

So be free – from all the sin that would cling to you. In Jesus, be free from the guilt and shame of your wicked works. He died for those. They're gone. Be free from the devil's lies and man's deceptions – and cling to, hold to, abide in Jesus' word. A word which says, “I've done it all for you – it is finished!” A word of grace and mercy, and word of hope and faith. A word which bespeaks us righteous. A little word that can fell even the devil himself, and has, at cross and tomb, at font and rail, forevermore, in Jesus Christ, Amen.

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Sermon - Pentecost 21 - Mark 10:23-31

Pentecost 21
St. John's Lutheran Church, Racine, WI
October 21st, 2012
Mark 10:23-31

Greetings, Introductions, etc...

Today's Gospel reading follows immediately after last week's, when Jesus lovingly tried to call the rich young man to repentance. “Go sell everything you have” if you want to enter the kingdom, and the man went away sad, for he was very rich. And now, Jesus comments on the incident, and on the broader problem of those with great riches entering the kingdom. And his disciples are amazed.

Why were they amazed by this? Perhaps because then, like now, we look at those with wealth and riches in a certain light. We see wealth and riches as a mark of success and perhaps even a sign of God's favor.

We Americans are especially susceptible to this kind of thinking. We are the world's superpower, and even in a down economy, the wealthiest country in the world. Our standard of living is among the highest, and we enjoy many physical blessings just by living here. Even our poor people are quite well off by a worldly standard. So the easy thing to think is, God must favor us. He must be rewarding us, as a nation, for our great values on freedom and equality. We're so wonderful aren't we? God must really love this country the most.

Well maybe you're not so convinced. But what about when we look at worldly success in the church? Look at the churches that are successful, and have it made – in terms of money and people. The happening places, the bigger the better. Yes, they have the nicest buildings, the best parking lots, the newest sound systems. And the people are going there in droves – look they have so many young people and now they need to build and expand again and.... you might think... that God is really blessing that congregation because of its worldly success, its wealth. A sign of God's favor. But be careful. Bigger isn't always better, more isn't always more favored, and these outward trappings of success can easily be as much a sign of problems in the church.

Or even as an individual. Even when we look at ourselves. For many others might consider us to be wealthy. But don't we think we've earned it? Don't we tell ourselves we deserve the nice things we have? We've worked for them. We take care of our things. We give back... somewhat... We know how to handle money. We have lots of handy reasons and rationalizations- but in the end it's the same lie – that God likes me better, that he's giving me all these good things because I deserve them. That whatever success and wealth and “stuff” I have in life is mine and I earned it.

But Jesus throws a monkey wrench in all that. For those rich people, for those successful people, and even for you and me. How difficult it is to enter the kingdom of God! And if you're rich – well – all the more. It's easier for the largest animal (perhaps they weren't familiar with elephants and dinosaurs) to go through the smallest opening. It's a ridiculous thought. It's physically impossible.

And notice the disciples' reaction. “Then who can be saved?!” See, it's not that they considered themselves rich, but they thought that wealth was a sign of God's favor. And if even the ones God blesses with riches can't enter the kingdom, than what about poor little old me? If those who are successful can't even do it, then what about me – I struggle from day to day. I can't keep my ducks in a row. I can't handle my problems. I can't even control myself. I'm a mess. I'm a sinner.

This is what Jesus is looking for. They are starting to realize the problem. They need him. You need him. Despair of your own efforts, your own works, your own value and worth. If even the rich and powerful and successful and glamorous are shut out of the kingdom, if not even those far “better” than you and I can get in... then we are sunk. On our own, we are lost. Without God, it is impossible.

“With man it is impossible, but not with God. For all things are possible with God.”

Once the despair starts to set in, the helplessness and hopelessness of their situation, Jesus starts to open the door for the Gospel. He begins to explain that while yes, it is impossible for you, even for the rich man, to enter the kingdom... with God, it's possible. It's possible, and it's a reality, in Jesus Christ... but first Peter interrupts....

“Lord, we've left everything to follow you...” Maybe this is the trick, Peter reasons. Maybe it's not being rich, but being poor that earns God's favor. Maybe it's leaving everything behind. Maybe it really is selling all your stuff and going into a career in missionary work. Maybe it's moving 9344 miles away (but who's counting) and preaching in a foreign land, to a foreign people.

