Saturday, August 31, 2019

Trinity 11 Sermon

Trinity 11 – August 31st and September 1st, 2019 – Luke 18:9-14

In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit +
The Pharisee didn't know who he was. Oh, to be sure, the Pharisee was confident in himself, and he was smug, but the Pharisee didn't actually know who he was. We have the parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector, so familiar to us that we can want to speed through it, pass on by it, but listen again and note – the Pharisee doesn't know who he actually is. “Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee, standing by himself, prayed thus: 'God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get.” Well, you know Pastor, it seems like the Pharisee had a pretty good idea of who he was to me. No he didn't.

Consider, first he thanks God that he is not like other men – but then he doesn't give attributes of people – short, dumb, rotund. He doesn't even list bad or wicked attitudes – greedy, selfish. He just goes to specific sins. I have never extorted – I've never made anyone pay protection money, nor have I blackmailed anyone. I'm not unjust – I've never started a ponzi scheme or a phone scam (by the by, never pay anything over the phone on an incoming call, people). I've never slept around. Those are certainly good things to avoid – I'll grant the Pharisee that, but none of that says anything about who the Pharisee IS. Well, I'm not a tax collector – well, that's nice, and I'm not the second baseman for the Pawtucket Red Sox – that doesn't say anything about who we are. And then the Pharisee lists off nice, pious things that he does. He fasts twice a week, and he gives tithes. Good. Seriously – these are good things. If you fasted as a Pharisee in the ancient world, you not only didn't eat, but you took the money you would have spent on food and gave it to the poor. That's good. And tithing – well, frankly you will never hear a pastor gainsay tithing – and frankly our general operating budget would be a bit nicer if there was some more of that around here. These are all good actions, things he does – but they still don't say who the Pharisee actually IS. Because there the Pharisee is – he's come into the presence of God and is praying, and is supposedly laying himself bare before God Almighty – but he hasn't actually said anything about who he is.

Now, the Tax Collector – he knows who he is. A quick word on Tax Collectors in the ancient world. While we might complain that the State of Illinois is a thief when it come to taxation, it had nothing on the ancient world. If you were a tax collector, you would be assigned an area and told you had to collect so much money. Then you walked around and charged taxes – the collectors set the rate. And if they over collected, they didn't do refunds in April – they kept it for themselves. So do you see how someone who was a tax collector would be shorthand for a sleezeball, the emblem of the lousy, bad dude? Jesus tosses a tax collector into this story – but this tax collector actually knows who he is. But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast saying, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!” This tax collector knows who he is. And I don't mean his humble actions that we still mirror today – you realize that this is the reason we bow our heads. The classic posture of prayer was this [hands open and wide, eyes up, ready to receive good things from God]. Give us, give us this day our daily bread. And the beating his breast – well, in Lent when we do the “my fault, my fault, my most grievous fault” I'll beat my breast three times. That can all be for show. But this tax collector – did you hear him? He knows who he is. A sinner. Actually, I'd translate it “The Sinner” - for as far as this fellow is concerned he is the biggest sinner in the world. And this isn't a statement about the quality of his actions – he's in the temple praying, he might have just been the best tax collector in Jerusalem. It's not a statement about his job. It's about him – who he is and how he relates to God. God, be merciful to me – God forgive me, God atone for me - because what am I? I am a sinner.

Luke notes that Jesus tells this parable to “some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and treated others with contempt.” That they were “righteous.” Ah, there's the key word. To be righteous is to be right with another. It is to be all square with them, or if things get out of line able to fix things – let me make this right. And all too often people think that they themselves are righteous. See, that's what the Pharisee was actually saying – see how righteous I am, see what a capital fellow I am. I am here chatting with You, God, because I am just that good of a fellow. You and I, God, we're alike – two peas in a pod, two righteous dudes. Not like those jerks. Oh, ew, and then the disdain comes out. The casual hatred and dismissal of another of God's beloved children. Ew.

See, the point that the tax collector understood and that the Pharisee didn't get is that we of ourselves are not righteous. We are sinners. Period. In fact, each of us is the biggest sinner we know, and that is what we are. And sin isn't just a matter of doing bad things – it isn't measured by how many naughty things get put on your list. To be a sinner is to be unrighteous – to not be right with God. To be in a state of rebellion against God – and by our sinful nature, that's what we and every person in the planet are. Unrighteous. Sinners. Sinful – full of it. However individual sins manifest and pop out in your life – whether they are big and technicolor and out in the open where folks see, or whether they dwell mainly in your heart (at the moment) – still sin. Still vile, still ready to destroy you and your neighbor. Cain's sin was just in his heart – pouting at God... and then that burst forth in murder.

