Sunday, July 27, 2008

Trinity 10

Sermon on Luke 19:41-48
For Mt. Calvary and St. Michael Lutheran Churches, Franklin Park and Chicago, Illinois
July 27, 2008 (The Tenth Sunday after Trinity)

In today’s Gospel, something unusual happens, something which only happens in one other place in the Gospels. Jesus weeps. In the Gospel according to St. John, Jesus comes to the grave of his friend Lazarus and weeps together with the family before raising Lazarus from the dead. The only other occasion where the holy evangelists record the fact that Jesus weeps is in today’s Gospel lesson. But this story is different from the raising of Lazarus. Here the weeping is not over the temporal death of one individual. When Jesus weeps in this lesson He is mourning the death of an entire city, both in terms of its being conquered by enemies and physically destroyed, which happened about 40 years later in the year 70 A.D., and also, more importantly, in terms of the eternal death of the majority of its inhabitants, who had and would continue to reject their own God who came to them clothed in flesh and blood. And for this reason, that same God, the God who had been present with them in the temple built by Solomon and rebuilt after the captivity, who received their sacrifices and answered their prayers offered in this place for centuries, this God weeps when He sees the city with His human eyes as He comes over the hill.
The fact that the Incarnate God weeps over the city of Jerusalem tells us some things about God and His relationship to His people. Remember that there were many cities in the ancient world much larger than Jerusalem, and most of them were filled with a great deal more outward wickedness in terms of crime and idolatry and sexual perversion and even murder than Jerusalem was. In fact, when compared with Rome or Athens or most of the other cities in the Empire, Jerusalem was probably a relatively upright and moral city. But Jesus doesn’t weep over those other cities. He weeps over Jerusalem. Why is He so concerned about this relatively small city, and not about the great shame and wickedness of the other parts of the Roman Empire? Because Jerusalem is the city that He had chosen for His Temple, in which His name would dwell, signifying His presence to hear His people’s prayers and bless them with His gifts of eternal life and salvation. It was the capital city of the people He had chosen to be His own, to proclaim His message to all the world and to safeguard the holy bloodline which would eventually produce the Messiah. And so this city, over all others, was dear to our God. And when this city rebelled against Him, as they had many times over, and in fact they would commit the worst rebellion of all by nailing their God to the cross, the very same Messiah whose birth and life formed their entire purpose as a people, it hurt Him more than all the sins of the decadent and pagan rulers of all the imperial capitals throughout history. And so His reaction is to weep.
The situation is similar with us. There are millions of people in America today who have no clue about the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Whether or not they were exposed to some form of biblical teaching at some point during their lives, these people have no inkling of what the Church is really about or why people go to Church. They themselves are unchurched, meaning that whether or not their name is on the roster of a church somewhere they simply don’t go to church or claim to be Christians. Many of these people lead basically decent lives, but there are also many who lead lives of rank immorality, whether sexual immorality or dishonesty and greed in connection with their work, or whatever it may be. These are the group of people we are most likely to think of as being categorized by the word “sinner.”