But it's not that either. It's never been about having the things or not having the things. It's never been about being rich or poor, successful or not. Or about where you live and how big your house or small your checkbook. God desires all men to be saved. God blesses rich and poor alike with the blessings that truly count. It's about the heart, it's about the faith, it's about Jesus.

Jesus, who truly left everything behind, when he left his throne in heaven to be born a lowly human and laid in a lowly manger. Foxes have holes and birds have nests, but the son of man had no where to rest his head. He had no wealth or beauty that we should regard him, but humiliated himself – stricken, smitten, afflicted, chastised and condemned. Even his garments were stripped from him. A man of sorrows, well acquainted with grief. Hardly a worldly success story. He who was first became last of all... at the cross.

This is how God does the impossible. This is how God gets the rich and the poor and even you through the eye of the needle into the kingdom of heaven – through the cross. Through the impossible thought of God becoming Man, and the Creator dying for the creature, the one without sin, taking the sins of all. And through death, bringing forth life. Impossible? Not with God. Not with Jesus Christ. Not with silver or gold, but with his holy precious blood.

And this faith will lead us who believe to fear, love, and trust in him above all things. Above all material wealth and riches. It may mean literally leaving some things behind. Or it may mean simply repenting of putting these idols before the true God. Christ is worth far more to us than “houses and brothers and sisters and mothers and children and lands”. And Christ promise us far more than any of that in the kingdom to come.

But he also mentions persecution. Before the bright shiny day at the end of the tunnel, there are persecutions. Christians can expect that the life of faith brings trouble, hardship, and persecution. People won't regard us like they regard the rich – with awe and admiration. The world won't roll out the red carpet for the followers of Jesus.

In the kingdom of God things aren't always as they seem. The rich aren't always the ones with God's favor. And the persecuted and troubled aren't always the ones out of favor. The last are sometimes first, and the first are sometimes last. And even the extraordinary, the incredible, the impossible.... is possible, and very real. Even for you the sinner, salvation is sure, through Jesus Christ our Lord. In his name, Amen.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Sermon - Pentecost 20 - Mark 10:17-22

Pentecost 19
St. Paul Lutheran Church, Annapolis, MD
October 14th, 2012
Mark 10:17-22

Grace, mercy and peace.... Introductions, etc...

Another episode, another conversation, another lesson for us from Jesus. This time it's the rich young man who wants to justify himself. The dialogue is amazing. The man's ears are so stopped up with works righteous pride that he can't hear the law Jesus is blasting at him. But what the man was unwilling to do, and what none of us can do for ourselves, Jesus does for us all. Let's encounter God's law and his gospel today, so that we do not also go away sorrowful...

“What must I do to inherit eternal life??” What a question. It's a big question. An existential question. Like the meaning of life, and why do bad things happen to good people. But there's a difficulty with this question. It betrays a stunning, but very common misunderstanding of how this all works.

Let's start with the idea of inheritance. Of course in our everyday world, an inheritance is one thing. You're not supposed to have to work for it – it's supposed to be yours by rights. Perhaps the firstborn son is the traditional heir, to the farm, the estate, or the kingdom of his father.

But then, there are those strained relationships, where parents disown estranged children from the will. Families squabble over the estate like a pack of hyenas over a fresh kill. Sin turns us into green eyed monsters and things become more important than people. And we assert our rights, this is mine, I've got it coming to me. It's my inheritance.

Not so in the kingdom of God. Here, it is we who long ago disowned ourselves from God, wrote ourselves out of his will for us, rejected him and his blessings. An earthly son or daughter might hope to work their way back into a parent's graces, and maybe a share in the estate. But with God, there is no such hope. “What must I do?” when it's too late? When the judgment is already rendered, “the soul that sins shall die”. The wages if sin is death. The wicked will not stand in the judgment. Uh oh. We've got a problem here. What must I do... when what I really deserve is not to inherit eternal life, but condemnation?

The young man knew it, or so it seemed. He knew he needed something. There is a sense in all of us that we're not quite right. The law of God, written on our hearts, tells us somehow, in some way, we lack something. It's a little voice that can be muffled with enough hardening of heart. But it takes work.

