Sunday, July 31, 2011

Trinity 6 Sermon

6th Sunday after Trinity – Matthew 5:17-26 – July 31st, 2011

In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit +
One of the worst things a Christian can think about himself is that he is a “good person.” There is nothing more damaging to your faith than pride and self-righteousness, than viewing your own actions with a smug grin and saying, “I’m certainly not that bad.” The reason for this is two fold. First, when we say that we are “good” – we don’t really mean “good” as in “God is Good”, but we tend to mean “good” as in, eh, okay, meh, pretty good. We lower our standards to make sure we meet them – and the problem is God does not like us lowering our standards. The second major danger of thinking of ourselves as “good”, is that this then gives our sinful flesh free reign to look down upon, despise, and berate anyone whom we think doesn’t measure up to our standards. Both of these attitudes and approaches are dangerous to you. Both of these approaches are warned against by Christ Jesus in our Gospel Lesson this morning.

“Therefore, whoever relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven.” We are not to go monkeying around with God’s Law. We aren’t to undercut it, we aren’t to say that what God has commanded isn’t what He has commanded. We are not to lower God’s standards to something that we can do much more easily. But, this is the temptation that we face from Satan all the time, especially when we get to thinking about how we are good, or at least pretty good. Well, I know I’m not perfect, but I’m pretty good. Did you hear what that idea just did? It just relaxed the commandments. The command is not to be pretty good, the command is to be perfect as your Father in Heaven is perfect. And what happens when we as Christians look at our lives and we settle for pretty good, or we settle for good enough? If I think am good enough, why would I need this place? Why would I need to ponder God’s Law and learn and grow in knowledge – I’m already pretty good? But even more dangerous than that – if I am pretty good, why would I need to confess my sins and receive forgiveness? If I think that I’m pretty good, I’m not going to think about how much I need Christ – I’ve been thinking I’m good enough on my own.

And bear in mind, it’s not a simple, automatic jump to where you think, “Eh, that wasn’t too bad” and then the next thought is “Beh, I don’t need no stinking Jesus.” But there is a pattern, a movement. When you relax the Law, you don’t see your own sin, and the less and less you see your own sin, the less and less you confess your own sin, the less and less you will see and rejoice in Christ’s forgiveness for you. Christ Jesus has come to forgive your sins – to Justify you… but if you are already saying you are pretty good, if you are already ignoring the Law and calling your own actions justified already, you’ll slowly, more and more, stop looking to Christ. You’ll only think about Jesus and His forgiveness for the “big” mistakes… and then, because you get more and more used to patting yourself on the back, you won’t see any of your mistakes as being big anymore… and slowly but surely, less and less time is spent listening to God’s Word, hearing the Law in its fullness, and certainly less in hearing and receiving Christ’s forgiveness.

And American Christianity tends to lean this way. When we listen to the radio folks, when we read books – a lot of it tries to water the law down into something that we can do – a lot of it revolves around trying to make us good people. Instead of preaching God’s Law in its fullness, its sternness, and then having to say, “I am not a good man, but I am a poor miserable sinner,” we Americans like to water things down to where they are doable. Instead of being the giant reminder of sin, we want the Law to be a checklist of things that we can accomplish to show everyone what good little people we are. It’s strange, but when someone says, “You can’t drink, Christian don’t drink” – that’s weakening, that’s relaxing the law. That’s making up something new that some people can do easily – and then patting yourself on the back, all the while ignoring other parts of the law. No, when we look at God’s Law, when we hear it, when we hear the Ten Commandments, we must never let ourselves think, “Oh, I’ve done that.” No, the Law shows us our sin, kills our sinful pride, and drives us to Confess our sins.

Another aspect of this, of thinking that we are “good” people, is that normally if I think of myself as good, it isn’t good as by God’s standards (for I know I can’t do that), but good compared to my neighbor. And so what happens is that if I am interested in making myself feel better about myself, I will look down upon my neighbor. Did you hear what so-and-so did? Well, I’d never… Kick mud in the neighbor’s face and then note how lily clean you are without all that mud. It happens. And listen to how our Lord describes the 5th commandment, especially in light of our sinful desire to elevate ourselves over our neighbor. “You have heard that it was said of old, ‘You shall not murder,’ and ‘whoever murders will be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment; whoever insults his brother will be liable to the council; and whoever says, ‘You fool!’ will be liable to the hell of fire.” Oh, I’m a good person, I’ve never killed anyone. But have you been angry with your neighbor? Have you looked down upon them, insulted them, called them names, thought how you are so much better than them – were glad you weren’t a fool, and idiot like them? Then you are vile sinner, and Christ Jesus Himself says that you are liable to the hell of fire. The Hell of fire. His words. There’s no way to soft-sell that one – Jesus here is blunt. So what happens when we start playing goody-two-shoes games and start looking down upon our brother to make ourselves seem better, to make ourselves feel better? We deserve hell. God didn’t put your brother into your life so that you can pat yourself upon your back as you look down upon him, God put your neighbor in your life to give you someone that you could love and serve and thus be the servant God created you to be – and when you try to justify yourself, when you try to say how good you are, and especially when you think how much better you are than them, you completely forget who you are, who you were created to be, and you trash God’s Law totally and utterly.

None of us should be comfortable hearing this. We shouldn’t. This should make us squirm a bit. This should make us remember our need for Christ Jesus. While Jesus does quite a bit of warning, quite a bit of smacking us upside our self-righteous heads here, there is beautiful Gospel for us to consider – because Christ Jesus your Lord doesn’t look at you condescendingly, He doesn’t despise you for your sin. Rather, He comes to redeem you. Listen: “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them.” Jesus doesn’t come to pat you on the back and tell you to just keep on sinning. He doesn’t get rid of that mean, harsh law so you can be content being jerks to each other. He does something much more wondrous than abolishing the Law – He fulfills it. In your place. The attitude of the unfaithful is to try to justify, to excuse himself. “It’s not my fault.” We saw that in the garden. It’s not my fault, it’s the woman You gave me, she tricked me. Oh, it’s not my fault, it’s the snake’s fault, the Devil made me do it. But dear friends in Christ Jesus, that isn’t the game we play. Rather this – we confess our sins, but then we also confess that Christ Jesus has come into this world and that He is perfect, that He has fulfilled the Law, that He is the Lamb of God, without blemish or spot or flaw, Who takes away the sin of the world. We are not perfect, but Christ Jesus is – and this same Christ Jesus has fulfilled the Law and the Prophets for us. Are you good enough for heaven? No, but Christ Jesus is good for you, good in your place. And He has traded places with you. Christ Jesus your Lord has taken up your sin, and He has crucified it upon the Cross. That is the point of our Romans passage – your sin has been punished already – it was punished almost 2000 years ago. And in exchange for your sin, Christ Jesus gives to you His own righteousness and life. He joined Himself to you in the waters of Holy Baptism, He gives Himself to you in His Supper. And what does this mean? “For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and the Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” You aren’t good enough to earn yourself heaven. Simply aren’t. Even the scribes, the folks who study the Scriptures all the time, they aren’t good enough themselves. Even the Pharisees, the best of the best among the Jews, they aren’t good enough in and of themselves. But you, dear friends, your righteousness does exceed them, because Christ Jesus is your righteousness. You do not justify yourselves, rather you confess your sin and let Christ Jesus justify you. This is His great love and mercy to you, that He redeems you from your sin.

This is why our Lord teaches this: “So if you are offering your gift at the altar and remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go. First be reconciled to your brother and then come and offer your gift.” Now, don’t merely understand this as some holy hoop to jump through, some divine checklist to scratch off. Rather, our Lord is teaching us that He is always about reconciliation. He came down from heaven to forgive you your sins and to reconcile you to God the Father. Likewise, His forgiveness is upon you, upon your brother, so that you may be reconciled to each other in this life. If your brother has something against you, if you have done that which has tempted your brother to call you a fool, confess your sin to him, and beg his forgiveness. If your brother has wronged you, offer him forgiveness, be reconciled to him. Our lives here ought not be about our sinful pride that would isolate us from one another. Rather this – Christ Jesus is your righteousness, He is your life, and this applies to all things. You need never defend yourself. Repent and receive forgiveness. Remember that the one who wrongs you is just a sinner as you are, and speak Christ’s Word of forgiveness to them. None of us are perfect, and there’s no point in ranking ourselves or figuring out who is better. Rather this – let us all remember that we are sinful folk, people who without Christ Jesus’ love for us would be liable to the hell of fire. But the great and wondrous truth is this. Christ Jesus has come, He has won forgiveness for all our sins, and He gladly gives us this forgiveness daily and richly in His Church – all praise and glory be to Him, for He is our righteousness, for He has fulfilled the Law and Prophets for us. In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit +

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Thoughts Upon Hearing The Rumor of a Brother Leaving the Synod

The Missouri Synod can often be a skitterish, frightful bunch. In many ways our clergy can act like a gaggle of Junior High Girls. We will stand together in a corner (say, isn't the German word for "corner" "Winkel") and titter away on the latest scuttlebutt.

This tittering is always interesting when one of our own leaves the Synod (or is rumored to, at least) - swimming the Bospohorous and goes East or swimming the Tiber and becomes Roman Catholic (yes, we have cute little names for this too). And often, like the Junior High girls, there are all sorts of wild reactions. There often is anger - fierce, biting, accusatory anger. Often there is fear - who will be next, will this start the tide that spells the ruin of our cool girls club... I mean Synod?

How do I react? Me, I think of a Chris Rock routine.

I heard Chris Rock do a routine about OJ Simpson - and this was well after the fact when the wild passions had cooled down. And Rock comes out and says that we know OJ did it. But then he paused, and said something along the lines of imagine your wife in your car with your money running around with another man... but building it up. And after all the build up he said words of wisdom.

