Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Sermon - Luke 18:9-17 - Pentecost 23

“Two Kinds of People”
Luke 18:9-17

There's an old saying, “There are three kinds of people in the world:  Those that can do basic math, and those that can't.”  (Think about it)

Today Jesus, in our Gospel reading, presents us with two people, and by extension two kinds of people.  And I don't mean “Democrats” and “Republicans”.  There are two kinds of people in the world.  Pharisees and Tax Collectors.  The proud and the humble.  The self-righteous, and those who claim no righteousness of their own.

This Pharisee.  His hubris is almost unbounded.  In his very prayers he expressed how full of himself he is.  “God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector.”
First he begins by claiming superiority not just over the tax collector, but over “other men”, indeed, implying he's far above most (or even all) men.

They are extortioners, but not me.  They are unjust, but not me.  They are adulterers, but not me.  And then there's this lousy tax collector.  I'm sure glad I'm not like HIM.  Everyone else is bad and sinful and worthy of derision.  But not me.  If the pharisee were alive today, surely he'd have chosen a side in politics and convinced himself he was far better than the scum of the earth on the other side.  He would see everyone else's shortcomings, real or imagined, and count himself far better.

Because on the other hand, he brags to God, “I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get” And if you pressed him, he'd probably prattle on and on about all of the other righteous outward deeds and works on his resume.  He'd probably sound a lot like the rich young man who told Jesus, regarding the commandments, “All these I have kept from my youth”

And then there's the tax collector.  “But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!”   First, he stands far off.  As if he's not worthy to be in the presence of other men, certainly more righteous than he.  He further shows his humility, by not even lifting his eyes to heaven as he prays.  Surely if he's not good enough for other men, he has nothing to show before God.  And his sorrow for sin is also shown outwardly in beating he breast, a very demonstrative expression of guilt and shame.  This man is broken.  This man is crushed by the law.  We don't know what his sin is, or maybe they are many.  But he is plagued, vexed, and tormented.  He can only beg God, “have mercy on me, a sinner!”

Could there be a greater contrast between these two?  Outwardly, the pharisee has his act together, and the tax collector is a mess.  Before man, the pharisee is a pillar of the community, and the tax collector is a low-life.  Ask any ancient Jew who you'd rather be:  the pharisee.  Ask them who would inherit the kingdom:  the pharisee.  But not so fast, says Jesus.

This man, the tax collector, went home justified.  For here is the principle:  whoever exalts himself will be humbled.  And whoever humbles himself will be exalted.

These men, who appeared so different, weren't so different at all.  For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.  That means not only tax collectors but pharisees, too.  The main difference between these men was repentance and faith.  The pharisee was living a self-righteous self-delusion.  The tax collector saw the truth with clarity.  Neither man was righteous, of himself.  But only the tax collector who acknowledged his sin went home righteous.  For he fell on the mercy of God, and received that very mercy.

The application is so clear, my friends.  Put away your self-righteous delusions.  Don't think you can impress God with your fasting and tithing, or your church-going and volunteering.  Don't claim you've kept even the least of the commandments.  Don't pretend that you can stand before the withering accusations of the law and hold up for a moment.  God knows your heart.  He sees what's inside.  All the window dressing of good works may impress your fellow man, but God will not be mocked.  Sinful pride has nowhere to hide from the Righteous Judge of all.

Rather come before him in humility.  Own your sin.  Confess it.  Hold nothing back, but lay it out there before him.  “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.  But if we confess our sin...  if we confess our sin.... God who is faithful and just, will forgive our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.”

The same Jesus who cleanses lepers and gives sight to the blind, the same Jesus who casts out demons and heals all manner of disease.  The same Jesus who responds in compassion to so many calls for mercy, even from a poor sinful tax collector  – This Jesus has had mercy upon you.

Jesus so often breaks the expectations of the world, and turns them upside down.  “If you are the Christ, save yourself!”  they mocked.  Ah, but he is the Christ, and his precise plan was not to save himself, but us.  He conquers by his own seeming defeat.  He destroys death by being destroyed.  He takes away sin by becoming sin.  And his cross, where he is shown no mercy -  is precisely how he is merciful to the sinner.

