Sunday, June 28, 2009

Trinity 3

Sermon on Luke 15:1-10
For Our Savior Lutheran Church of Norwood Park, Chicago, IL
June 22, 2009 (The Third Sunday after Trinity)

Two weeks ago we heard about the rich man and Lazarus, the one whose god was money, the other who trusted in the true God. One of the important themes of that Gospel lesson was the First Commandment, which teaches us that God is to be the priority in our lives, that we should fear, love, and trust in Him above all things. This Sunday looks at our relationship with God from the opposite direction. Instead of looking at how God as He comes to us in His Word and Sacraments is supposed to be the priority in our lives, we look at what the priority is for God. We see from these two parables how to Him, nothing is more important than bringing His fallen creatures back to the forgiveness of sins, life, and salvation He wishes them to have.

Getting lost in sin is easy. In fact, it’s more than easy, it’s how you and I were born. And even after He brought us back and made us His own through Holy Baptism, throughout our lives we have been subjected to temptations to wander away from the true God, to allow the things of this world to deceive us and mislead us into false belief, despair, and other great shame and vice. Every one of us, including you and me and everyone else, has some area of their life where temptation has a stronger hold than in other areas. It doesn’t seem that bad at first, to do a little of this or a little of that. It’s actually kind of fun. But sin is addictive. And once it has led you down the road a certain distance, the addiction turns nasty and destructive. You begin to lose sight of the forgiveness and the power to resist that Christ gives you. The temptation begins to swallow up your whole life. Soon, before you even realize it, you have lost your way and you don’t know where to turn. You don’t even like what you’re doing or where you’re at any more, but you don’t know how to get out of it. You have wandered away from God and His grace and have found yourself in the middle of dangers and snares and accusations and condemnations. You find yourself at the point where you can’t even believe that God will be gracious to you, because of what looks to you like the extreme evil of what you have done. You are lost in the middle of a hard, cold, and cruel world, and as far as you can see at the time, there is no way back to the safety for which you yearn.

It is precisely to those who find themselves in this predicament that the Holy Christian Church has been sent. It is precisely those who find themselves in this hopeless state that are in a position to fully appreciate the riches of God’s grace in the total and free forgiveness of all of our sins. However, it is precisely those who are in such a hopeless state that are the most likely to be condemned and rejected by people who think that they are “religious” or “good Christian people.” The Pharisees to whom Jesus was responding it today’s Gospel are perhaps an extreme example of this, but it is something against which we all must guard. The fear that lost sheep have of approaching Christ or His representatives has a huge basis in reality. Too much of Christian preaching focuses upon condemning the evils of society or harping on the evil, nasty, wicked things that are happening out there in the world, and thus making those in here, in the Church, feel better about themselves by running others down. Too many Christians think that because they haven’t done any of these evil, nasty, wicked things that therefore they are a cut above the rest of humanity when it comes to sin. Too many times those who have come looking for God’s forgiveness and restoration and healing in their lives have found only condemnation and contempt from those who only see them as “those sinners” rather than strayed sheep whose Shepherd seeks them out earnestly.

But the fact of the matter is that there is no one who is righteous. We all like sheep have gone astray. We all have been led down the road of sin. We all have the roots of that sin in our hearts, inherited down through the generations from our first parents, Adam and Eve. It is only sinners who need Christ’s salvation. If you think you are completely righteous, if you think that sin is something that is only a problem for other people, if you think you are a perfectly good and healthy Christian with a perfectly good and healthy faith, then quite frankly what you are thinking is that you don’t need the Church. What you are saying, if you think these things about yourself, is that you don’t need Jesus Christ, and therefore you really shouldn’t even be here. This is a place where sinners find hope and strength to heal their broken relationship with God and with one another. It is not a place where so-called good people go to show that they are better than others. Of course, despite what we may think, there is no one in this world that really is that good and righteous in himself. All have sinned, and all need Christ to come and rescue them. But it is too easy to think, because the devil, the world, and the sinful flesh whispers it in our ear, that we are pretty good people who don’t really need Christ’s forgiveness. If any of you tend to think this way habitually, watch out lest you turn away the Christ who is trying to rescue you and bring you salvation and eternal life through the forgiveness of your sins.