"I ain't saying it was right, but I understand."

Whenever I've come across the tales of these folks who have left the Synod... I'm not filled with anger (maybe a bit of sadness) - I'm not worried about the doom of everything. These things happen in life. This world is harsh, and we get kicked in the teeth, especially pastors.

And we as pastors get scared, we get angry at institutions, we get hurt and bruised and battered. And some of us... go away.

I ain't saying it's right, but I understand.

Most every pastor who has left the LCMS that I know of (other than the folks who just fall off the moral wagon and move in with their new boyfriend or something like that) has some wound, some hurt some pain. And they think that leaving will keep that pain at bay.

I understand that. And you know what - for many things they are right. That specific pain might get covered. If you are being kicked in the teeth, the teeth kicking will stop. If you want to chant in peace - well, "they" will find a place where you can chant in piece. If you a tired of the lack of oversight (i.e. you don't want to be the bishop anymore, you want to be under a bishop who can take care of you), you can find that.

That I understand.

Far too well.

But the reason why I've never really been tempted to go anywhere else is two fold.

First, It might make you feel good, but it's not worth the cost. It's the same reason why I don't do drugs... that might make the immediate problem go away... but it's not worth the cost. And yes, other confessions might safe guard you from the strife that you are facing right here, right now... but they don't have the Gospel in its clarity. And I can't give that up - that is too high a cost.

And more over - I'm a historian. You take your lumps here -- and while they might shield that bruise you have now... there's plenty of filth and kicking going on everywhere. It's the nature of this world, it's the nature of the Church militant. If you fear the Evangelicalizing trends in Missouri... you realize that wave is coming in the East, right? You're jumping right into an Americanization process. If you go to Rome, you've seen their liberation theology, you've seen their capitulation to reason... and you've seen that their hierarchy is coming under much more scrutiny, right?

And that's just the junk I see. I can go talk to my RC friends or my EO friends and hear plenty of complaints about the parish across town.... It's an awful lot of "2nd verse, same as the first."

I ain't saying it's right.

But sometimes - when we are in the moment, in the trial - under those specific pressures and burdens... we just need to go.

When you go my friend, know this.

I won't be saying that you're right, but if you want to talk about it, I will understand.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

What is Freedom?

I am weird. I love people who have completely and totally different political views than me. I love seeing the different ways people approach things - especially when they are consistent.

I love them, even though I disagree with them. Why? Because I know that their thoughts really don't threaten me... because I am Christ's.

So what if my crazy liberal friends take over? Meh... I belong to Christ. If they tax me, so what - Jesus died for me.

So what if my neo-con friends take over? Meh... I belong to Christ. If they clamp down on all my freedoms - I am free in Christ Jesus.

If the Socialists, the Communistist, the Darwinists, the Environmentalists take over -- they really can't do anything to me... not in the long run. At worst they can make my body suffer, which only drives me closer to Christ until that day when I am with Him for all eternity.

Christ Jesus makes me free - free to enjoy and be fascinated by all the crackpot ideas that are out there in the world. And that's pretty sweet.

What the World Needs Now, is Law, Stern Law.

The World NEEDS the Law preached to it. I am more and more convinced of this.

Not because people are behaving poorly. Not because there is outward unrighteousness. Not because there are cats and dogs living together and mass hysteria.

I will make a blunt and overstated statement. I don't care about civil righteousness. Okay, I do, it's a good thing... but Hell is going to full of folks who were nice, civilly righteous people. Civil righteousness is the icing on the cake of life... and people are missing the meat.

We need to preach the Law because people no longer have any concept of sin. There is no concept of personal accountability for wrong actions, even if one would be bold enough to submit that anything short of rank terrorism is wrong. Well, that, and you being wrong for hurting my feelings.

But there is no sense of things being... wrong. Or if they are wrong... it's this movement's fault. Blame the Muslims, blame the Republicans, blame the corporations, blame the immigrants. It's some depersonalized idea or attribute. It's greed (not my greed), it's poverty, it's religion, it's violence, it's fear.

But when do people ever say that it is their fault? Why must, whenever anything bad happens, we play the victim card where everything rests upon another.

You know why I'm overweight? I'll talk about the heat making me not want to exercise. I'll talk about how the ads on TV spur me to get snacks that I don't need. I could even mention the serving sizes at the restaurants. And even if that is all true.... you know why I am overweight?

Because I am lazy. Because I do not exercise self-control, both in what I eat and in what I do regarding exercise.

And that's something silly like my waist size. Ultimately, that's not that important in the long run.

What about sin. What about the fact that I am worthy of hell and damnation? What about the fact that my only hope for salvation is in the redemption won for me by Christ Jesus.

The World needs the Law... because right now the world has no idea that it actually needs Christ Jesus.

Who cares if we make people behave nicely if they are still riding in the handbasket and going south quicker and quicker?

We need the Law to do some killing, the Law to prepare for the Gospel. We need the Law to smash some self-righteousness.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Just a Quick Thought

Just a quick thought.

I had a friend today say that he thought the human race was perfectable. To a point that is true -- I will be perfect one day - perfect in Christ. I will be perfect because of the Gospel. But not via social growth or development.

It's sad that people really think that eventually evil will just go away - that things are done simply because of bad environment or what have you. It's just an undercutting of law and personal accountability -- yet it is a prevelent view today. Is it any wonder that the Gospel is disdained... we think we'll obtain perfection through Chemistry, Social Justice, and plastic surgery. Why would anyone who thinks this way seek perfection and redemption in Christ Jesus?

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Trinity 5 sermon

Trinity 5 – July 24th, 2011 – Luke 5:1-11

In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit +
The night was long and hard and backbreaking. There were no machines to keep pulling in the empty nets like on Deadliest Catch, it was simply the muscle power of Simon Peter and his fellow fishers. Thick, heavy rope, waterlogged, grating over callous hands – cast out, pulled up from the depths, over and over and over again. And all for nothing. A full night of toil, and no fish to be seen. And so, weary and worn, the fishermen pull into the shore. No rest yet, there are still chores to do. The nets must be washed and mended – seaweed cleaned off, frays picked up during the night repaired. And all with no catch, without even the prospect of getting a little cash as a reward for the hard labor.

And then Jesus, the teacher comes. Simon Peter sees Him. What will this Jesus do? He will put Simon Peter to work. Getting into one of the boats, which was Simon’s, he asked him to put out a little from the land. Ah, yes, you there, cleaning the nets, would you mind waiting on that and driving me around in your boat for a bit? Think about that for a moment. Put yourself into Simon Peter’s shoes. You are tired, you are worn. You’ve had a rotten day. And just as you sit down, think you are about done – suddenly this Guy who is bright eyed and bushy tailed wants to go out on your boat. And it wouldn’t be just a brief time – this is Jesus the Teacher – and He’ll probably be teaching for quite some time. It would be the last thing I’d want to do if I were Simon. Yet Simon goes – tired and worn – and Simon sits there, at Jesus’ feet, learning, hearing the Word of God. Now, that kind of puts us to shame, doesn’t it? Simon, tired and worn as he is, listens to God’s Word. No excuses – no “It’s too late for devotions tonight, I’ll just catch up tomorrow,” no “can’t you find someone else” – no excuses. Simon simply puts out onto the lake with Jesus in the boat.

And then, in the boat, Simon is put to the test. And when [Jesus] had finished speaking, he said to Simon, “Put out into the deep and let down your nets for a catch.” And Simon answered, “Master, we toiled all night and took nothing! But at Your Word I will let down the nets.” Now, Simon isn’t dumb. He’s tired, he’s worn – and he knows what Jesus’ request will mean for him. More work. He’ll have to re-do the clean up. Hours of more work. And Simon is a little put out – we already worked all night – but we’ll humor You. And so, the nets are cast. And when they had done this, they enclosed a large number of fish, and their nets were breaking. They signaled to their partners in the other boat to come and help them. And they came and filled both the boats, so that they began to sink. A big catch – enough to nearly swamp two fishing boats – more than they would expect on the best night of fishing, right there.

So – what will be Simon Peter’s reaction to this? Will he say, “well it’s about time – you know I’ve been a good little boy and it’s about time something good happened to me”? Does Simon think he’s earned such wonderful blessings by being a good fellow? Will it be, “Maybe we should get this Jesus to come out fishing with us all the time, He could really grow the business”? Are his thoughts upon money and cash, his pocket? No. Listen. But when Simon Peter saw it, he fell down at Jesus’ knees saying, “Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord.”

That is an astonishing response, is it not? Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord. Let’s ponder that for a moment. How many of you are blessed? You all are, quite blessed. I suppose I could pause here, tell you to count your blessings, maybe go over a list of all the ways in which you are blessed – body and soul, house and home – all those things you memorized when you learned the meaning to the 1st Article of the Creed in the Small Catechism. There are countless blessings right in front of you all the time – and what is your response to them? Now, normally, if there is a sermon that deals with blessings, we all expect it to be about thankfulness where the Pastor wags the finger and says, “You need to be more thankful.” That’s not the point today – you should be thankful, yes – but listen to Simon’s response again – Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord.

