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.