But to those who are broken in heart because of your sin, this is not a place you should avoid until you feel better. That’s often the mistake we make, isn’t it? I’ve heard delinquent church members that I’ve visited in the past say things like these: “I’ll go to church when I’ve done a little better in terms of resisting sin than I have this week. I shouldn’t go to communion because I haven’t been here in a while and I want to be sure that I’m right with God first.” If you tend to think this way, I have news for you. This is precisely the place where you need to be, and Christ’s body and blood is precisely what you need. Only Christ can find you where you are at in your life and rescue you from the dangers that you have wandered into. Only Christ can heal you, give you the quiet waters and the rich pastures of His Word and His body and blood. Only Christ can give you strength to amend your sinful life. Only by having the relationship with our God restored and renewed through the Holy Spirit’s power in Absolution and the Holy Supper can we also have the courage and strength to fix the broken relationships that our sin has caused in this world as well. God is the one who fixes that, we don’t because we can’t. Improvement in our daily walk with God, improvement in our ability to resist temptation, is a result of the things we receive here, not a cause of our being made worthy for them. It is precisely those who are lost that Christ comes to and heals and feeds and cares for in His rich pasture. It is precisely those who are lost who receive the most tender loving care from our Lord. It is precisely those who have been lost who provoke the most joy in our Father’s heart when they are found. It is precisely through our becoming crushed and miserable that we become those in whom God’s love expressed in His Word of forgiveness becomes meaningful to us. Those who seem like lost sheep in this world, whom we are so often tempted to regard as “those sinners,” are the ones who are really in the best position to appreciate and receive in a beneficial way the Holy Gospel. It is these whom God has told us to seek out and to restore. After all, we have been among them at various points in our lives. He has restored us, and now through us He restores those around us. Christ is now throwing a great feast to welcome us, His lost sheep, back into His fold. Come and share in the joy and the love of Christ for us as He gives us a banquet of His body and blood. Amen.

+ Soli Deo Gloria +

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Trinity 2

Sermon on Luke 14:15–24
For Our Savior Lutheran Church of Norwood Park, Chicago, IL
June 21, 2009 (The Second Sunday after Trinity)

There are many in the world who think that Christianity is something to be avoided. The common perception of us is that we are always serious, critical and down on those who would have any fun, and generally just not people you want to be around. And it is true that some have played into this perception by going beyond what the Law of God says and making up laws of their own regarding human behavior, such as those who forbid drinking, dancing, or card-playing, or who never have anything good to say about any movie coming out of Hollywood, even if there’s nothing actually immoral in the movie. But even apart from those who have gone too far in what they consider God’s Law to be, the world perceives Christianity as something to be avoided. When they are invited to share with us in the great blessings God has to offer in the feast we celebrate today, many make excuses.

That’s the reality which Christ depicts for us in the parable He tells in today’s Gospel. There are many for whom the things of this world are simply more important than Christ. While it is true that we Christians are not supposed to be a bunch of sourpusses who want everybody to give up everything fun or enjoyable, it is also true that Christianity demands that loyalty to Christ come before these other things. Those who put other things first before God are simply breaking the First Commandment, for they make such things, whether property or business or family or leisure activities or money or whatever else it may be, into their god. And false gods don’t like to be threatened. They don’t like to give up their hold on a person. And so when invited and called to join the feast by means of the Word of God on the lips of their Christian friends and neighbors, many make excuses. Not this Sunday, I promised the kids I’d take them fishing. Not next Sunday either because I’m scheduled to work that day. And so it goes. None of these things is wrong in themselves. But sooner or later it becomes evident that these things are being used as excuses to keep a person away from God’s feast, away from His blessings.

And so the invitation turns to others. Those who are satisfied with what the world gives them, think they don’t need God or His feast of salvation. But those who realize that the world is not, and can never be, their true source of happiness and joy, are only too thrilled to come to the feast. It is only those who realize their sinful condition, no matter whether outwardly rich or poor, who are able to see what a great blessing this feast is. To those who know their own sin, even the greatest blessings and pleasures of this world are as filthy rags, dust and ashes compared to the true riches and true joys offered by the Giver of the feast. Those who have no home in this world, who know that this world can never offer a true shelter against our true enemies, sin, death, and the devil, are only too happy to be compelled to come in to the heavenly mansions and partake of the feast of victory which has no end.

Jesus originally told this parable about the Jewish leaders of his day. They were, after all, the ones who had originally been invited to the feast by means of the promises that had been theirs for centuries in the Old Testament. And they rejected the invitation, because their concerns in this life were too important to them. They thought of themselves as righteous already because they thought they could keep God’s law, and they were more concerned about the welfare of the earthly nation of Israel than with their own membership in the true Israel composed of all believers in the true God. They saw no need for the feast because their false god, their own concerns and interests, didn’t allow for it. And so they made excuses why they should not come in.