Do you see Simon Peter’s humility? Do you hear it? Here Christ lays out a fantastic blessing before him – and what is Simon’s response? I’m not worthy. I don’t deserve any of this. In fact, I am a sinful being, and from God I deserve only wrath. This can almost seem a strange reaction – but it shouldn’t. Simon Peter is spot on here, he hits the nail on the head. He isn’t worthy, he doesn’t deserve any of the blessings God gives him. In fact he deserves only God’s wrath. Do we ourselves think that way? We say it – we confess that “I have ever offended You and justly deserved Your . . . temporal and eternal punishment.” We confess in the Catechism that all that we have received from God comes to us “without any merit or worthiness in me.” We say the words of humility, but are we humble – or are we proud? We say that we deserve punishment – but do we get downcast and upset when we don’t have things go our way? Are we proud or are we humble? Do we tell God that we ought to have more and more because we are just so gosh darn good people – or do we as Christians ever more and more realize just how completely undeserving we are of any and every blessing God gives us? Simon Peter here reminds us and teaches us. He could have looked to what a kind person he was – he could have said, “well, I’m a good little boy who did what Jesus said, of course I should get a bunch of fish” - he could have turned this into some Televangelist spiel on the Bible Way of growing your business. But Simon is not brash nor is he proud, and he doesn’t care about that. No – Simon sees God’s blessing, and He confesses that as a sinner, he doesn’t deserve any of it.

And then, hearing Simon Peter’s humility, hearing his confession, Christ speaks. And Jesus said to Simon, “Do not be afraid; from now on you will be catching men.” We know this verse – it’s one we learn when we are little – I can tell, because in my head I’ve got the old style “fishers of men” memorized. And so often we skip to the end of the verse – we jump to that fishing men, catching men part. The sermon then normally twists into a giant law bomb about how you need to be out there catching men, how you need to do more for Jesus! And that misses the point – listen to the first thing Jesus says. Do not be afraid. That’s the key. Christ Jesus sees Simon Peter before him, sees a man who knows that he is a sinner, knows his own flaws and weaknesses, knows that he has failed in living as he ought. And what does Jesus say to Simon Peter? Do not be afraid. Jesus forgives him. Jesus says, “do not fear because of your sin – I forgive you all of your sins.” Christ handles the problem. I will not depart from you, Simon Peter. Instead, I have come down from heaven, was born of the Virgin Mary, precisely so that I can suffer and die and put to death your sin, so that you may be with me forever. The sin that separated you and Me, the sin that has separated man from God ever since the garden, ever since your first parents hid in fear – I will put an end to it, I will forgive it. And so our Lord says to Simon – Do not be afraid.

This is the same thing that our Lord cries out to us over and over in service. Do not be afraid – I forgive you. Do not think in fear that you need hide from God – The Lord be with you. Do not be terrified and all aflutter – peace be with you. Your cries for mercy do not go unheard. Your Lord forgives you – and that truth is central to everything that happens in this room, in this sanctuary. You, dear friends, are forgiven.

Do not be afraid; from now on you will be catching men. So, how is Simon Peter going to be catching men? How? What does he do? Now, if we look around at the world, we get a lot of modern, spiffy ideas about how to catch men. Nice billboards and flashing signs will pack them in. Neat programs will draw them. Good advice for living, that will do it. An entertaining “experience” full of bells and whistles. Is this what Simon Peter used? When Simon Peter went about the business of catching men that the Lord said he would – was it social programs and the like? No. Not at all. It’s not some massive, complicated undertaking. In fact, it’s not about what Peter does, but what Christ has done. Peter simply proclaims the same thing that Christ has said to him – do not be afraid. Repent of your sins and believe in Christ Jesus and His forgiveness. Simple as that. All about Jesus. That’s what Peter preaches on Pentecost. And Peter said to them, “repent and be baptized every one of you in the Name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the Holy Spirit.” Look, your sin is forgiven by Christ, you are restored to God – in fact, the Holy Spirit will be with you. Or when Peter speaks in front of the Jewish Council – This Jesus is the stone that was rejected by you, the builders, which has become the cornerstone. And there is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved. Or his first epistle – “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! According to His great mercy, He has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ.” Totally focused on the fact that Christ Jesus had come, has won salvation. Everything focused on Christ – always and over and over Peter proclaims the same thing - repent and be forgiven on account of Christ’s death and resurrection. It is as simple as that, and in truth that is the only way in which men will be truly caught. The proclamation of the Gospel of Christ Jesus.

And that’s what this place is about. That’s why this Church still stands – so that God’s forgiveness might be proclaimed to us poor sinners who gather here desperately in need of it. That is why this Church still stands – so that people can hear of God’s love for them – not in terms of getting more stuff, because things come and go and stuff here isn’t going to last; not in terms of being entertained, because Jesus knows that our true problems in life aren’t that we are bored but that we were born sinners who need forgiveness. No – this place still stands so that all people, you, me, your friends, your neighbors, strangers you’ve yet to meet, all of us have a place set up and established where can hear of God’s love for us in Christ Jesus – that He sent His only Son to die for us, and for His sake forgives us all our sin. Here in this place, knowing God’s forgiveness, we learn to approach this life as people who are humble, who have learned to rejoice in God’s blessings, whatever they be, great or small, so that as Christ’s humble children we might approach the trials of this life without fear, not being afraid, knowing above all that we are forgiven by Christ Jesus. The same words which He speaks to Simon Peter are the same words He speaks to you today, and will continue to speak to you here as long as His Church here stands. Do not be afraid – you are forgiven. In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit + Amen.

Saturday, July 23, 2011

A Wonderful Blog and Why I Argue the Way I Do

I would like to point out a wonderful blog. It is He Remembers the Barren - a blog about the issues and thoughts that come up with not being able to have children, adoption (and its difficulties) and the like.

There is a reason why I don't like focusing on how things are "supposed" to be - why I don't like going into discussions of Natural Law and things like that. Because in a sinful world, through no fault of our own, often things don't go like they "ought". When we say, "This is what your life should be" we so often forget the specific realities of how a person's life in a sinful world *is* - and people get stepped on and crushed with guilt and shame.

We live in a pressure packed society - a society that has invented phrases like, "keeping up with the Joneses". We have to worry about keeping up appearances and the the like. If you've been in Junior High, you know peer pressure. If you've lived in a neighborhood association, you get this. If you watch advertising, you understand the social pressure to keep up and do this, to buy that - regardless of the reality of your own needs and finances.

We ought to oppose these crushing pressures. They are cruel and mean because they are of the world, and the world is cruel and mean. It seems though that instead of telling people that they are free in Christ, that they don't have to play by the world's standards (which would be truly liberating), some folks want to just throw out a new and better standard.

Which just crushes people more.

Instead of comforting the one who cannot have the 2.4 children, we talk about how people should have 7 or 8 and just need to be more open to God's blessings. And they have to in order to grow the Church. Crush.

Instead of speaking gently to the people who fear that they can't afford more children, we just criticize them as being selfish instead of finding out why they are fearful. Or the parents who "only" have _____ children and feel that they can only handle what they have -- and we chastize them for not trusting more in God. Crush.

Or finding the person who is single and bemoaning how "good" Christians need to be married and establishing families... totally forgetting that marriage is given and established by God in His own time. Crush.

Instead of consoling the person who deals with sexual attraction to the their own gender and helping them deal with their struggles (pointing out that they are basically in the same situation as any unmarried person and that keeping passions in check is a pain), we will lambaste them for going against nature (as though my Swedish blood that calls out for me to plunder, pillage, and establish a harem somehow isn't against nature as God created it). Crush.

(What about the other denominations - you know, you are supposed to be rich and you will be if you just have enough faith! That crushes. Oh, you mean substituting "kids" for "cash" crushes people too... hmmm... but kids are a bless... oh, wait, so is my material stuff... yeah, they were both in the 1st article).

Instead of simply seeing the horrors of social pressure, it seems as though some in the Church have decided to "fight fire with fire." We become pious Rush Limbaughs declaring "the way things ought to be." We Crush.

That's not who I am as a pastor. I'm simply not. I don't worry now about how things "ought" to be... the time when things will be how they ought to be, but that is not now. Now, let's deal with what is.

You are a sinner who is pulled in many different directions, with guilt thrown upon you for things you have done, with false guilt and shame thrown upon you because you don't meet up to standards that someone else establishes. Sometimes you want to give into these temptations and pressures because you think it will make things easier.

You are forgiven by Christ Jesus. You are given life by Him. Even your life now. Even if it is not all it is cracked up to be (by some), even if there are pains and difficulties - temptations to face down and false expectations that won't be met. Even in the midst of this, you have life. Seeing Him, you have joy...

Not happiness, not necessarily pleasure... but joy. You have confidence in your salvation. You have confidence that He will make you endure, even unto life everlasting. You know that you are loved by Christ Jesus - whatever the world throws at you. These truths are the source of "joy" -- not necessarily happy feelings or emotional highs or your "best" life now... but that fruit of the Spirit that is tied to love and peace.

The Law no peace or joy ever gives, even if it is good. Especially if it is used as an artificial (though called "natural") standard of what your life should look like.

If you want to know what your life does look like - look at Christ Jesus. There is suffering, there is hardship - and there is life and salvation because of Him.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

What You "Want" Shapes Your Theology

So often theology becomes an exercise in the Ego. We shape our theology around what we "want". If we want stuff - our theology is about stuff and wealth and temporal blessings. If we want permission to do stuff - we talk about liberation and acceptance and how outmoded the Scriptures are. If we want popularity and to be important in society - our theology is about growth and mirroring the society and being trendy. If we want to feel good about our works - our theology is focused on our volunteerism and social efforts. If we want to feel as though we are actually good people - our theology focuses upon the sins of others and how they are ruining society. If we want earthly, political power - our theology focuses on rousing the rabble for the appropriate civil causes.

What you want shapes your theology.

The question we ought to ask is what ought we as Christians want?

In the Scriptures, more than anything else, I see the saints wanting mercy. I see them wanting forgiveness. That's what we probably should want. And what does this mean?

