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.