And we can't fix this. We can't make ourselves, our hearts, righteous. We might discipline ourselves – which is certainly a good thing and a benefit to your neighbor – so work on those good habits – but they still don't fix ourselves. We remain sinners, sinners who fall apart and die. You realize that's the proof – the wages of sin is death, and there's not a one of us in this room that is going to get our act in gear so much so that we don't die eventually. See that's the temptation – we are unrighteous, but we think to make ourselves righteous by what we avoid and by what we do. I'm not that Epstein fellow and I showed up to church today – I'm a good person. That's as stupid as saying, “I stopped eating bacon and now I eat kale – I'll live forever!” It doesn't fix the problem.

There is only One who is righteous, and that is the LORD. There is only One who can justify, who can take things that are out of whack and not righteous and make them righteous and whole and together and at peace – and that is Christ Jesus, God Himself become man to take your sin away from you, killing it and destroying it on the Cross, and rising again and making you to rise, sharing with you all His own righteousness – giving it to you so it is yours both today and forever and ever, even beyond the end of the world. This is what God's mercy is – what it looks like. God acting for your benefit without you doing a single thing to cause or earn it. Because you can't – you are unrighteous and a sinner – you've got nothing to generate righteousness with. But Jesus Christ comes, and He forgives the sinner and justifies him, sends him home forgiven.

This is what Christ Jesus does today in His Church, right here, right now. He forgives you. He gives you His own righteousness – fills you with it. Take and Eat, take and drink. And sure, you'll do plenty of wonderful, capital things this week – of course you will, because even your good works are a gift from God that He gives you to – For we are His workmanship, created IN CHRIST JESUS for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them. Don't go thinking that you do things for God – those are gifts that God gave to you. “See how nice and generous I was, God” - “Yeah, I know, that's why I gave that stuff to you and why My Spirit moved you to do that. I had that set up for you even before you were born.” And it's good – because I don't need to be the source of righteousness, I don't need to get myself right with God, or butter Him up, or impress Him. Not my job, not your job. That's Jesus' job. He is the righteous One who by His death and resurrection makes you to be righteous. Jesus is both Just and your Justifier.

You are the sinner, but Jesus is true God and true Man come to redeem and rescue and justify sinners. And the danger is we don't like to simply be sinners – we want to spin the story out so that we are anything but sinners – we're good and the other folks are the bad guys. Or we used to be bad but now we're better. Well, the Son man came to seek and save the lost, and the healthy have no need of a physician – so you can strut in here all proud of your own righteousness and contemptuous of others – but then you don't get get Jesus' righteousness. You'll just not want it, won't think you need it. You'll dare I say it, not get anything out of service. And that's bad. So no, know who you are. You are a sinner – but this is the place where Jesus comes to meet sinners with His Word of forgiveness and life, where He comes to give sinners His own Body and Blood for the forgiveness of their sins. For the forgiveness of your sins, so that you have eternal life in Him. God is merciful to you in Christ Jesus. Amen. In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit +

Wednesday, August 21, 2019

Faith is the “Yes” of the Heart

1376 – Faith is the “Yes” of the Heart – Faith is the yes of the heart, a convinction on which one stakes one's life. On what does faith rest? On Christ, born of a woman, made under the Law, who died, etc., as the children pray. To this confession I say yes with the full confidence of my heart. Christ came for my sake, in order to free me from the Law, not only from the guilt of sin but also from the power of the Law. If you are able to say yes to this, you have what is called faith; and this faith does everything.... But this faith does not grow by our own powers. On the contrary, the Holy Spirit is present and writes it in the heart.

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The above is cited from the wondrous "What Luther Says" book, and it comes from a sermon on Galatians 4:1-5 in 1540.  It's just beautiful.

Faith frees us from the Law.  "But doesn't that mean that we will be wicked without the law to bash us!?"

No... because this faith does everything.  Faith fulfills all the things that God would have us do.  And God uses us to accomplish His good, freely and without threat or manipulated by reward.

It's all good in Christ - it really is.

Monday, August 19, 2019

Once, Twice, Three Times Palm Sunday

I wonder if we in the Church don't underplay the importance of Palm Sunday.  That seems an odd statement - I mean, everyone loves Palm Sunday.  But the day itself, the hinge that it forms is fantastic.  And as I'm preparing for the Trinity 10 Sermon from Luke 19, it strikes me that in the One Year Series you get Palm Sunday three times.