If you want mercy and forgiveness - your theology will focus on Christ Jesus and the Cross.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Natural Law ad absurdum

Bathroom Reader demonstrates why I tend to distrust "Natural Law" based arguments.

"Before forks became popular, the difference between common and refined people was the number of fingers they ate with. The upper classes used three; everyone used five. This began to change in the 11th Century, when tiny, two pronged forks became fashionable in Italian High Society. But they didn't catch on; the Catholic Church opposed them as unnatural (it was an insult to imply that the fingers God had given us for food weren't good enough for food)."

Now, if you have read the Bathroom reader series, you know that they are not the... kindest to things Christian, so this is probably not the best construction on the theology in play - however, it does show why I tend not to trust arguments based on "nature" or "natural law". It's the same why I don't like arguments that begin "it's obvious that _________." Sorry - often it isn't obvious - it's just an assumption.

I want specific evidence. I want a citation. Show me the Scriptures. I want the Word of God being expounded upon - give me an argument based upon the Word. I don't care what you think is right or wrong, what goes against what is natural or proper - if you are going to say that something is wrong and shall not be done -- show me.

I have no problem using forks. None. I don't think I've ever worried that I am using unnatural means of eating. Let's just base theological statements on what is revealed in the world.

The Law is Good... Really...

A nice post from Mike Baker got me thinking. He was delighting that in his conversations about the Gospel with a friend, the friend said, "What? Wait... that's it? .......well then what is the point of trying to be good if everything has been done for me already by Jesus?"

That is a good thing to delight in - we are saved by Christ Jesus, not by our own works. This is the Gospel, which today is so often not preached or proclaimed in its full sweetness.

However, this has gotten me thinking. What *is* the point of trying to be good if everything has been done for me already by Jesus?

A lot of people - I don't think they could answer this. I don't think they'd be mentally prepared. It might be turned into a "but you have to show Jesus how much you love Him" -- which, again, is Law. I have to? Well, then things are no longer about what Christ has done for me. Or maybe "You have to let your light shine before men" - which is a law statement again. I have to?

We, in America at least, are so conditioned to think of good works in terms of obligation, in terms of proving ourselves to God (really, is trying to show Jesus how much I love Him that different from the most harsh and blunt self-righteousness), in terms of just having to have the focus be on my own works that most people can't give the simple answer.

Why try to do good? Because... they are good. Good for your neighbor. Good for you.

Seriously - I think we have forgotten that the Law *is* GOOD. Not that it's a list of hardships that we endure to prove how awesome or good we are. It's not the standard we hold to in order to prove how much better we are than "them". It's not a way in which I can abandon my own fun in order prove myself to God. It's not my way to make sure people act in a way which troubles me the least.

The Law is Good. It's good for you.

When God tells me not to kill, not to hate - this is good. It's not only good for my neighbor who is not killed, who doesn't suffer under my wrath - but more profoundly -- it's good for *me*. Violence and hatred does *me* harm. Adultery harms *me*. Stealing and covetousness harms me. Blowing off God's Service hurts me.

When I strive after doing that which is good, it's not to prove anything to God. It's not because I have to (for often I have not, and God has been merciful to me!). It's not to prove that I am better than you (for I see much more of my own sin than I see yours). It's because it's good for me. That it is beneficial for me. It is the path of least resistance, it protects me from pain and suffering, it protects me from the bait and switch that the world tries to foist upon me.

The Law is Good - really. It is. But the thing is - if we try to justify ourselves, we will resent and despise the Law so much that we forget this.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Trinity 4 Sermon

Trinity 4 – Luke 6:36-42 – July 17th, 2011

In the Name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Ghost +
When our Lord teaches, when He gives us instructions, there is always a very good reason for this. This we should know, for we see it in all other aspects of our life. If a loving parent tells something to a child, if a police officer gives an instruction, if your boss tells you to do something, you assume that there is a good reason for it. Likewise, when Jesus instructs us, teaches us to act a certain way and to not act in other ways – there is a reason for it.

This morning, our Lord gives us quite a few instructions – and I would submit that these instructions are not just random bits of advice, they are not hoops we jump through to show that we are good little Christians – but rather these instructions cut to the heart of who we are as Christians, who we are in Christ. Two options, two ways of behaving are laid out before us. On the one hand, we can live like accusers – we can spend our time focusing on and delighting in the faults of others. We can believe that we are right and justified in our hatred and disdain for others. This is not good – for this is what Satan does, this is why he is called the Accuser. On the other hand, we can live as confessors, as one who confesses his own sins and dwells in God’s forgiveness. This is the contrast, these are the two ways of approaching life that Jesus holds before us this day. So let us examine what Christ teaches us about how we as Christians are to approach life.

“Judge not, and you will not be judged; condemn not, and you will not be condemned; forgive, and you will be forgiven; give and it will be given to you. Good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, will be put into your lap. For with the measure you use it will be measured back to you.” At first we might look at these words of Jesus as the justification for a self-righteous attitude. What I do determines what I get – it’s all about me. Not quite. What does Jesus instruct against? Judging and condemning. Our lives are not to be spent in judging and condemning our neighbor for his actions. We are called to serve, to show forth love – not to sit in judgment. Even parents who have authority over their children, who have the responsibility of disciplining and punishing them – is that what defines your relationship to them? Thank you can punish? No, punishments are just meant to correct and guide. A parent isn’t supposed to punish in order to condemn or belittle a kid, but in order to train and instruct a child, to keep them from wandering into wickedness and vice. That is service and love.

The problem is, ever since the fall, since we first listened to Satan the vile accuser we tend to like to do things his way. Is it not easy to look down upon your neighbor? Is it not easy to see his faults? Then what do you? How do you react to the neighbor’s sin? Do you judge and condemn – or do you confess your own sin, your own faults, and give the same forgiveness you receive? Do you act like wicked Ham, who when he saw his father Noah drunk and naked pointed out his folly to everyone, gossiping and rejoicing in Noah’s folly, or do you act like Shem and Japheth, who covered their father’s nakedness respectfully, and did not speak or think ill of him? Which way do you wish to live, oh Christian? Shall you sit and judge your neighbor, declaring how much better you are than him – or will you confess your own sin and live in Christ’s forgiveness, forgiveness which spills out onto the neighbor? This is the contrast, these are the two lifestyles Christ sets before you. If you wish to live your life as one who judges, as one who condemns, as one who delights in pointing out the sin in others – Jesus will play that game with you. If your delight is in pointing out sin, Christ will indeed show you your own sin – if your delight is in condemning others, Christ will give you eternal condemnation. But if you confess your sin, if you see your sin and what it deserves and flee to God for forgiveness, He will richly give you forgiveness – a good measure of it, pressed down to cover all your sins, shaken together so there are no pockets of wickedness not covered by Him, indeed, even over-flowing so that forgiveness runs out and onto the very people who sin against you. This is the beauty of the Gospel that you have received, this is the new life you have been given in Christ.

The thing is, when we accuse others, when we judge, when we condemn them – what we are doing is simply forgetting who we are. Hear Jesus’ Words – “Can a blind man lead a blind man? Will they not both fall into a pit?” Do you see what Jesus says? You are in the same boat with your neighbor You are as blind as he is, you are as wicked and evil as he is! In fact, perhaps more so – “Why do you see the speck that is in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log in your own? How can you say to your brother, ‘Brother, let me take out the speck that is in your eye,’ when you yourself do not see the log that is in your own eye?” Jesus is rather blunt there, isn’t He? That wickedness that you see in your brother, it is as but a speck, a mote, a small trifling thing. But you, you have a log. We can forget that sometimes, can’t we? That our own sin is big and nasty, that our own sin, my sin, is always bigger than my neighbor’s sin? That there is never a time or place where I should think, “I am a better person than this one here.” We so rarely put the shoe on the other foot. We will look down upon what someone else does, we will rant and complain, all the while we continue quite comfortably in our own sin. How would you like it if that hard, cold eye you use to look at your neighbor with were turned upon you? David says in Psalm 51 that his sin is ever before him. Paul says that he is the chief of sinners. Isaiah says that all his righteousness, even the best, most wonderful things that he does are as but filthy rags. Could you stand before that, could you stand before that withering gaze that you so freely cast at your neighbor? There is not one who is righteous, no not one – and if you wish to be an accuser, to be like Satan who delights in pointing out the sin of others, your fate will be the same as Satan, and the fires of hell will be your eternal home.

No, we are called to be confessors – we are called to be those who confess our own sin. Hear again Jesus’ Words – “First, take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take out the speck that is in your brother’s eye.” What is our first action, our first task to be? To confess our sin – to act in all things with humility, to admit at all times that we are flawed sinful beings, that we sin in thought, word, and deed, and that we have no righteousness in ourselves. Wherefore we flee for refuge to Thine infinite mercy – these are not mere words but descriptions of who we are – we are as Christians confessors – we confess our sin, we say to God “We have heard Your Law and know that we have fallen short of what You demand. Have mercy upon us.” We are to call out to God for forgiveness. That is the shape and scope of our life – to confess our sins and to receive forgiveness. When Jesus instructs us to forgive, it’s not as though we earn forgiveness by forgiving – but rather that we are to remember at all times and in all places that we ourselves can only live, can only endure by the forgiveness which He gives. Without this forgiveness, we are lost – and so forgiveness is to be first and foremost on our minds at all times – even when we see our neighbor’s folly, even when we see our neighbor’s sin. When we see our neighbor sin, it should not be a time for gloating or snide comments – it should rather be a time where we remember that we too are sinful beings and that we live only because God is merciful, and that for the sake of the death of Jesus Christ our Lord He gives us forgiveness. We live in Christ’s mercy, otherwise we have no life.