But like Jerusalem, it is those of us who are associated with the Church who most grieve the heart of our God when we sin. The worst sins are not the ones we usually think of first, the sins against the Fifth, Sixth, Seventh, and Eighth Commandments. Yes, it is true that churched people do sometimes commit the same kinds of gross, notorious outward sins as unchurched people do. And yes, God is hurt and grieved by these sins as well. I’m not trying to minimize them. Those who are caught up in such things are in serious danger. But the sins which grieve our God most of all are the things which we seldom recognize as sin at all. The pride that causes us to be unwilling to forget old offenses between brothers in the faith, but instead to hold a grudge. The lack of attention to God’s Word as it is proclaimed, by being distracted by what is happening this afternoon or the fact that I need to talk to so-and-so about such-and-such after the service, or whatever. The thought that being involved in the Church, or even simply showing up on Sunday morning, is a good work which earns us something before God. The pride and idolatry that says that I am the one who is saving myself by being basically a good person. These sins are, in fact, just as evil and offensive to our God as are murder, stealing, adultery, or lying. In fact, since we can get away with the sins of pride and idolatry and selfish trust in our own good works (while outward vices often involve public actions and in some cases the police may even have something to say about it), we tend to forget that they are sins at all. And that makes these kinds of sins far more dangerous to our spiritual welfare than the gross outward sins that we usually think of when we hear the word sin, especially when you consider that these sins are the ones which most directly block us from being able to rightly receive the forgiveness of sins which is the only way we have to eternal life. But we need to remember that the same thing is true today that was true back then: it wasn’t sinful and decadent Rome that killed the Son of God. It was outwardly righteous and holy Jerusalem.
But Jesus’ weeping indicates something else to us as well. It is the fact that He loves His people. Nobody weeps and cries at the problems of complete strangers. But when it is our own relatives who are having problems, then it’s a different story. It’s different when you hear about violence and bloodshed in the Middle East or Africa, than when that violence comes here, to our shores. The fact that Jesus weeps over Jerusalem indicates to us that Jesus cares about Jerusalem, that He considers Jerusalem to be His. You don’t weep for those you don’t consider yourself to be related to in some way.
Again, the same is true of us. The fact that our sins grieve the heart of our heavenly Father indicates to us that He cares for us as a Father cares for His children. He could just drop fire and brimstone on every last one of us and be done with us, since our thoughts and actions offend Him so much every day. But He doesn’t do that. Instead He weeps over us and sends His Son to die on the cross so that we might be rescued from the mess we have gotten ourselves into and delivered into His loving arms forever. Jesus comes to us now for the same reason He came to Jerusalem back then: to give us peace. God’s presence in the temple, the sacrifices He had instituted for the forgiveness of their sins, the whole religion of ancient Israel, was for one purpose and one purpose only: to give His people peace. While unfortunately they rejected this peace, by rejecting the One whose sacrifice on our behalf was the heart and center of the sacrificial system, it is nevertheless still true that this was the purpose: to bring those who were tired and sore and conflicted and depressed by the battle against the devil, the world, and their sinful flesh the peace that only He can bring. He comes to us for the same purpose. He comes to give us peace. That is the entire purpose for the Church. That is the entire purpose why God’s Word is preached, why people are baptized, why their sins are forgiven week after week, and why Christ is present with His body and blood. We don’t have peace in the world. But these things, the things that Christ gives us here, are about our peace. Our God’s compassion on us is so great that He is willing to come to us, give us Himself, even though we deserve nothing but His wrath and punishment. His compassion and mercy on us is so great that He weeps over us even when we reject His gifts, and seeks continually to bring us back. While it’s true that eventually our time will run out, even as it did for Jerusalem, nevertheless it’s a testimony of the great mercy and love of our God that He has been so patient and longsuffering so that we might be saved. Amen.
✠ Soli Deo Gloria ✠