The final section of this reading also contrasts two kinds of people:  children and grown-ups.  Now in Jesus' day children were not idolized as they are in our culture today.  We have gone to the other extreme of placing many children on a golden pedestal, where they can do no wrong.  Some parents very purposely won't even say 'no' to their children.  Some raise them with the assumption that the child will know best how to choose his own values, and we adults should stay out of the way.  And many believe that children are innocent, paragons of virtue born without wicked inclinations.

But in Jesus' day children were often regarded as far less than adults.  Adults were the valuable and productive members of society.  People who have gained the wisdom of life the hard way – by living it.  People who understand and can grasp Jesus' teaching and interact, ask pertinent questions.  Many people, even Jesus' own disciples, couldn't be bothered with children, and didn't imagine Jesus would bother with them either.

But Jesus welcomes children.  He receives them, blesses them, and sets them before the adults as an example – not of good works – but of faith.  “The kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these”  But why?  Not because the children are our future.  Not because they are morally superior.  But because they show us that the kingdom of heaven is passively received.  Jesus commends their faith.

And that faith is the same as the tax collector who had nothing to offer God but his plea for mercy.  These children had no grand life accomplishments.  They had nothing to boast about like the pharisee.  But they were excellent examples of receiving by faith all that the merciful Father gives.  They come to Jesus, and he blesses them, freely by his grace.

Truly, there are two kinds of people in the world.  Not some good and some bad – for all have sinned.  Some repent and some do not.  Some have faith in Christ, and some do not.  Some want to be grown-ups who can do everything themselves.  Some have a childlike faith that receives the gifts from the giver of all good things.  Some think they are something when they are nothing.  And some know they are nothing, but are made something by grace.  Two kinds of people.

Depart in peace.  Children, you have received the kingdom.  Go home justified.  In Jesus Christ our Lord.  Amen.


Monday, October 10, 2016

Semron - Luke 17:11-19 - Pentecost 21

Luke 17:11-19
October 9th, 2016
“Mercy for Lepers”

“Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!”

“Well, friends, first you have to ask me into your heart.”  No...

“Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!”

“You do your part, and I'll do mine.”  No...

“Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!”

“Oh, but what have you done for me lately?”  No...

“Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!”

“Go, show yourselves to the priests”.  In other words, “I'm way ahead of you, fellas.  The healing is already a done deal.  No strings attached.  I have had mercy on you, in fact I'm all about mercy.  No need to pay me for this, you couldn't afford the price anyway.  But receive this gift.  Just go and make it official, now, with the priests.”

So our merciful Lord, in yet another example of his great compassion, heals the 10 lepers.  He saved them, as only he could, from a fate worse than death.  For apart from the physical horrors of leprosy, their disease also made these men ritually unclean.  And even worse than bearing the shame of such a condition, they were cut off from society, friends and family.  The were exiles.  Castaways.  Dead men walking who were not even afforded the comfort of loved ones, as the grave stared them in the face.

But Jesus makes clean the unclean.  He heals the sick.  He brings even the dead back to life.  Leprosy is no match for him.  Nor is the root cause of all earthly suffering and disease.  Christ conquers death, by bearing its wages upon himself.  He goes to the cross!  He carries that cross outside the city.  And there he lays down his life as a ransom for many.  Into his own flesh he takes all that is or ever was unclean, and he casts it, with himself, into the darkness.  He takes it, even to the grave.  But there it stays.  For his part, a resurrection follows – and his body is restored not just to life but to exaltation.  And it is verified, shown not just to a few priests, but to all the witnesses of the resurrection – including at least 500 people on one occasion.

Of course, he does so also for you.  Sure, you may not see outwardly what those lepers did – the rot and stench of sin's consequences.  But surely, sin has left its mark in your life.  As you grow older, and your little box of regrets becomes a closet, and then a storage facility.  As you see the chaos sin unleashes in your relationships – and don't you go thinking it's always the other person's fault!  Sin may not bring leprosy, but it eventually rears its head in our aches and pains, our chronic and acute conditions, disease, and finally death.  You can only live in denial of sin for so long, until the wages of sin come due in the starkest fashion, and it's undeniable.