Jesus gives another fantastic insight here into this contrast – shall we live as those who seek judgment or those who seek forgiveness? Hear what our Lord says. A disciple is not above his teacher, but everyone when he is fully trained will be like his teacher. We are disciples, we are in training to be like our master Christ Jesus. So what is Jesus like? Is His first impulse to condemn us or to give us forgiveness? Who for us men and for our salvation came down from heaven. The simple fact that Jesus is here, speaking to us by His Word, preparing to go to the Cross, shows us the answer of what our Teacher is like. Christ’s goal, Christ’s desire, Christ’s purpose in coming to earth is to see that forgiveness is won. Christ desires not condemnation, but to give forgiveness. For God did not send His Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through Him. That’s who Jesus is – and in fact our Lord’s instructions here are simple. Don’t be like Satan – don’t go around accusing others and delighting in their wickedness. Rather, be like Jesus, who desires forgiveness.

We all know this is easier said than done. Not one of us is fully trained yet – and we always find new ways to sin and to struggle in this world. But the day will come when we will be fully trained, when we will be like Christ Jesus our teacher – that is the last day, when we will stand next to Him in our own glorified Bodies, being like Him. But until that day, Jesus calls us to be those who are learning – calls us to confess our sins and receive His forgiveness, that we might be strengthened in the one true faith unto life everlasting. Christ instructs us by His Word that we might repent of our sin and believe in Him, that we might not ignore our sin but receive the forgiveness which He won for us to do away with that sin. Indeed, He teaches us, and by the power of His forgiveness which conquers over our sin, He makes us to be more like Him – until the day where we have this in full. Amen.

What Really Damages the Church

You know, I think we complain about the wrong things as being threats to the Church. We will complain about things like abortion and gay marriage. These are harmful things... but they aren't really threats to the Church.

You know what is. Us shrugging when we see "god" written without capitalization. Or all the modern translations not capitalizing "he" when it refers to Jesus. That's just us falling into a lack of respect.

Why do I think this one is more pernicious? We ought to expect the world to be wild and wicked. But we also ought to expect the Church to take care to see that God is show respect.

It's not the world that isn't acting according to expectations - it's the Church.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

The Down Side of Anti-Sin Crusades

In today's Christianity, if you want to, you can very easily be a crusader against sin in the Public square. You can take up the cause against Abortion - something that is quite vile. You can take up the battle against Homosexuality and laws there about. Every few years there will be a call for a boycott of some place because they sell girlie magazines. I'm sure there are more active today...

In fact, American Christianity, especially since Finney and his focus on social change, has often been on one Crusade or another. You had the anti-abolitionists, you had the women's suffragists, you had the prohibitionists -- all fighting against an "evil" in society, all out to stop vice out there.

Now, for those of you who fight such fights with passion and zeal, don't take what I write here too harshly - but just as a friendly warning.

So often we define something grand and big as "sin". There - that is sin. Abortion - bad. Homosexuality - bad. Porn - bad. And they are... but that doesn't make other sin "good", or the things that tempt you less bad.

And here is the rub, here is where Satan will try to take down the most ardent crusader -- yes, you fight against Abortion. It does kill. But our Lord says that if you hate your brother, you are guilty of the same thing. Now, does your zeal against Abortion, which you do not do, let you ignore the hatred and anger you have in your heart? Or do you crusade against homosexuality or images, forgetting that the lusts of your own heart are just as wicked.

This is the danger - we can say "that" is bad, and we can be so intense that we forget or diminish self-examination. We can think of ourselves as a champion against sin instead of simply a poor, miserable sinner.

Christ our Lord says, "Why do you see the speck that is in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye? How can you say to your brother, 'Brother, let me take out the speck that is in your eye,' when you yourself do not see the log that is in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take out the speck that is in your brother’s eye." Luke 6:41-42

This isn't addressed only to those really, really bad sinners who have big sins. This is addressed to each of us. My own sin is always bigger and more obvious than my neighbor's. I should be much more aware of my own lack, the ways in which I fail, than I am of my neighbor. And I am to constantly confess my sin, constantly receive forgiveness. Then you can... not fight a crusade against your wicked neighbors, but seek to show love and care and compassion for them, by aiding and defending them from sin.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

A Philosophical Query

I have a query - and I don't know if there is a right answer, or even if this is the right question, but here it goes.

Which of the following tends to be a greater cause of error?
1. People refuse to see their own sin and the devastating impact of sin on the world, and so an ego-centric pollyannaish approach is taken.
2. People get bored with the Gospel, so instead end up focusing on other things to the Gospel's determent.

I normally end up thinking I see the second more -- that there is a boredom of the Gospel, that there is a disdainful attitude that comes to the simple preaching of Christ, of seeing Him over and over again. Wanting something "different". There is that disdain of the Gospel -- we know *that*, give us something new.

Of course, on the other hand, I think I am seeing more folks who, when you get to it, don't really understand the impact of sin. They think sin is just like a small zit - something that if you apply a bit of spiritual make-up is gone -- just give me a little touch up and I'll be good for the week.

Of course, these two are intertwined. If you actually understand the depth and impact of sin, the Gospel is never boring, is never anything less than wondrous. The answer to which is probably "yes" -- but I wonder, which in our culture pops out more. Is it a pretend self-righteousness or being so rich that the Gospel seems chopped liver.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Trinity 3 Sermon

Trinity 3 – Luke 15:11-31 – July 10th, 2011

In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost +
Our Gospel Lesson this morning is the story of two sons, neither of which understand their father. This is important- both sons are bad, both sons are foolish, both sons don’t understand their father. We call this the parable of the Prodigal Son, which is a shame. We hear the word “Prodigal” and we think it has to do with wayward, or wondering. It didn’t use to – prodigal meant overabounding – it is related to prodigy, or prodigious – and the “Prodigal” was the Father – who was overabounding in love, who was a prodigy of mercy and compassion to his two sons. But, we forgot what the word Prodigal meant, and we assumed it was describing the younger son, and the rest is history. No, today what we will do is this text – we will look at both sons and see how both of them fail to understand their Father’s great, prodigious love for them.

So, to begin, the younger son. He is at home, in comfort, in wealth. But he is not satisfied – he wants more. He says to his father, “Father, give me the share of property that is coming to me.” Do you realize how insulting that is? When do sons inherit property? When dad is dead. Well, dad, since you won’t do me any favors and hurry up and die, just give me stuff. And why does this son want stuff? So he can go out and blow it in “reckless living”. Old dad was a killjoy – he would tell me not to do things that I wanted to do. That old fogie doesn’t know what real living is. The son thinks the dad is foolish, lame, uncool – all so he runs off on his own. And becoming broke and being forced to work slopping pigs – the lowest job a Jewish man could do, the son realizes that pops was right – what the younger son wanted to do was foolish.

So, now what? “But when he came to himself, he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired servants have more than enough bread, but I perish here with hunger! I will arise and go to my father, and I will say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son. Treat me as one of your hired servants.”’” Almost right. This son is right – he has sinned. He’s right, he isn’t worthy. But at the end... treat me as one of your hired servants. If this son thinks that his father is going to be content to treat him merely as a servant, he doesn’t know his father! If he thinks his own works will make things up and somehow get him back into his father’s good graces, he doesn’t know his father!

The son heads home, and we hear this, “But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and felt compassion, and ran and embraced him and kissed him.” This is perhaps the most astonishing verse of the story, and we don’t recognize it, because we aren’t living in the 1st century. No self-respecting Jewish man would do what this father does. It is unthinkable. The son has squandered your wealth – you don’t give him the kiss of peace that says that everything is fine. You don’t hold on to the one who threw away what was yours. And you certainly don’t run – because if you are a Jewish man, you’d be wearing a tunic – a skirt. You’d have to hike up your tunic and expose yourself to the world to run – you just don’t do that! But this father is so overwhelmed with love and compassion and joy that his wayward son has come home that he does not care about shaming himself, about getting his due. He will show love to his son, come hell or highwater – nothing will stop him. And the son confesses his sin, and the father quickly restores him. No son of his will be treated as a servant – get the best robe, get a ring. Now, that ring is important – a ring is a mark of authority, it means the son has legal access to the family stuff. He is back, he is no mere servant, he is my son, and we will rejoice at his return.

So often we treat God like the younger son does his father. We act as though we do not understand God. The son didn’t like being at his father’s home, thought dad was just being a spoilsport who wouldn’t let him have any fun. Isn’t that how we treat God and His Law? Isn’t that the reaction we have when God’s Word tells us that we shouldn’t do something that we want to do? God’s Law is given to us for our own good. When God says, “Thou shall not” He’s not just trying to spoil your fun, but he knows that something is bad for you. He knows that it will harm you. Sin always wounds and harms and kills. When I preach something out of the law – let’s say, “Don’t hold grudges” – it’s not because I don’t understand how hurtful so and so was to you… it’s because holding on to that anger inside is bad for you, and your grudge hurts you! The fifth commandment about not killing, not hating your neighbor is not only for your neighbor’s benefit but also for your good, because breaking it harms you. It leads to the gutter and depression and sorrow and anger that consumes everything. But when we are in the moment, we forget ourselves, and we can forget that God’s instructions are for our own good.

And then, even when we do come to our senses, what’s the temptation then? To try to earn our way back into God’s good graces. Oh God, I know I was bad, but I’ll try really really hard to do better, and I’ll make it up to you. No you won’t. You can’t make your sin up to God. And even if you do better, even if the son worked as a servant – wouldn’t change the past. You don’t get to earn God’s forgiveness… rather, the God who loves you freely gives it. He comes down, becomes Man, is bruised, beaten, humiliated, even hung naked and exposed upon a cross to suffer and die all so that you might be forgiven and restored to Him, all so that you might be baptized and declared His child once again. Don’t you understand God – you don’t have to make your sin up to him – forgiveness isn’t about your works – it is about His great and overwhelming love for you. Let God be God – confess your sins and then just let God give you mercy, for this He delights in doing.