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Trinity 9

Sermon on Luke 16:1-13
For Our Father’s Lutheran Church, Greenfield, Wisconsin
July 20, 2008 (The Ninth Sunday after Trinity)

All of us are stewards of God’s gifts. To be a steward is to be a manager, one who realizes that the things he is given responsibility over don’t belong to him but to the one who gave him the responsibility. Most of us are somewhat familiar with the distinction between a company car and our own personal vehicle, or the distinction between a company credit card and a personal one. Some of us may have taken legal and financial responsibility for the affairs of an aged or diseased relative who is no longer able to manage such things for himself. And so we know what it means to be placed in a position of responsibility, of management, for possessions and assets that are not our own, of which we are only taking care in behalf of someone else. We know that to use those things placed in our care for personal use, for reasons that are contrary to the wishes of the one to whom they belong, is to betray the trust that person has placed in us, and is often downright illegal.
What we too soon forget, however, is that everything we have in this life, including our own personal assets and finances, including our own clothing and homes and vehicles, including our very own bodies and even souls, falls into that category, the category of things that don’t belong to us but which we are managing in someone else’s behalf. Everything we have and, yes, even everything we are, is a gift of God and we are only managers or stewards of it in His behalf. In other words, stewardship is not just a matter of whether or not we donate to the Church or to missions, although it is true that what we do in that area shows how much or little we value Christ’s painful and bloody death in our behalf, of course. The fact that from God’s perspective we are merely stewards of everything we are and have means a lot more than that. It means that every decision we make as to what to do with the resources we have should be a decision that’s made with Him in mind. And those resources include, as I’ve said, not only our money and possessions, but our very lives.
So how are you doing in your management of what the Lord has given you? Have you ever used the things God has given you contrary to the ways in which He would have them used? Have you ever used the mouth he gave you for speaking lies rather than the truth? For gossip which tears down your neighbor rather than building him up? Have you ever used the brain He gave to think up ways of taking advantage of your neighbor rather than ways of helping him? Have the other parts of your body ever been used to take what God has not given you, whether in terms of property or in terms of relationships? Has the money He has entrusted into your care ever been used to get you things God has forbidden you to have? In other words, are you a sinner? As you consider your place in life according to the Ten Commandments, which the Catechism urges us to do before coming to confess our sins, have you gone contrary to the wishes of Him who gave you everything, in how you have used what He gave you?
Well, if not, you’re in denial, because you are a sinner, as are we all. All of us are basically in the same position as the steward Jesus tells us about in today’s Gospel lesson. This man was accused of being a poor steward, of wasting the resources his master had placed into his care. We don’t know whether the man was crookedly using what was placed into his care for his own selfish purposes, or whether he was simply an incompetent manager. It doesn’t really matter. In either case, he’s like us as we consider our management of the resources our God has given us. However, this man was allowed to continue as steward for a time, to give him a chance to assemble and present the account of his stewardship. He’s like us in this as well. We also are accused by God’s Law of being poor stewards of God’s assets and property, and yet we too are still stewards of it for the time being while we await the coming of the master to whom we will give a final account of our stewardship.
The steward who is in trouble cannot dig, and he is ashamed to beg. There seems to be nothing he can do about his situation. Likewise with us. There is nothing that we can do for ourselves that will do away with the accusation against us. What the man decides to do is to trust in, and show his master’s debtors, the mercy of his master. Now, it may not look like he is doing that when you first read the parable, but that is really what he is doing. You see, by lowering the debt that these various debtors owe his master, he is making his master look merciful in their eyes. In ancient times, a steward would actually have the authority to set and change the amounts that others owed his master, and so he had every right to change the bills. It was part of his area of responsibility which his master had entrusted into his hands. He is also trusting that his master wishes to be merciful, since what the steward has done makes the debtors grateful to him. It may even be that the lowered bills are lowered precisely because the steward is removing what may have been his dishonest “cut” of the transaction. What he does relies solely on the mercy of his master. And the result is that the master, in fact, approves of what was done.
Now, to apply this part of the parable to our situation is a little tricky. We will not earn our way back into God’s favor simply by being generous to other people with what God has given to us. God is not impressed by good works done cynically to impress Him. This is where a parable such as this one only tells part of the story. God does not show grace and mercy to us because we are generous and help other people, give to the Church and to the poor, etc. This is where many “stewardship” sermons go very wrong, by giving the impression that giving to the Church, or working for the Church and participating in its activities, is somehow more holy and more noble than simply obeying God’s Commandments in our daily callings in life. Sometimes these sermons even give the false impression that we can earn our way into God’s favor with this kind of so-called “stewardship,” which of course is a denial of the most basic article of our faith, namely that salvation is a free gift from God for the sake of Christ’s sacrifice on the cross. God has already showed grace and mercy to us while we were sinners, by sending Christ to die on the cross. It is not anything you do that earns you eternal salvation, but the gracious gift of forgiveness which was earned by Jesus Christ and which comes to you know through His Word and His body and blood. This is how God shows His gracious and merciful nature to us. We know that we have a merciful God upon whom we can rely, despite the fact that we have been poor stewards of His gifts to us, because He has given us the greatest gift of all in His Son, Jesus Christ, and not only once in time, back in the first century, but throughout our lives through the proclamation of the forgiveness of sins and through His body and blood, and even into eternity, where we will always be with Him and rejoice in His presence and in His gifts to us.
Because we have this gracious and merciful Lord and master whose stewards we are, it changes our whole outlook on how we conduct our stewardship. Our motivations are different from worldly people when it comes to physical possessions, and so our decisions will be different as well. How people use the physical resources they have been given is a confession before God and the rest of the world of what is in their hearts. Just as the steward did what he did because he trusted in the gracious and merciful nature of his master, we do what we do with His blessings to us because we know that He is gracious and merciful. As we relate to other people, we act as representatives of His grace and mercy to them. When you help out someone who is in need, whether that be someone who has lost their job or who is sick and in the hospital, or who just simply needs a shoulder to cry on or an arm to lean upon, you are acting as a representative of God to that person. You show by your actions how God thinks about that person, and by being merciful and generous you are preaching to them the glorious reality that God is merciful and gracious and generous. And as you do these things for those who need your help, you are serving God. Because God is not only the one who has given you what you have; He is also the one who receives what you give. “Insofar as you have done this for the least of these My brethren, you have done it unto Me.” God is on both sides of the equation. Your money, your possessions, your very health and life, are nothing. The God who gave them to you, and who receives them back in your giving them to others, is everything. You will receive a thousands of thousands times more than you have ever had here in this life when you enter into eternity. The Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost themselves will receive you into the everlasting dwellings, where the blessings in which you will partake are more than you can possibly imagine. Amen.