One of the odd features (at least to Three Year folk) about the One Year series is that the Church Year itself starts off with Palm Sunday - that's the Gospel reading for Advent 1.  So, early December - there's Palm Sunday.

Then, of course, there's the Calendar day of Palm Sunday in either late March or April - so roughly four months later.  And while the Gospel reading for that day is the Passion, you generally also hear one of the Entrance Gospels at the beginning of service as well.

And then jump head a bit over another 4 months, and you have Trinity 10 - and this really is a Palm Sunday text.  Jesus is weeping over Jerusalem on Palm Sunday.

So you have these three Sundays, spread almost equidistantly around the year, all centering us on Palm Sunday.  And not for the hoopla, not for the shouts of praise - on each of these Sundays the praise of Palm Sunday is secondary.  In Advent the focus isn't praise, but rather, "Behold, your King is coming to you."  On Palm Sunday, the focus isn't the praise so much as it is our Lord's Passion.  And then on Trinity 10 we have Jesus weeping over Jerusalem and turning over the money changers' tables.

I think this is so informative for the Church.  So often we want to make the focus of things our actions, our praise, our response - and if there ever was a text that would seem to lend itself to the idea of focusing upon our own praise, it would seem to be Palm Sunday.  And yet, Palm Sunday shows up three times in the Church Year, and three times our focus is ripped off of our praise and thrust upon Christ Jesus, who comes to make peace for those who knew not the things that make for peace by His own death and resurrection.

What an elegant way to teach, to remind us that the Church is to be focused upon Christ Jesus and what He does so much more than upon our own action and power and might.

Sunday, August 18, 2019

Trinity 9 Sermon

Trinity 9 – August 18th, 2019 – Luke 16:1-13

In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit +
Americans love to cut deals. Think of shows like Let's Make a Deal, The Price is Right, American Pickers, Pawn Stars. Think of the preponderance of small businesses like Scentsy or Mary Kay, or even the auctions for 4H – we love deals. I myself love the hot stove league and hearing the free agent deals in Baseball. We even have a president who wrote a book entitled “The Art of the Deal.” Americans love to cut deals.

And as such, we are pretty well attuned to bad deals. We know lousy business when we see it – and we don't like it. And that's what we have in our parable today – told right after the parables of the lost sheep and the lost coin and the prodigal sons. And it sounds like there's bad dealings going all around - “There was a rich man who had a manager, and charges were brought to him that this man was wasting his possessions. And he called him and said to him, 'What is this that I hear about you? Turn in the account of your management, for you can no longer be manager.'” Seems straight forward enough – if your operation gets big enough, you hire help. You look at the big picture, they handle the details as you want them to handle them, and if they don't – you're fired! The rich man hears of waste and, “boom,” the manager is told to clear out.

And this manager is despondent. And he says he isn't strong enough to dig, and he's too proud to beg, so he comes up with a plan. It's too late to actually cook the books, but he still has the books. And this is a note of ancient world law – until he actually turns in the books, he still has legal authority to cut a deal. So he goes on a spree of making deals. And note something – these aren't small amounts. It's not fifty jars of oil – these are measures – these are the big industrial units of measure. That 20 measures of wheat – that was 24,000 bushels of wheat. And thus you can see his plan. If I basically give you 24,000 bushels of wheat, and the next week I knock on your door and say, “Hey, I'm now down on my luck, can you help a fellow out,” - what are you going to do? And thus we hear, “The Master commended the dishonest manager for his shrewdness.” That idea of “commending” doesn't mean that he was happy about it – think of this as grudging approval or the tip of the cap – this manager played hardball and pulled it off – and the rich man is rich enough to where a slightly down year wouldn't hurt him all that much – he can shrug it off.

So... what does this all mean? This is one of those parables that seems to be utterly odd. What, are we supposed to lie, cheat, and steal? Well, Jesus gives commentary, and so we ought to listen to Him. First, Jesus says, “For the sons of this world are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than the sons of light.” Jesus tells this story not because we ought to be involved in bilking our bosses or anything like that – but in the story the manager was out to play the game and play it well. He was actually looking out for number 1 – looking, paying attention. Thinking. Pondering, meditating. His mind was on his money and his money was on his mind. And that's the way that the “sons of this world” are – they actually pay attention to worldly things, and they think about how to get them and all that jazz.