Those who did finally come in represent those who were not part of the Jewish leadership of those days. Those within Israel who did not seem to have a part in the religious establishment, the tax collectors and “sinners,” as well as those from outside Israel who were wandering without knowledge or hope in the true God who were invited to share in the blessings of knowing Him. This last bit, the part where the servant goes out to the highways and hedges, is the part where you and I come in. We are the ones whose ancestors started out outside the city of God’s people, since we are gentiles. But it is those who know their need who see the feast for the great blessing that it is. Those who already think they have everything, spiritually speaking, just don’t care.

But even though we are technically gentiles, us modern Christians find ourselves today in much the same position as the Jewish leaders of Jesus’ day. Many of us have been Christians all our lives, we’ve known the Holy Scriptures from little on up. There are many among us who could say that they haven’t committed the gross outward sins of adultery, stealing, or murder, and that we’ve been pretty good people. That’s where the danger is, though. Our spiritual pride at being associated with the Church and being “pretty good people,” can threaten to separate us from the very blessings the Church is here to provide and distribute. Those who don’t see their sinfulness don’t see the need to sit at the banquet where we eat Christ’s body and drink His blood for the forgiveness of sins. It is only as we recognize that we are the poor, the maimed, the blind, and the lost that the great blessings of the feast become important to us. It is only as we see how useless and vain the other stuff in our lives is for answering the big questions about what life and death is all about, that we become the poor who are enriched by Christ. It is only as we see how badly we wander apart from Him that we can heed the invitation to come to the feast and receive His strength for our journey.

This feast is, after all, nothing less than the forgiveness of sins, life, and salvation. It is nothing less than inviting poor, miserable sinners to receive that by which their sins are done away with, Christ’s body and blood given and shed on the cross for the remission of sins. In that our poverty turns to riches. What we lack is made whole. Our diseases are healed, maybe not in this life, but in the life to come. Everything that afflicts us in this world is something that need no longer trouble us, for this feast is nothing less than the food of eternity. We poor, maimed, blind, lame wanderers have become God’s true people who, restored, healed, and forgiven will feast with Him forever in the marriage feast of the Lamb in His kingdom which has no end, a feast in which we partake even now in Christ’s body and blood. Amen.

✠ Soli Deo Gloria ✠

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Trinity 1

Sermon on Luke 16:19-31
For Our Savior Lutheran Church of Norwood Park, Chicago, IL
June 14, 2009 (The First Sunday after Trinity)

Martin Luther’s last words were, “We are all beggars. This is true.” And it is true. The words, “Lord have mercy,” which form several parts of our worship service, are the words that beggars have used for centuries to ask for help from those who are in a position to do so. To be a beggar, is to own nothing, to rely on someone else for everything that is necessary to get you through life. It is to be totally helpless, totally dependent, like Lazarus was in this Gospel lesson. And, in relation to God, we are all beggars. If He didn’t give us everything we need to support this body and life, we would have nothing. In fact, we wouldn’t just have nothing, we’d be nothing. We wouldn’t exist. No matter how much you have in your bank account, no matter how big or nice your house is, no matter how expensive your car is, God gave you all that. In fact, he gave you your very life. He created you. He made you. He made all the stuff you have. There’s nothing you have, whether in terms of physical things or relationships with other people and family members, or talents, gifts, and abilities, that did not come from Him. We are all beggars.

Thing is, that’s the furthest idea from our minds. Like the rich man, we forget who we are in relation to our Creator, and we think of the stuff we have as stuff we’ve bought or earned or won rather than gracious gifts from our heavenly Father. Even those of you who may not have a whole lot in comparison to others around you are incredibly rich in comparison with people in most times and places in human history. And just like we think of ourselves as independent of God, we think of our stuff as independent of Him as well. We don’t think of ourselves as beggars. Pride won’t let us think of ourselves as beggars. Pride causes us to think of ourselves the way the rich man in our story thinks of himself.

Of course, when the two men died, the situation was reversed. Lazarus had everything, the formerly rich man had nothing. I want to emphasize that the rich man wasn’t condemned to hell simply for having a lot of money, nor was Lazarus saved simply because he was a beggar. Rather, the eternal destinies of these two men were caused by what was in their hearts. Lazarus was a beggar not just physically, but spiritually. He was dependent not just on human charity, but on God’s charity, God’s mercy. He died trusting in the salvation which was promised through the coming Messiah, not in his own good deeds or his own resources. The rich man died trusting in himself, in his own riches and resources, and they weren’t enough. “You can’t take it with you,” the old saying goes. And it’s true. But it means more than just the fact that whatever stuff we have here won’t be there (and won’t be needed) in heaven. It means that nothing we have, nothing we can do or give or make, will make a difference as to where we end up. If we trust in such things, we are trusting in something or some one besides the true God, and when it comes to heaven and hell, that just doesn’t work.