Friday, July 11, 2008

Trinity 8

Sermon on Matthew 7:15-23
For Our Father’s Lutheran Church, Greenfield, Wisconsin
July 13, 2008 (The Eighth Sunday after Trinity)

A good tree bears good fruit; a bad tree bears bad fruit. But what tree and what fruit are we talking about here? Often I hear people quoting these verses from today’s Gospel as if they referred first and foremost to Christian people doing good works during the course of their lives. Of course, the imagery of tree and fruit is applicable to the subject of sanctification and good works in a certain sense, but in context here in Matthew 7, Jesus is not talking about that kind of fruit, first and foremost, especially since the fruit of good works cannot often be seen anyway, as sinful as we remain while we are still in this life. Rather Jesus is talking about true and false prophets, that is, true and false preachers. And what is the fruit of a preacher or a teacher of the faith? His preaching. His doctrine. Whether or not what he says is in accord with God’s Word. That’s what Jesus is talking about here. True and false doctrine.
That sort of talk is unpopular today. Many religions in our day, including both the more liberal as well as many of the conservative neo-evangelical segments of Christianity, cry out, “Deeds, not creeds!” To many people, religion is about living a better life here rather than about arriving at the perfect life in heaven, the life that is given as a free and undeserved gift of God. And so the idea that we should evaluate preachers on the basis of whether their teachings are in agreement with God’s Word is rather unpopular, to say the least. Dare to insist in the public square that there is a difference between Christianity and other religions, and even the conservative political pundits and personalities will label you as narrow-minded, bigoted, intolerant, and whatever other names they can get away with calling you. After all, from a secular perspective, religion is just there to help people live a responsible, moral, conscientious life, since those who live such a life are much better citizens and workers than those who do not, generally speaking. Religion is good for the ordering of society, to this way of thinking. And pretty much all religions, even the New Age and neo-pagan ones, do that to some extent. And so when a particular religion agitates things and upsets people by claiming that it is true and others are false, that isn’t seen as good for secular society, especially in a time of war. Luther faced the same problem in his day as we do in ours; making a big deal out of religious differences seems (note, I said “seems”) to be unnecessarily disruptive when there’s a physical threat to national security.
The fact that this is what Jesus is talking about, namely true and false doctrine first and foremost, and good works only in a secondary sense if that, is shown not only by the warning against false prophets, that is, teachers of false doctrine, in the beginning of the text, but by what Jesus says after the parable about fruit and trees as well. “Not everyone who says to Me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of my Father in heaven. Many will say to Me in that day, ‘Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in Your name, cast out demons in Your name, and done many wonders in Your name?’ And then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from Me, you who practice lawlessness!” It’s easy to attach Jesus’ name to something you do in the field of religion. Jesus’ name isn’t all that hard to pronounce. It’s only two syllables. But saying it doesn’t necessarily mean that the person who does so is doing Jesus’ will or that of His Father. The Mormons use it, and they aren’t Christians. So do the Jehovah’s Witnesses, who deny that Jesus is uncreated God equal with the Father. Muslims claim to respect Jesus as a great prophet of Allah before Mohammed came along, but they deny that He is God as well. And many Christian denominations, who get the basics right sufficiently to be recognized as Christian Churches that really do proclaim and distribute salvation and eternal life, nevertheless mix in false teachings that contradict and damage the saving message of the Gospel, and they also do so in Jesus’ name. Attaching Jesus’ name to something is no guarantee of the correctness of what is done.