When you see it, when you know it, confess it, Christian!  Call for help to the only one who can save!  Beg for mercy from the one who is always merciful.  “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!”

And, of course, he does.  He heals.  He restores.  He cleanses.  He even bestows new life.  Although he doesn't always do so outwardly, in the fashion we desire and on the timetable that pleases us.  Even Christians, even the most faithful Christians, still get sick and die.  Christians bear crosses in this life – problems that sometimes have no earthly solution.
None of this means you aren't a Christian.  None of this means God has forgotten you, is angry with you, or is punishing you.

Sometimes all we can do is keep faith and know that God works in all things for the good.  Faith trusts that God knows best.  We walk by faith, and not by sight.  And faith also looks to the horizon, that final day when the dead in Christ rise, and our eternal inheritance is fulfilled.  Then we will see, in our restored flesh, the final “yes” to all God's promises in Christ.

And that prayer of the lepers, the prayer of blind Bartemaus, is the prayer, really, of all Christians - “Lord, have mercy!”  We prayed it already this morning in song, the “Kyrie Eleison”, Greek for “Lord, have mercy!”  It's always an appropriate prayer because it calls on the merciful character of God, and of Christ.  It trusts God to both know and do what is best.  It asks for help, not because we are worthy, but because faith knows that God delights in showing mercy.  So we can pray:  forgive me my sins, Lord have mercy!  Save me from death, Lord have mercy!  Bless the helpless, Lord have mercy!  Comfort the distressed, Lord have mercy!

But there's a second part to this story.  It's not just that these men beg for mercy, and Jesus grants it.  9 of them are, at least outwardly, obedient to his command – they set out immediately to “show the priest” the healing Jesus bestowed.  They are eager to get on with their lives, see their friends and families, perhaps get back to work and life as normal.  And can that be so wrong?

But the one, the one of the 10 returns and falls on his face, to give thanks.  And this one, a Samaritan.  The other 9 we assume were Jews.  But here is the outsider amongst the outsiders. The one who the Jews would expect to set the bad example.  But he alone returned to give proper thanks.

There's a reason that this is the text appointed for our Thanksgiving Day services every year.  This leper, now cleansed, this Samaritan, shows us by his example the pattern we ought to follow:  We see our unclean, wretched state.  We cry to God in Christ for mercy.  We receive the very mercy we need from Christ.  We return to him proper thanks for all his benefits.

Yes, first of all, even in worship.  The leper fell before Christ, that's what the word often translated as “worship” really means – going face down, prostrated.  We humbly, reverently, yet joyfully and thankfully acknowledge, first of all, the gifts and the giver.  This is the pattern laid out in all of scripture, in the Psalms - “let us come before him with thanksgiving” (Ps. 95), “Enter his gates with thanksgiving” (Ps. 100) “Give thanks to the Lord for he is good, and his steadfast love endures forever” (1 Chr. 16:34) and Paul writes, “And whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.” (Col. 3)
A thankful, grateful heart, living in the Christian, is part of the fruits of our faith.  But it doesn't stop with simply saying “thanks” to God.  Faith also expresses its gratitude in love for our neighbor:  That we would show how much we appreciate the mercy of Christ by showing mercy to others.  That we would help as we have been helped, love as we have been loved.  A Christian does these things not to earn or gain what we already have – rather, out of thankfulness we exercise our faith in service to our neighbor.

Truly, we are nothing, and we have nothing apart from Christ.  We are just as bad off as a leper colony.  Separated from God by sin, and careening toward a pitiful death.  But here comes Jesus.  We cry out, “Lord, have mercy!” And he does.  We are made clean by his blood.  May we also return thanks where it is due, not only in word, but also in deed.

So you, too, rise and go.  Give thanks to God.  Your faith in Christ has saved you.