Now, let us consider the older son. Sometimes we get this idea that the older son is the good son while the younger one is the bad son. Nope. Neither one of them understands their father, and in fact, the older son frustrates me more. So, the party commences for the younger son, and the older son was out working in the field, and when he finds out that younger brother’s come home and is getting a party, what do we hear? “But he was angry and refused to go in.” Oh, that older son, he’s the good obedient son? Really? He throws a temper tantrum out in the field and refuses to come in, refuses to celebrate the things his father celebrates. And then, when his Father comes out to him – and note, the Father goes to both of his sons – when the Father comes to him, what does the elder son say? “Look, these many years I have served you, and I never disobeyed your command, yet you never gave me a young goat that I might celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours came, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fattened calf for him!” Now pause for a second. What if your son, your daughter, spoke this filth to you – for this is nothing but sinful filth. Do you hear how vile these words are? Look here, I’ve served you, I’ve never disobeyed you? Oh really, then how come you are out here pouting and refusing to come in, mister “I never disobey”? And do you hear what else he accuses his father of? You don’t appreciate me and how good I am! You aren’t generous, you don’t take care of me, you don’t give me what I deserve, you are stingy. This son acts as though he’s been poorly treated. Oh, and dad, you’re stupid, look at how you treat that other son – did you catch that – the older son didn’t say, “my brother”, he says, “this son of yours” – how petulant. You treat this son of yours who is a jerk and a fool better than you treat me. What hatred, what bile.

This older son doesn’t understand his father. He too thinks everything should revolve around his works. Look at me, dad, look at what I’ve done for you, you need to treat me better! But you don’t, because you are mean and stupid, unlike me. Now, let me ask the hard, hard question. Are we not tempted sometimes to treat God in the same way? I’ve been a good person, God – I’ve never done anything really bad – so why is this happening to me? Why do bad things happen to me when my life is so hard? You don’t take care of me like you ought – blah blah-blah blah-blah. Can we not, whenever things don’t go the way we want, treat God as though He is cruel and indifferent? Can we not, when we see our neighbor get something, become insane with jealousy and even blame God?

The Father is prodigious in showing love and care. If I had someone speak to me like this elder son did, I’d be tempted to back hand him. The Father though, he speaks words that are gentle and full of love and care. “Son, you are always with me, and all that I have is yours. It was fitting to celebrate and be glad, for this your brother was dead and is alive; he was lost, and is found.” How had the father treated the older brother unjustly? He hadn’t treated him unjustly at all. Everything belongs to the older son already – it’s all yours – these fields, these goats, these are yours, because all that is mine is yours, and you lack for nothing. Moreover – your brother, not just my son, but your brother is restored, good has happened to him, and it is fitting and good to rejoice when good happens to him. The Father show such patience and love and kindness to this elder son – instead of just smacking him down, he teaches the son about love and compassion.

Likewise – I would ask you – in reality, is there anything you lack? Christ Jesus has won you life and salvation, has seen to it that even should you die, yet you shall live, and not just in this lousy place but in the life of the world to come. All that He has is yours, He pours it out upon you in His Word, in His Sacraments – you are forgiven. Don’t let Satan distract you from this truth – don’t let Satan play off of your pride so you neglect and forget the riches that Christ has given you. The elder son had everything – yet was pouting and angry with his father because he didn’t have a goat. A goat. Everything – a goat. This is the same temptation Satan will try to work on you – where you will get upset and angry and jaded about some trifle in this life, some stupid petty thing that you don’t get, some stupid petty slight someone has done against you, and then self-righteous indignation will blind you to the true riches you have in Christ Jesus. Repent of this, for this would cut you off from the Father just as much as the younger son was – even more so. The younger son at least came home – indignation would make you stand out in the field pouting. Turn away from this – turn away from the self-congratulating of works – and rather, remember who God is. He is the One who loves you, who gives you all that He has – and not only that – He is the One abounding in love and mercy, who restores you not only to Himself, but who restores you to each other by His great and wondrous forgiveness. He establishes His great feast of salvation and life – His Supper, the eternal feast of the life of the world to come, and He brings us to it – whether we have wandered and fallen into great shame, vice, and stupidity, or whether we have fallen victim to stubborn pride and jealousy and self-righteousness. God calls us all away from this, and He holds before our eyes Christ Jesus and Him Crucified, so that we might know His great love for us, His mercy, His life and salvation. God does not treat you how you deserve to be treated – instead, He shows you mercy and care and love – and He always will call you to His house so that His mercy might be showered upon you once again.

In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost +

Thursday, July 7, 2011

The Bait and Switch of the World

The world is harsh and cruel, and our sinful flesh is foolish. We long for anything to dull the pain, to make it go away, and the world makes it's promises of joys and wonders, and the flesh gives in.

For what? Something fleeting? A brief, transient nice feeling that fades quickly? Pleasure that objectifies the neighbor and isolates from them? Things that do harm to your own body?

True joy, true peace - these are fruits of the Spirit. These are seen and known not by trying to run away from our pain, but recognizing that God Himself took up our own pain and shame and suffering upon the Cross, so that in Him we might have joy and peace and love and life everlasting. These are known in beholding our Risen Lord, knowing that as He has walked through pain and suffering in this world, so too He shall lead us unto life everlasting.

Joy and peace in this life are not the destruction of our suffering - they are knowing that because of Christ we shall endure now and indeed have now the promise of life everlasting. That never falls short, that never harms the neighbor, that never fades like the quick fixes of the world do.

Oh for the day when sin no longer tempts, oh for the day when I am no longer a sin junkie! Come quickly, Lord Jesus.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Unwritten Rule 2 - "I can't" is Better than "You can't"

What of the times, dear reader, when it isn't just a matter of someone wanting to do something foolish, but they also expect you to be a part of it? For example:

Member: Pastor, I want to have my dog be the ring bearer at my wedding in the Church.

Now... what to do? Do you simply say, "You can't do that, you daft fool, this is God's House?" Well, you can... but then you've upset poor member because little Sparky's heart will just be broken if he's not in the service.

Here is what you say.

Pastor: I'm sorry, but I can't. I'm not supposed to bring animals into the worship service.

See that this does - it doesn't pin the "blame" or "foolishness" on the person asking (besides, unless they are intentionally trying to be insulting do God and His House, why blow them up? They might not be thinking things all the way through - oh well. That's part of the reason why you are there) - but it puts the focus and emphasis upon you.

See, while people want to do things their own way, they do understand that Pastors are held to a higher standard - so if you say "I can't" they will understand that this is a matter of a higher standard, and because you are involved - then oh, yes, of course there is a higher standard involved.

It teaches reverence where you (and by extension Church) is involved. It bears up your neighbor's burdens gently. It directs and guides. These are all good things.

Unwritten Rule 1 - "No" is a Bad Word

There are many unwritten rules that the wise pastor observes. Let's write about them.

Unwritten Rule Number 1 - No is a Bad Word

In the course of your time as a pastor you will be asked by people if they can go and do something in or for the Church. This desire to help is a *good* thing. It always is a good thing -- tell yourself, when people want to do something, it is a good thing.

Is it always directed in a good and proper way? Not necessarily. So, what do you do when So-and-so wants to do X, where X is off or inappropriate?

You do not just say no. You don't try to stop that energy to act - but you deflect it and move it towards something better.

Why is this?

1. Wanting to do stuff is good -- so give a person something good to do. Use that energy -- because there will be plenty enough time where you'd wish someone would step up and do something... and no one is there.
2. It makes you seem like a nice, creative guy. You listen, you value their efforts, and you work with them to come up with a neat idea. And you know what - this should be the reality as well -- work with people to improve their ideas. Guide and shape.
3. You can't stop energy... and if you say no, that energy is going to go somewhere. Probably into telling everyone what a big jerk you are.

So, let's have an example:

Member: Pastor, I have a spiritual gift for Origami. Could I decorate the altar with Doves this Sunday?

Pastor: Hmmm, a talent for Origami you say? [note: look thoughtful and encourage the person to repeat themselves - it will give you time to think. Looking thoughtful often provides you time to think]

Member: Oh yes, it's something I've loved since I was a little kid.

Pastor Option 1: Really? Well, you know, I don't know if we need them on the altar, but that sounds like it could be a fantastic craft for VBS/Sunday School - why don't you go see if you could help that way. Do you know any Cross shapes, perhaps? Or even a stable?

Pastor Option 2: Really? Well, you know, I do know that it would be really nice to have decorations for our next congregational dinner - do you think you could get some nice table decorations done - that would be lovely.

Pastor Option 3: You know, if they are up on the altar, no one is going to be able to see them well, except me. Tell you what - if you are willing to do the work, and I know it's a lot, about about we set this up for next [Pentecost / Mother's Day] -- we can give a little dove to [the kids/ the moms/ everyone]. I might even be able to find a nice Scripture verse -- we could perhaps fit the verse on a little piece of paper from the Spirit's mouth, because the Spirit always points to the Word....

See, energy used! Something to be excited about! New projects put to use. Thinking about something than the specific thing wanted. Thinking about something other than what a meanie you are.

Monday, July 4, 2011

Not Everything Needs to Be Outreach or Evangelism

A bit more background on what spurred the Previous Post was a congregation which decided to host an MMA event as a matter of community outreach and Evangelism. The fights were intermingled, apparently, with some bible study type things.