But the way we were born was like the rich man. That’s the way we are by nature. We want to do it ourselves, rely on ourselves, view our stuff as what we’ve earned or bought, and so on. And we can’t change that about ourselves. In fact, if we try to change that, we’re still relying on ourselves to do it, and not giving glory to God. And so we’re still right back where we started. No matter how much we do for the Church or for our neighbor, it doesn’t change who we are on the inside one bit. Who we are on the inside is rich men, who think that we have the ability and the resources to fix ourselves and fix our own relationship with God and with our neighbors. And it never works.

And so our riches aren’t riches at all. In many cases, they’re stumbling blocks to us rather than helps or resources we can draw on. And so we are forced to recognize that we have nothing that can truly help us when it comes to our relationship with God and our eternal destiny. We are forced to admit that, really, we are beggars. Even if we’ve got lots of money and lots of possessions, we are beggars.

But that’s where we are supposed to be. After all, our creator Himself sent His Son to become one of us. “Foxes have holes, birds have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay His head.” He became a beggar in our place. He relied on His Father’s providence even when tempted not to do so. “Command these stones to become bread.” “Man shall not live by bread alone but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God.” He did not consider equality with God something to be displayed as spoils, but made Himself nothing. He did so because that’s what we are. Beggars. And He was stepping into our position.

And that’s why the physically poor and needy we encounter in our lives are pictures for us of Him who became nothing in our place. He took on Himself all the ravages of sin in this world in our place, so that when we see those around us who have been hurt or injured or who are diseased or destitute or otherwise affected by the messed up nature of this old world, they are reminders for us of what Jesus became for us, what He endured on the cross in our place, and therefore also of what we are in relationship to Him. Beggars.

But that’s not such a bad thing. After all, what God gives to beggars is the forgiveness of sins, life and salvation. He doesn’t give it to those who rely on themselves, because those who don’t think they’re beggars will think of charity as an insult. And unfortunately even if a beggar, or rather, THE Beggar, rises from the dead, as He did that first Easter, there are some who won’t believe, if they don’t believe the Word which God has already given. But the Word does what it says. God gives His gifts, His charity, His mercy, simply by speaking to us. He gives us Moses, the Prophets, and the Apostles, who tell us that we are not mere beggars, but citizens of the heavenly kingdom recipients of the divine mercy. We sit with Abraham and all his spiritual descendants and share in the great feast of victory which has no end, the same feast we receive here when we partake of the body and blood of our servant Savior as a free gift. We didn’t earn it, because we couldn’t earn it. We’re beggars. But when the Heavenly Father is the one giving charity, beggars is exactly what we want to be. Amen.

✠ Soli Deo Gloria ✠

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

I Trust When Dark My Road

One of the blogs on the blogroll to the right has now become a book published by the LCMS human care department. And it's free! Get copies for everyone you know!

Btw, the no-longer-anonymous author is a dear friend of mine, and I was the unnamed pastor who helped him with his pastoral duties while he was on disability a couple of years ago, not to mention the fact that I have a similar diagnosis to his.

Sunday, June 7, 2009

Holy Trinity

Sermon on John 3:1-15
For Our Savior Lutheran Church of Norwood Park, Chicago, IL
June 7, 2009 (The Holy Trinity)

The Trinity is one of those teachings of Christianity that doesn’t seem to be particularly relevant to us as we struggle to live our Christian lives here in this world. Especially for those Christians who understand Christianity and religion to be a matter primarily of faithfulness and morality in this life rather than of trust in the promises of God which lead to eternal life, the doctrine of the Trinity doesn’t seem to have anything to do with anything at all. And that’s what we all are according to our old sinful nature, namely people who understand religion and relationship with God as being primarily a matter of how we live our lives rather than what God tells us about His eternal life. How does it help us to be better people to believe in the abstract and illogical idea that God is neither just one nor just three, but three-in-one? That’s the way the argument goes, anyway.