This young man, in his foolishness, felt he was so close. He must have thought there was one finishing touch to be made on his lifetime masterpiece of good works. Funny how, no matter how much we tell ourselves we're righteous, there is always this lingering doubt... At least, when we're looking to ourselves, our own achievements. I may tell myself I am good. But can I convince myself I am good... enough?

“Good Teacher”. He doesn't get Jesus right, either. He doesn't address Jesus as Lord, or Savior, or Christ. Just a “good teacher”. Jesus probes, “Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone?” You don't know what good is, my friend. Yes, Jesus is good, in the truest and holiest sense of goodness. And if the man knew it, he would have shuddered in fear. Yes, Jesus is more than a teacher, he is God made flesh. And if the man knew it he would have fallen on his face, like Isaiah, and Peter, and so many other sinners confronted with the presence of Holy God. But not this young man, so sure of himself, so reliant on his own goodness, so in the dark about his sin, and his Savior.

Jesus points him to the commandments. He says he's kept them. And anyone who thinks so has a shallow view of these holy commands. This is where Martin Luther's Small Catechism is so insightful, with all of it's “What does this mean...?” Each of these commandments is just a starting point for us to examine the depth of our sins. Jesus, too, raises the bar – he says “do not murder” includes the hatred of the heart, and “do not commit adultery” includes lustful thoughts. There's no escaping the law. There is no one righteous, not one. Not this young man, not me, not your pastor, not you.

And finally, Jesus hits him where it hurts. Rather than spend all day explaining the many ways this man breaks God's law, he pulls out his scalpel, and strikes where the man's heart truly is. “Sell your stuff”. In effect, saying, “repent”. Turn from your false gods. Turn to me, the true God, the only one who is good. And I will help you.

I don't know where your heart is, but I think you do. I don't know what sins you cling to. Maybe it is greed, like the young man. Maybe it is lust, or anger, or pride. And if I were Jesus, I'd point it out, too. But I can call you to think of it, and repent of it, and turn to the one who is good, who comes to give you an inheritance you don't deserve.

So where does that leave us? We could leave here today like the young man, hanging our head in sorrow. Our we could receive him who comes to us with grace and mercy. We could go and try harder to do that one little thing that we foolishly think will complete our masterpiece of self-righteousness, or we could admit that it's all a sham, that we are poor beggars, and beg for mercy from the merciful one.

Jesus is the good teacher. But he is more than just a teacher. He gives the one thing that we lack – himself. His blood. His cross. His innocent suffering and death in our place, which gives us his own righteousness. He becomes the man of sorrows, to take away the sorrow of our sin. He is bereft of all earthly possessions, even his garments are divided among the soldiers. And finally, he gives even his own life. He gives all the riches of heaven to us, the poor, the needy, the lowly. And he makes us rich- truly rich, but not with silver or gold.

“What must I do to inherit eternal life?” The answer is: nothing. You can't. You won't, without Jesus. But with him, there is nothing you can do, for he has already done it, accomplished it, and sealed you as an heir of heaven. He has already died, that you may live. You can only receive it in faith and rejoice.

So receive him this day, in his word, in his body and blood, for your forgiveness, life and salvation. And go this day, not in the sorrow of your sin, but in the joy of your inheritance in Christ. Go, not in the self-righteousness of a fool, but in the righteousness of Christ that belongs to all the heirs of eternal life.

Monday, October 08, 2012

Sermon - Pentecost 19 - Mark 10:2-16

Pentecost 19
Bethlehem Lutheran Church, Baltimore
St. James Lutheran Church, Baltimore
October 7th, 2012
Mark 10:2-16

Grace, mercy and peace.... Introductions, etc...

The Pharisees can't trip up Jesus. He is the one who puts men to the test, not the other way around. So here, as always, their attempts to trap and trick him fail.

But there's more to this than Jesus besting them in a theological debate. There's instruction on marriage and family. There's teaching on sin and blessing. And there's hints of a deeper reality that comes in the kingdom of God through Christ – where the marriage is forever, and the children are eternally blessed.

Their question about divorce reminds me of my 7th grade confirmation students asking, “Is this a sin? Is that a sin?” It is the little legalist in all of us that wants to know what can we get away with? How far can I push the limits of the law, and still be good to go? Behind that is the assumption that if we simply avoid this or that, we can avoid sin and justify ourselves. If divorce is a sin, then just get divorced, and you haven't sinned. But if divorce is permitted, and all you need is a certificate, then get the paperwork and you're free and clear, right?