This demonstrates an attitude in the Church that I find annoying. Not everything in the Church needs to be done for outreach or evangelism.

In fact, if you say you are doing something for outreach or evangelism, it tends to sour me on it.

Now, why do I say these things? First of all - we as a Church are a body. There's nothing wrong with doing some things just to take care of ourselves. Consider: for me as an individual, there's nothing wrong with me taking a day off, or even (in spite of what some people think) a vacation. It's care of the body, it's fun and enjoyment, it's refreshment.

When we make everything that a Church does into "evangelism" or "outreach", we end up teaching that we must always be working, working, working for Jesus. Not only does this sort of in a back-door attitude way deny the 3rd Article (where it is the Spirit who does outreach and evangelism through the Gospel), but it neglects our own internal care. It's okay for a Church to just have some fun together - to just get together and delight in the gifts and life we have received from God. It's okay to play - and if we find fun in having a cookout, going to an amusement park, having a trip to the Art Museum -- we can do this as a community. And it doesn't even have to be about pointing to Jesus - it can just be mutual care, support, and enjoyment.

2 - 2nd, while with good intent, often turning everything into "Evangelism" trivializes the Gospel. The Gospel is a powerful, wonderful message -- it doesn't need extra stuff thrown on it to make it powerful or wonderful. The Gospel is not just a bit of relish to be added to something to make it more palatable - the Gospel isn't the between-round bikini girl, not just a bit of eye candy added to something else. Sometimes the efforts to toss a bit of Gospel in everywhere... well, if you are going to be dealing with the Gospel... DEAL WITH THE GOSPEL. It's sort of like if I am watching a football game, and then I run, hug my wife during a commercial. It's nice... but that doesn't mean I get to say, "Why, I spent the afternoon with my wife." If I want to spend time with my wife, let my time actually be with my wife... not just a sop tossed to her. She is more important. So is the Gospel.

3 - Finally, this is the thing that bugs me the most. Bait and Switch. The Gospel is not a used car, it's not amway, it's not tupperware. We do not need to use bait and switch techniques to proclaim it. And nothing is more annoying to those from outside of the Church when this bait and switch goes on, and they just have to put up with some type of "presentation" in order to get what they actually came for.

We do a community thanksgiving dinner. There is a Church service before hand, but then the dinner is open to the community -- anyone who wants (or needs a place to eat) may come. And at the dinner -- we just eat. I don't stand up in the middle of it and give some testimonial - I don't teach a class, I don't preach a little sermon. I'll sit and eat with people and enjoy a meal. IF they wanted the other stuff, they would have come for Church. If they determine they are comfortable and grateful and want to ask a question about Jesus, they'll ask. If not, I'm not going to switch things - I will show care and let that be that.

If we bait and switch, we end up treating the Gospel like a time share. Sure, come on down, we'll give you this great vacation - but the hoop you'll have to jump through is listening to the 2 hour time share sales pitch... and maybe we'll let you go have fun afterwards.

This really just tends to tick people off. Really, it does. It teaches that the Church doesn't really care -- it just wants to browbeat them with Jesus-talk. And it does turn a ton of people off - it makes them cynical towards any acts of care or devotion that a Church does.

And finally, just in brief - dude, don't try to be "cool". You're a pastor. By definition, that means you are a teacher of those whom the world will hate, and the world will hate you. You, by definition, cannot be cool. Deal with it. Delight in who you are in Christ. But don't think you are cool.

Unless you happen to wear a bow tie. Bow Ties are Cool.

Sunday, July 3, 2011

Be Slow to Define Sin for your Neighbor

"It is neither safe nor right to go against conscience"

Now, let me begin by giving a caveat - I am not going to go into moral relativism here. I am not denying absolute truth in what I am going to say. There is right, and there is wrong. But there is also the question about how this applies to you.

Recently on Facebook there has been a debate as whether or not MMA (Mixed Martial Arts) is a sin. Some say yes, as you are hurting your neighbor (to which the response was, "Does this make Hockey and Football sin as well?"). Some say no, as it is voluntary, isn't simply about causing pain, and can be used to teach discipline.

So, people wanted to know - what is it? Is it sin? Can we get a definition here? My comment was as follows:

I will not say that MMA is in and of itself sinful, but the intrinsic physicality and violence lends itself towards humoring many sinful desires.

As satisfactory answer... probably not. But it does drive home to a point which I think is often important. We must not neglect the role of conscience in a person's life.

Too often we want a checklist answer - this is good, this is bad. If I do this like that, it is fine, like this, is it wrong. But I find this approach to be often unsatisfactory. For example - It's wrong to kill... unless you are in the army and it is your vocation. This is true-- but what if you join the army because you *like* causing pain and you like the thrill of killing. Is it then good anymore?

See, this becomes the point where Liberty, our Sinful Nature, and Conscience all bash into each other. I am free - whatever God does not expressly forbid, I am free to do. Note, there is plenty that we can say, categorically is sin. Adultery is sin. Lust is sin.

So then - is it a sin to watch a TV show with gals who wear provocative outfits?

Here's where no one will like me anymore -- I answer: It depends.

Know yourself. What plays to your sinful, base desires? What tempts you -- what do you end up *knowing* is bad for you because it leads you to places where you know that you shouldn't go.

What does your conscience tell you?

In the open areas of life - in the things that we are free to do, God has given us the gift of a conscience - and the duty and role of the conscience is to keep us as individuals from leading us into places that we, given our own proclivities and weaknesses shouldn't go.

I can walk into a bar and order a beer without sinning. Some can't. Perhaps this is because they are alcoholics and that beer would be followed with many others and drunkenness would ensue. Maybe it's because their thoughts on alcohol are messed up and they are convinced that even a sip is sinful... while they are off, still, to go do something you think to be wrong... well, that's not good.

So, what does this mean? Unless there is a clear command against something, I have a very, very, very hard time telling someone that they cannot do it because it *is* sin so to do.

This doesn't mean I think it is *good*. It doesn't mean I encourage it. It doesn't mean I say, "I think we all need to have a beer for our own good." I can't simply know off the bat whether or not it would be good for them or not - whether it would be sinful for them or not.

Know your limits. Know your weaknesses. Know your conscience. And do not violate these things.

But also be aware that your brother has different limits, different weaknesses. And as such, he may be able to go and do things you can't or shouldn't, and vice versa as well.

Doesn't mean one of you is better or superior - just the way it is.

Of course, for many this approach is highly unsatisfying, because wicked man will use this line of thinking and push it beyond all bounds into wild wickedness to where they think they should just do whatever they want. Not what I'm talking about, not what I'm advocating. This is about understanding your own temptations, not pretending they don't exist or trying to justify them.

The danger we who do not wish to fall into blanket antinomianism is this -- we can want to set up additional rules and walls so that others don't fall into sin -- but we start commanding the walls be placed where *we* want them, where *we* need them for ourselves.

Just because you can't imagine yourself doing something doesn't mean that it is fundamentally a sin. Don't do it if you think it is wrong - but be slow to tell your neighbor that he *can't* do it.

Again, this is Paul - you have liberty, just don't use liberty as an opportunity for the flesh. Each of us have different ways in which our sinful Adam would give occasion to the flesh... just remember that.

I'll have my beer, and you can pass. You can pound on your neighbor -- I'll probably pass. But let us in all things strive towards ever more humility and constant confession of the sin which we know hounds us.

Trinity 2 Sermon

Trinity 2 – July 3rd, 2011 – Luke 14:15-24

In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost +
Familiarity breeds contempt. That is how the old phrase goes. It notes that when we sinful human beings get used to something, we tend not to appreciate it as much – that we forget what a blessing something is, and we find instead things to complain about. Think about the Exodus – the children of God received Manna from heaven, were miraculously fed by God. By the book of Numbers, they will say to Moses “we hate this worthless food” – then the fiery serpents come. And of course, this attitude is familiar to us – we live in America – the land of the new and improved, the land where bigger is better and we just need to have the latest and greatest, where we have to keep up with the Joneses. And so often, when we see the blessings God has given us, we are filled with contempt, and wish that He would just be about His business of giving us something more, something better.

But the most dangerous way, dear friends, that this greed and lust for more hits us doesn’t deal with physical or material blessings – but how it impacts us spiritually. This is what Christ Jesus our Lord is warning us of in our Gospel lesson. We have received a great blessing from God in His Church – the blessing of the forgiveness of sins and life and salvation – all that we need. And yet, Satan, the world, even our own sinful flesh will try to make us despise this gift – to look anywhere and everywhere else for something that is bigger and better and bolder and more wondrous – and thus we are tempted away from God. Listen:

“A man once gave a great banquet and invited many.” Before we look at the actions of folks in this text – remember – this isn’t just a banquet, it is a *great* banquet. This isn’t just something indifferent, this isn’t something cheap or so so. This is great. This is wondrous, this is fantastic beyond belief. There is no question as to whether or not this is going to be a great banquet, whether or not it would be worthwhile to go – it is great. And those who are invited know it. Likewise, dear friends – here in the Church we are invited to God’s great banquet of life and forgiveness and salvation. Here in the Church we receive the forgiveness of sins that Christ won for us upon the Cross, we receive Christ’s own Body and Blood in His Supper – every great and true and wonderful spiritual blessing is given to us here. We aren’t talking about Spiritual chopped liver here – we are talking about God Himself being present for us in His Service and giving us life and salvation and the full forgiveness of our sins. This is truly a great service, a great banquet.