And yet, the Athanasian Creed asserts that unless we believe this doctrine of the Holy Trinity faithfully and firmly, we cannot be saved. And, in fact, it goes into a rather large amount of detail as to what we are to believe and not to believe about the Trinity and the three Persons in one God. This seems unreasonable to our natural minds. And it would be unreasonable if the idea our natural minds hold about religion were actually true. The doctrine of the Trinity really is irrelevant to a religion that focuses on man’s life in this world, man’s good works and avoidance of sin, and man’s happiness and healthiness. If that’s all that religion were about, namely helping us to live a more moral life, or a happier life, or a healthier and more well-adjusted life, the doctrine of the Trinity would not only be unnecessary, it would be a problematic and dangerous source of conflict and argument.

The reason why the doctrine of the Trinity is so important that one cannot be saved without it, is precisely because all of that isn’t what Christianity is primarily about. Christianity isn’t primarily about helping us live better, happier, healthier, more purpose-driven, and more well-adjusted lives here, it is about our eternal destiny after we die to this world. It isn’t primarily about what we do in service to God or our neighbor (though God does have plenty to say about that in His Law) it’s about what God has done for us. The most important message of Christianity, in other words, is not Law but Gospel. It’s a religion of creeds rather than deeds. It’s a matter of trusting God’s promises rather than obeying His commands first and foremost. And in order to trust in His promises, one must understand what He did for us. And in order to grasp that, one must have at least a basic understanding of who He is that He can do such a wondrous thing for us as die for our sins and take away our punishment and give us His perfection in its place. And that’s not something the natural heart of man is able to grasp. Which is why all other religions besides Christianity are religions that focus on what we do, how we live our lives here. And its also why Christianity itself is so often misunderstood in the same way by those both inside and outside the Christian Church.

If Christianity were a religion that was primarily about what we do, then Christianity could be understood and studied rationally, the way one studies and understands the owner’s manual of a car. But since it is a matter of trusting in the promises that come from outside of ourselves, it is a matter of having a relationship with the one who made the promise. And you can’t understand or study a relationship between living persons unless you’re part of that relationship. As Jesus puts it to Nicodemus in today’s Gospel lesson, one must be born again if one is to see the kingdom of God. The old sinful self wants to base its relationship with God on its own reason or strength, on its own merit or worthiness. But the old sinful self always falls short, and is always going to fall short. The only way we can enter into that relationship in which He is our heavenly Father and we are His true children who trust His promises to give us eternal life and salvation, is if that old self is put to death and a new self comes forth and arises to live before God in righteousness and purity forever.

God gives us that blessed death and resurrection in Holy Baptism, where the old sinful self who wants to be a spiritual loner is drowned and the new you who is created in the image of the true God, was brought to life. You now live in that new life, a life lived in relationship with the Triune God. After all, God did not create you to be alone. It’s the old, fallen self that wants to do his own thing in spiritual matters, whether that be in terms of ignoring God’s commandments or in terms of trying and failing to earn his way back into God’s good graces. Rather God created us to be in relationship, and therefore dependent upon, other persons. And of course, the most important relationship of all in this connection is the relationship with Himself. After all, we are created in His image. And He is not alone, but is both three and one. Each Person of the Trinity is in an eternal relationship of giving and receiving with the others. And so it is not surprising that our salvation, our life, is to be found in dependence on Him, in trust in His promises, in being recreated by Him, rather than in what we do or decide.

And this is true not only of the beginning of our Christian life in Holy Baptism, it is true of the entire life we live as Christians. We are sustained not by treating the Bible as an owner’s manual showing us what we’re supposed to do, but by what God does through His living and active Word which is what He gave us the Bible for, the living and active Word which, read and proclaimed, renews in us daily and weekly that trust in the promises of our Father who has adopted us through rebirth into His kingdom. And we are further nourished and sustained by that Word incarnate, Jesus Christ Himself, who not only washes us in the forgiveness of sins, life, and salvation, but causes us to eat and drink that forgiveness by giving us His own body and blood as our food and drink.

God did not send His Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through Him. There are those who do not, and will not, believe this, of course, and they are sadly lost in their sinful rebellion against God. But it is nevertheless true that our religion is not a matter of doing what God tells you but of being recreated to believe and trust in what God tells you He has done for you. It is a religion that has to do with the love the Father has for us because of His Son Jesus Christ, a love which is implanted into our hearts through the Holy Spirit working through Word and Sacrament. It is a religion in which the Triune God promises us fellowship with Himself, and does what is necessary Himself to fulfill that promise. Amen.

✠ Soli Deo Gloria ✠