So, Jesus is talking primarily about true and false doctrine here. But what’s doctrine? To most people, perhaps even to many of you, the word “doctrine” is a word that carries negative connotations. “We just want the simple Gospel, we don’t want all this doctrine,” is a statement that is often heard today from many Christians and even many Lutherans. Well, doctrine is a word that simply means “teaching.” And you can’t have the Gospel apart from doctrine, because the Gospel is doctrine. It is a teaching. In fact it’s the very center of Christian teaching. God the Son, the Second Person of the Holy Trinity, the same Person as Jesus Christ who spoke the words of today’s text, became man, became our brother, so that He might pay the punishment we deserved by our sins against God’s Law by dying on the Cross. He rose again on the third day to declare to us the victory He won by His death, and so that we, who are in Him by virtue of what God does for us in Holy Baptism, also might rise again. He now comes to us personally and gives us the fruits of this victory, namely the forgiveness of sins, eternal life, and salvation, by the power of His Holy Spirit, through the preaching of the Gospel, which includes both the reading and preaching of God’s Word as well as the direct forgiveness of sins in Holy Absolution, and through the administration of Baptism and the Lord’s Supper, where Christ feeds us with His own body and blood. God did everything for us that we might be saved. Despite the fact that we are poor, miserable sinners, we have been restored to God’s fellowship, cleansed of our sins, and made to enjoy the love and the fellowship that even the three persons of the Holy Trinity share with one another. That is the pure doctrine. That is what we preach. It is this that Jesus urges us to defend. It is this that Jesus warns us against those who contradict it. It is this that is the very source and promise of our eternal life with Christ.
And so, since this is the very source of our life, we are charged to defend it. It’s important to us. It’s important to anyone who has come to the conclusion that they cannot save themselves by their own good works. It’s important to anyone who has come to the conclusion that life in this world is miserable and meaningless without eternal life to look forward to. It’s not just about getting people to do better in their lives here and now, though hopefully that is a blessed side-effect of becoming a Christian. It’s not about transforming society, either, although that has also been a blessed, if imperfect, side-effect in some times and places. It’s about realizing that you can’t save yourself but that Christ has done it all for you. You won’t be able to claim anything when you stand before the Judge’s throne on the last day. You won’t even be able to claim the things you really did do in His name, because those things were imperfect. I won’t even be able to claim that I really did preach the true doctrine, because even when I preach the truth there are some whose sinful natures will misunderstand and pervert it as they hear it, and part of the blame for that, believe it or not, rests on me for not being more clear in my preaching. No, we won’t be able to claim anything we did before the Judge on that last day. Rather our claim will be what Christ did for us. The only way any of us will stand righteous and pure before God’s throne is if God declares us righteous and pure for Christ’s sake. He does so through the fruit of His preachers. He does so through the doctrine, the message, the teaching of His Word of Law and Gospel, and through the Sacraments where that Word is poured on with the Water and eaten and drunk with Christ’s body and blood. Even the good work of holding on to Law and Gospel in their purity will not save us. Rather the Holy Spirit through that Law and Gospel work inside us and put us to death and resurrection so that we may live before God in righteousness and purity forever. That’s why the pure doctrine, the pure fruits of a true prophet, are so important to us. Simply because the Gospel of salvation as a free gift is the only thing that can save us. Amen.
✠ Soli Deo Gloria ✠

Trinity 7

Sermon on Mark 8:1-9
For Our Father’s Lutheran Church, Greenfield, Wisconsin
June 6, 2008 (The Seventh Sunday after Trinity)