“And at the time for the banquet he sent his servant to say to those who had been invited, ‘Come, for everything is now ready.’ But they all alike began to make excuses.” Excuses. They make, they give reasons why they shouldn’t come, why the banquet should be ignored, forgotten, pushed aside. Yeah, yeah, yeah, great banquet – that’s nice and all, but I have something better to do. “The first said to him, ‘I have bought a field, and I must go out and see it. Please have me excused.’ And another said, ‘I have bought 5 yoke of oxen, and I go to examine them. Please have me excused.’ And another said, ‘I have married a wife, and therefore I cannot come.’” There they are. There are the excuses. A field has been purchased. Is that a good excuse? I’ll admit, I’m not a farmer, but is the field going to evaporate away if you go to a banquet? Won’t the field be there even after the banquet and the celebration? You’ve just bought it – you haven’t done anything with it, there shouldn’t be any pressing needs – why blow off the banquet? Same with the oxen – didn’t you examine them before you bought them? Why do you need to go look at them now – the banquet is ready! And of course, your wife – it’s a great banquet, she’s invited too, there’s more than enough. Bring her as well and rejoice as a family!

Do you hear how hollow these excuses are? How lame, how sad they are? They aren’t emergencies – it isn’t my field is burning, I go to put it out, or my ox has fallen into a well, or my wife is giving birth, I can’t make it now. It’s not even “I’ll be there when I can” – it’s just simply, nope, can’t make it. Other things to do. These folks making these excuses have forgotten and fail to recognize how great the banquet is – otherwise their priorities would have been different.

This is the danger that we in the Church face. We look around the world – and we see money and wealth and power and fame – and these things glitter and attract our eyes – and we start to crave them. And then this place – it doesn’t seem so great anymore, it doesn’t seem worth it. There’s a place where God Himself comes to give out forgiveness? Oh, well, that’s nice… but there’s some other junk I’d rather do. Field and cattle, you know – money to be made. Work to be done – busy, busy, busy me. Why so busy? Is your cash, your job more wondrous than this place? Is the ability to buy the newest doo-hickey better than receiving forgiveness? And we all know that we ought to say “no, forgiveness is better!” – but we are tempted, sorely tempted by the world to act as though forgiveness isn’t the most wonderful thing in our lives. In fact, the irony of this is that we will use the blessings that God has given us against God. Our jobs, our homes, our fields, our family – these are blessings from God for us to enjoy and delight it – and then we will throw them back in God’s face. Sorry God – can’t come to Your House – I have my own house, which is actually yours which you have given me, but I’ve got my own stuff to tend to. Or, what is even worse and more wicked is what we see in America – it’s not just that we are willing to blow off God – it’s that we tell God we’ll only come to His House, to His worship if He gives us more and more stuff. I had better be richly blessed if I come to Church God – I had better see a bonus in my bank account if I take the time to show up here.

“So the servant came and reported these things to his master. Then the master of the house became angry and said to his servant, ‘Go out quickly to the streets and lanes of the city, and bring in the poor and crippled and blind and lame.’ And the servant said, ‘Sir, what you have said had been done, and still there is room.’ And the master said to the servant, ‘Go out to the highways and the hedges and compel people to come in, that my house may be filled. For I tell you, none of those men who were invited shall taste my banquet.’” The master is upset. He is being blown off, and he knows it. So the he tells the servant to invite the poor and lowly to come – those who know that they don’t have anything better to do. The wise servant has already done this – and they are there. And the master says go to the highways and the hedges. Now – what does going to the highway and hedges mean? That’s where the thieves, the bandits, the crooks dwell. Them, even the wicked – invite them in. But those nice, proper people who are so full of themselves – no more banquet for them.

This is chilling. This teaches us that God will cut off those who despise and ignore His Word. This is stern warning. And it is a warning for us – that our disdain of the Gospel can be our undoing – that when we think we no longer need forgiveness, when we think that there is something better than this place… we get left out in the cold, left out of the eternal banquet. I fear that in many ways this is describing American Christianity now. Martin Luther had a great quote which I’ll now paraphrase. Luther noted that the Gospel is like a rain shower – and it falls in a place, and people receive it with joy and gladness. But then, if they stop rejoicing in the Gospel, if they ignore it – that Gospel shower moves off elsewhere. And Luther notes that in the time of the Apostles, it had showered upon Jerusalem… but then, it moved on. It went to Rome, and it was wonderful – but then Rome disdained the Gospel, and it moved on. Luther noted that it was in Germany – but he warned that if people began to be too busy for the Gospel, it would move on. He was right – hardly any Christians left in Germany – just a small remnant. For a while the Gospel has showered upon us here in America… and we are becoming more and more indifferent. Thanks be to God, there is growth in Africa, in Asia – the Lutheran Church of Madagascar is larger than our own Missouri Synod now. It may be that we diminish and decline.

How to survive this? I ask you now to consider yourself, to ask yourself who are you. Are you one who has been invited, but is so successful, so busy that you have better things to do, that you can make excuse after excuse and run off after things that you think are better – or are you one who is spiritually poor, spiritual deaf and blind. Are you a poor miserable sinner who knows that he deserves temporal and eternal punishment? If so, then rejoice, because you are here brought to God’s great and wondrous banquet, where He lavishes forgiveness and eternal life upon you. Here in God’s House, you don’t just get the promise of earthly stuff – this isn’t just about life now where moth and rust destroy, where time crumbles – here you receive Christ Jesus Himself and His love for you – love which flows from His pierced side, pulling you out of sin and temptation, and giving you forgiveness and life everlasting. All that we see around us – it will not endure forever. The love of God for you in Christ Jesus, His forgiveness – that endures forever. This place, this building – it will not stand forever. I pray that it stands until the Last Day – but even then it will be replaced by the New Heavens and the New Earth, and that will be a day of rejoicing. Even our fallen and failing bodies – these will be resurrected and renewed and will be like Christ our Resurrected Lord. This is the feast to which Christ Jesus your Lord calls you – this is the promise He gives to you when He calls you to His table and has you participate in His own Body and Blood in His Supper.

Dear friends in Christ – remember what a blessing you have here, in this place – and do not let the world or your own flesh tempt you away from the gifts God gives in His Church. God provides for you here now and now – take time to be in His Word, by which He provides Christ’s own forgiveness to you, by which He provides for you life everlasting. God grant that we always recognize the wonders and the blessings He gives us in His Church. In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost +

Friday, July 1, 2011

Don't Exhort Good Works - Exhort works that are Good

Oh, the ink that has been spilled on good works! Oh the keyboards that have been worn out on the discussion thereof! Even in Lutheran Circles, the debate will rage - how do we preach and exhort to good works, to sanctification - on and on and on it goes.

I have a suggestion. Do not exhort "good works" Exhort "works that are Good." That's what St. Paul does.

Think about the famous passages, like Galatians 5:22-23: "But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, 23 gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law."

St. Paul doesn't say, "Do x, do y, do z - because these are good and you have to do them." Instead, he gives ideas, fruits -- these are the sorts of these that you should see -- do things that look like this, do things that are gentle.

But what specifically are "gentle works" or "peaceful works"? Why doesn't Paul give a specific list so that I know that if I do X or Y then I have been gentle or peaceful? Because - you are to be walking by the Spirit, a Spirit which always pushes you not towards action X or good deed Y, but towards gentleness, towards peace, towards self-control, where you are always doing things that demonstrate these fruits more and more and more.

It's not a check list that you complete, it's not specific things that you do - it is a whole way of learning to approach all of your life more and more with these fruits.

Even James doesn't give lists - in James 1:27 he says this: "Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world." Visit those in need, especially orphans and widows (who have nothing with which to repay you). Keep away from the world. Do you hear how... broad that is. Visit them with what? Food? Cash? How often? Give me specifics!

No - go show love to them. Bring forth the fruits of faith, the fruits of your pure and undefiled religion.

+ + + + + + + +

I think part of the problem with how we approach works and the preaching there of is this: We tend to preach "works" when we want a specific result.

We need cash in the Church (or Synod) bank account: Better preach stewardship.
Attendance is lagging: Better preach about showing up to Church.
People are fighting: Better preach about being nice.

That's not exhorting good works -- that's smacking down the sins of greedy and laziness and hate.

Or we might preach works when there is something that we in particular want done, or feel important about. We'll tell the people to show up to thing X - be it the VBS or the Lutherans for Life rally. Are these good things - sure! But does a person *need* to help out with VBS, or attend the Pro-life rally? Is that something *they* need to do -- or do they have plenty of other ways in their life in which it is much more important for them to demonstrate peace and gentleness and kindness and self-control?

Like dealing with their sick father.
Like dealing with that spouse who has been cruel lately.
Like covering at work for someone who has been distracted by problems at home.
Like getting some rest themselves because they have been tired and quick to snap lately.
Like spending more time with their kid who has been having a hard time adjusting to a new whatever.
Like just trying to catch up on all the simple, everyday things that have been piling up.

I *can't* know what "good works" a person needs to do. I can inform a person of things that would be good, of opportunities. It would be good to attend the rally, it would be good to help with VBS. But I can't say, "This is what a Christian does - he goes the rally this Saturday at X time".

You are a Christian wherever you go, whatever you do -- let the fruits of the Spirit shine forth more in you whatever you do - do works that are Good, that are increasing in Goodness as you grow in the knowledge and security of Christ Jesus' love for you. You are forgiven by Christ, you have salvation - nothing else is bigger than that. Beat down your sinful flesh, and in whatever you do, whatever you delight in - whatever works God has prepared for you to walk in, let those fruits of the Spirit shine forth more.

And when you see how much more growth you have yet to grow, for you are not yet in the life of the world to come, but rather this sinful, fallen life - repent of your sin, struggle against it, yet rest in Christ Jesus and His love for you -- and He will make you to bear much of His Spirit's fruit wherever you go.