Saturday, August 15, 2009

Two Jobs

The more observant among you will have noticed that the last sermon posted here was for Lamb of God, not Our Savior Norwood Park. My wife and I have decided that driving down to Chicago every week was simply getting too stressful for us, especially in view of how we both had to fit our respective jobs in. Tina works 4-8 am on Saturdays and Mondays, and so dropping me off and picking me up at the Antioch, IL Walmart both Saturday and Sunday (after Church) has meant that she was getting next to no sleep on the weekends, which is very detrimental to her health.

I appreciate the opportunity Our Savior congregation has given me to preach the Word and administer the Sacraments to them, and I have asked them to keep my name on their call list. I had, of course, hoped that the vacancy would not last nearly as long as it has, and simply driving down there each week and staying in a hotel one night a week has become very stressful for us, more so the longer the vacancy lasted, not to mention the fact that several of our pet birds became very stressed that we weren't home every night.

I do keep Our Savior Norwood Park in my prayers, as they do need a pastor right now, one who can be there more than once or twice a week for a few hours at a time. I ask any of you who read this to do the same. Of course, as mentioned in a previous post, I am off CRM status, having a part-time call to Lamb of God in Pleasant Prairie, WI, and on Sundays when I'm not "on duty" there I am once again available for pulpit supply around the area.

It was not an easy decision to discontinue serving Our Savior in their vacancy. I have grown to love the congregation, as any pastor does for those placed in his care. I originally accepted the offer to serve them with the understanding that, whether or not I would be their next pastor, the vacancy would be relatively short and so we would only be spending weekends away from home for a few months. Of course, the vacancy has lasted much longer than that, and Tina and I have our limits. I pray that God will watch over and provide for Our Savior congregation and the saints who gather around Word and Sacrament there, and that God will continue to provide me with opportunities to serve at His altar into the future.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Trinity 9

This was preached at the Wednesday evening Divine Service at Lamb of God Lutheran Church in Pleasant Prairie, WI. Pastor Gary Gehlbach preached (same text, different sermon) at the Sunday morning Divine Service.

Sermon on Luke 16:1-9

For Lamb of God Lutheran Church, Pleasant Prairie, WI
August 9, 2009 (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 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 good in their eyes. By the way, scholars don’t agree about whether or not the steward was being dishonest or doing something wrong when he changed the bills. I prefer to take the interpretation that the steward actually had 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 is a forgiving sort who approves of the lowered bills, since what the steward has done makes the debtors grateful to him. 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. The Second Person of the Trinity Himself becomes man and takes the accusation of poor stewardship upon Himself and bears it to the cross in our place. He gives us nothing less than eternity by forgiving us not just part, but all of the debt we owe His Father, giving us the oil of the Holy Spirit in Baptism and the bread of His body in the Lord’s Supper.

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.

+ Soli Deo Gloria +

Sunday, August 2, 2009

Trinity 8

Sermon on Matthew 7:15-23
For Our Savior Lutheran Church of Norwood Park, Chicago, IL
August 2, 2009 (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 +