Wrong, according to Jesus. He takes them, and us, back to the source, the foundation of marriage – he takes them back to Eden. There, God created male and female. There, God instituted the one flesh union of marriage, and blessed it. There, and then, he established for us something that holds great blessing and something that should not be put asunder. So the question begins not with do's and don'ts, but with the free blessing of God for us. Sadly, we don't always receive God's gifts as the blessings he intends.

Jesus pulls no punches, so let's not either.  Yes, divorce is sinful. It is a painful reality in a sinful world. And it is a sin which Christians too often give a pass. “Oh they were just too different”. “They grew apart.”. “They couldn't make it work”. We treat divorce as something that just happens by chance. We say it's nobody's fault. But sinners do sinful things that lead to divorce. Jesus says it is because of hardened hearts.

And other sinners gloss it over, so as not to make anyone feel bad. But providing cover for a sin by acting like it's not a sin, is just as sinful. There's plenty of guilt to go around, and ample reason for all of us to repent.

Even for those of us “happily married”, do we honor God's gift of marriage as we should? Do wives submit to their husbands as to the Lord? Do husbands love their wives as their own bodies, nurturing and caring as we should? Do we lay down our lives for our wives? Paul's instructions for marriage in Ephesians could accuse us all. And if our marriage was compared to the scrutiny of our marriage vows, how many of us love, honor, and cherish as we should?

We all stand condemned. We all dishonor the gifts God gives. We all seek to put God's blessings asunder.

Jesus is not in the business of seeing people divided, separated, torn apart. He is about making whole, making one, reuniting and reconciling. Not only sinner to sinner, but sinner to God.

In Christ, God and man are made one – even in the person of Jesus. True God and true man – being of the substance of the Father, but conceived in the flesh of man in the womb of Mary. God and man are “joined together” in the incarnation, a not so subtle indication of his overall mission to bring God and man, once separated by sin, back together forever.

In Christ, God reconciles the world to himself. At the cross, even as his body is broken, Jesus repairs, restores, revives and renews. Even when we were enemies, outsiders, and wanted nothing to do with him, he sought us and made us his own.

We are united to him, buried with him and raised with him in Baptism. We are united with him and each other in the Holy Communion. There, we are together with angels, archangels and all the company of heaven. There, we are united in a physical but mysterious way with our Lord, with his Body and Blood.

What God has joined together, in Christ, let man not put asunder. Let man not separate. You see, for a Christian, marriage is much more than just two people who vow to be together until death. Christian marriage is a picture of the very union between Christ and his bride, the church. We are, all together, the bride of Christ. He is the ever-faithful bridegroom. We were the damsel in distress – the distress of sin and death. He is the knight in shining armor, our champion, who rescues from the dragon us and wins us a happily ever after.

And is it an accident that our text about marriage is followed by Jesus' regard for the little children? For one of the great blessings of marriage is that through the one flesh union, God brings forth new life. In the bearing of children, the two, quite literally, become one. Even as much as we are part of his bride, the church, so also are we, through Christ, children of God. And Jesus regards even little children.

I remember as a child of about 8 or 10, being given the great responsibility of ordering some lunch-meat while mom shopped for some other groceries. And so I stood at the deli counter, waiting for my turn. But the people behind the counter didn't seem to notice me, and only waited on the adults. Maybe they didn't think that I was old enough to do my own shopping. Or maybe I was just too short to see.

But Jesus regards the little ones. He has a special place in his heart for them. He touches them and blesses them, blesses even us. He gives us all blessings at the font. He brings us to himself, even when some would say the blessing isn't for children. He calls us his own, calls us by name, and commends us to the Father.

Receiving his kingdom like a little child means to receive him, Jesus, with childlike faith and trust in him to make it all right.

He brings forgiveness, for all who sin - for the divorcee and those who dishonor marriage in any way, for all those who are separated from God by our sins. He brings life to those whose lives are torn apart and in tatters. He brings salvation, renewal and reconciliation to all who receive him and look to the blessings of his cross rather than to our own devices. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one put asunder.... in Jesus Christ our Lord, Amen.