Following Jesus has consequences. Confessing Him in the midst of a world that would rather not hear it, including perhaps some of our own friends and neighbors who would rather not face the questions of sin and death and salvation and eternal life, all that has consequences. It sometimes means making decisions that run counter to what common sense would tell us is best for us. It means sometimes getting ourselves into situations from which there isn’t necessarily an easy way out, humanly speaking. It means sometimes setting ourselves up to be persecuted and slandered by the world around us. In some times and places, it has even meant the death of Christians, or at least arrest and imprisonment. It means sometimes being made to look bad even to our own fellow Christians so that we can patiently pursue the right solution to a problem rather than the easiest or most popular one. And even apart from criticism or hardship that comes from outside ourselves, we also have to deal with the energy-draining battle inside ourselves, the battle against temptation and sin and carelessness regarding God’s Commandments, and this too takes its toll on us.
For the crowd on the occasion recorded in our text, following Jesus meant getting themselves into a situation they didn’t plan for in terms of their own personal food supplies. Of course, unlike some of the situations I mentioned before, this wasn’t a matter of either following Jesus or denying their faith in Him; if they had followed Him only one or two days and then went back home before their food ran out, no one would accuse them of denying the faith. Nevertheless, to these people hearing Jesus’ preaching was so important that they were willing to risk starving to death rather than missing what He had to say. Jesus was the Messiah whom the prophets had promised for centuries. He was the One whose coming was the entire point of the Old Testament, the One whose birth was the entire reason for ancient Israel to exist in the first place. And He taught with authority, not like the scribes and Pharisees whom the people were accustomed to hearing. And so, even though it wasn’t a matter of either following Him out into the desert or denying Him, we still can’t blame these people for putting themselves in this situation in order to hear and learn what the Messiah had to teach them. In fact, we really need to seriously consider if we measure up to their level of commitment to hearing and following Jesus Christ, or whether we in our day have become too soft and complacent for that.
What Jesus says when He looks out at this crowd who had risked their lives coming out to hear him is a statement that could form the theme, not just of this text or of this Sunday in the Church Year, but of all Christian preaching in general. “I have compassion on the multitude.” Jesus has compassion. To have compassion means to be aware of others’ distress and to desire to alleviate it. Literally it means to “suffer with” them. After all, that’s what He came to earth to do: to relieve the distress that we are in because of our own sin and the sin of everyone else in the world around us by forgiving us that sin and taking us to a new, eternal life where sin and its effects no longer trouble us. And what’s more, he does that precisely by “suffering with” us, by living our life and dying the death we deserved. Jesus’ compassion on all of us, and on the whole world, is the entire point of what we come here to celebrate each Sunday.
But that’s not all that easy to remember, is it? After all, when push comes to shove, the devil, the world, and our own old sinful natures are right there, tempting us to see only the trouble and the hardship we endure, and to forget about the salvation and eternal life that await us after our struggle is over. The temptation then is to give up and give in. Eternal life seems so far away, and the troubles come with following our Lord so near. It is then that remembering that our Lord is right along with us is so important. He’s not just awaiting us at the end of our journey, He’s here all along the way to sustain and uphold us. Even though He might not always do a miracle to meet our physical needs like feeding 4,000 people with only a few loaves of bread and a few fish, He is constantly doing miracles to support our faith in Him and eternal life. Every Sunday His body is present in bread and His blood is present in wine for Christians to eat and to drink, and further, His body and blood are present on thousands of altars simultaneously, and given to millions of Christians. And no matter how many partake of Him Sunday after Sunday, His body and blood are never used up, just as the bread and the fish were not used up no matter how many ate of them.
And in fact He does also provide for our physical needs as we follow Him as well. Usually it’s not in the form of miracles, but even the ordinary means of making a living and getting our daily bread are actually means that God uses to provide for us. Even such simple things as a helping hand from a neighbor, a kind word in the midst of a difficult time, are reminders to us of Jesus’ compassion on us. They are reminders to us of the fact that where we belong and where we are going, none of the troubles we experience now, neither those that are simply part of life in this old world, nor those that come upon us because we are following Jesus Christ, none of these will ever bother us again.
And so Jesus has compassion on us, especially in those times when our problems and troubles are a direct result of the fact that we’re following Him. He strengthens and nourishes our faith in Him by His Word and by His body and blood, which is a miracle even greater than the one we read about in today’s Gospel. And He provides for our needs even when it seems like He won’t or can’t do so. Sometimes the way He provides for us is by taking us to that place where we will never hunger nor thirst again, and very often it is by the ordinary things He gives us in this life. And He uses our friends and neighbors as well, both to remind us of the Word we have heard and the Sacrament we have received, as well as to provide us with more ordinary means of facing life in the world in terms of daily bread. Our God has compassion on us. He suffers with us and for us. And because He suffered for us, our sufferings will have an end. Amen.
✠ Soli Deo Gloria ✠