But what of the sons of light? How is your game played, oh Christian? The Church isn't about the art of the deal, it's not about politicking and amassing power – at least it shouldn't be. Our primary focus isn't the art of the deal, it's the art of the what? Jesus points to it next - “And I tell you, make friends for yourself by means of unrighteous wealth, so that when it fails they may receive you into the eternal dwellings.” The Church is to be about the art of Salvation. The Church is focused upon the “eternal dwellings.” So, O Christian, how do you get to heaven? Are you going to bribe your way in? It sounds funny to say that, doesn't it? That's part of Jesus' point – that it would be silly to think that you can cut a worldly deal to enter eternal life – but if we're honest, we try to do that, don't we? Plenty of money has been donated to the Church throughout the course of history in an attempt to make up for sin; guilty consciences built the cathedrals of Europe. Or maybe we're not that crass – maybe we'll try to bribe God with our works – see what good little Christian boys and girls we are. As though salvation were by works. But that's where we default to, that's what we feel in our guts – because we are sinners living in a sinful world and so we fall back to wanting to make a deal. You wash my back, I'll wash Yours' God.

But that's not how salvation works, o sons of Light. “One who is faithful in a very little is also faithful in much, and one who is dishonest in a very little is also dishonest in much. If then you have not been faithful in the unrighteous wealth, who will entrust to you true riches? And if you have not been faithful in that which is another's, who will give you that which is your own?” There's a word that popped up over and over again there – faithful. Of course it should – we ought to know how the art of salvation works – we are saved by grace through... faith. Faith is the means, the way in which we receive the benefits of Christ Jesus' death and resurrection. When we receive from Christ – we have everything. When we try to give to God or bribe our way into salvation – we have nothing.

See, these are two radically different ways of living. One can try to live by works, money, deals – or one can live by faith. One can try to always be in control and manipulating the situation and being in charge, or one can live by simply receiving the good gifts of life and salvation that God gives. And these two ways are diametrically opposed. The service of God and the service of money are utterly distinct. And as sinful people we crave power, control, tools of leverage – of which money is the simplest – I use my money and I get my way. But that is not God's way. God's way is this – Christ Jesus Himself goes to the Cross for you, and simply and solely because of what God Himself does, you are rescued from sin and death and your murderous desire to cut someone else apart in your dealings, and you are freely given forgiveness, life, and salvation.

You do realize that when we say that salvation is free, that grace is free, what we are really saying is that we don't get to manipulate God? Christ Jesus saves you simply because He wants to, because He loves you – and you can't manipulate Him into loving you more or less. Jesus' love is free of your control – and that terrifies our old sinful flesh. It ought to – because Jesus' love and His plan is to put your sinful flesh to death – to drown it in baptism and to daily submerge it with confession so that a new man daily rises until that final day when we fully die and then fully rise completely free of sin. That's what your baptism is – Christ Jesus calling you way from the darkness of powerplays and manipulations and instead giving you life, life freely given. It is Jesus saying, “You cannot serve two masters, but I am speaking to you in My Word, and I forgive you, and you are Mine – I will be your master for all eternity.”

And you know what? “With the merciful You show Yourself merciful; with the blameless You show Yourself blameless; with the purified You deal purely, and with the crooked You make Yourself seem tortuous.” When you let your old sinful flesh run wild, the things of God seem utterly terrible and wrong and unfair – and you will grumble and complain. You will think things are tortuous. That's your crooked sinful flesh talking. But this is what Jesus does. He comes to you as the Baptized, and He speaks His Word of Mercy to make you merciful, and then you see His mercy again and again and again in so many things. He forgives you your sin – take and eat, take and drink, given and shed for you for the remission of all of your sin – and being made blameless by Christ, you see that this forgiveness and salvation thing really is good. He purifies you with His Word and Spirit – and then you speak that same Word of forgiveness, give that same Spirit of life to the people in your own life, forgiving and purifying them.

Oh, but how our flesh fights against this! Oh, but we so often want our way! Oh, but we want revenge and people to get their just deserts and so on and so forth and then there's fighting and arguments and tribalism and division and chaos. And so over and over again, Christ speaks His mercy, His peace, His forgiveness to us. He shows us that the problem is really the log in our own eye, and then He removes it, and we see Him as He actually is. And in His Word Jesus makes us to be shrewd in the way of salvation, to focus us upon Himself, His Cross, His death and resurrection, so that we always see and remember Him. Come, let us fix our eyes upon Jesus, who takes our sin away and writes the sign of His Cross upon our foreheads, for He is the author and finisher of our faith. In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit +