Monday, August 19, 2019

The Hammer of God

Jesu Juva
Jeremiah 23:16-29
August 18, 2019
Proper 15C

Dear Saints of Our Savior~

God’s Word is a lamp to our feet and a light to our path. God’s Word is living and active, sharper than any double-edged sword. God’s Word is truth, spoken by prophets and apostles, carried along by the Holy Spirit. God’s Word is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting, and training in righteousness. God’s Word is like the rain and snow that fall from heaven, giving life and growth and always accomplishing what God desires.

But wait, there’s more! That’s not all we can and should say about the Word of God. For today the Lord reminds us through the Prophet Jeremiah that the same Word of God that comforts and consoles us—the same Word of God that lights our path and gives us hope—is also given for a different purpose: Is not my Word like fire, declares the Lord; and [is not my Word] like a hammer that breaks the rock in

What kind of a God is this, whose Word consumes like fire and crushes like a hammer? What kind of a God is this, whose Word provides surpassing comfort—and, also, additionally—crushes us to pieces like a sledge hammer? This God is our God—the Holy Trinity. He is both the God of fierce Law and the God of sweet Gospel. Perhaps if we could just embrace this hammer of God and come to terms with the hellfire it threatens, then what Jesus Christ has done (and still does!) for us would become that much more precious and meaningful for us.

But truth be told, we don’t much care for the Law of God and the sometimes painful course corrections it prescribes. After all, who wouldn’t prefer to be the hammer instead of the nail? Even though God uses the hammer of His Law because He loves us—and because He wants the very best for us—yet we do all we can to avoid it. If you’ve ever had your thumb smashed by the blow of a hammer, then you can understand why God’s children don’t always appreciate the hammer of God’s Law.

Jeremiah’s job was to wield the hammer of God in the years leading up to the destruction of Jerusalem. His job was primarily to pummel the people of God with the Law of God—to call them to repentance for all of their idolatries and adulteries—and to warn them about the “Babylonian chain saw massacre” that was about to level everyone and everything in its path.

But rather than hear the Law of God preached by Jeremiah, the people preferred what the false prophets were peddling—lies and dreams and deceit, to be sure. But it all really sounded good compared to what Jeremiah was saying. The false prophets proclaimed peace and love and unicorns and rainbows. “It shall be well with you,” they said. “No disaster shall come upon you,” they declared. The false prophets preached what the people wanted to hear. They were experts at scratching itching ears. They knew how to make people feel good about themselves, no matter how many sinful choices they were making each and every day. The people needed the hammer of God; but what they chose was a tickle-feather from the false prophets.

We, too, need the hammer of God’s Law. We need to be corrected and crushed for our sins. We need to be broken into pieces so that we can know the real peace of God. We, too, live in a world of idolatry and adultery, where immorality is practiced and approved and celebrated by a plurality of the population. And for those who don’t jump on that bandwagon, well, persecution is coming.

What will you do when the hammer of God is brought to bear on your life—on your immorality and adultery—on your pride and arrogance in the face of God’s Law? What will you do when the bright light of God’s Law exposes the filth of your sin? What will you do when you can no longer pretend that your pride is somehow permissible—that your immorality is okay—that your false gods are no big deal? Will you beat your breast and say, “God be merciful to me, a sinner,” or will you beat a path to the nearest false prophet to be affirmed and complimented on your courageous lifestyle choices?

And what about pastors—the “sons of the prophets” who follow in the footsteps of Jeremiah? The Lord says, “Let the one who has my word speak my word faithfully.” All pastors have to work with is the Word of God—fire in one hand and a hammer in the other. Believe it or not, I didn’t become a pastor because I relished the idea of hammering people with the Law. Personally, I would rather not do it: avoid making a scene, keep the peace, do no harm. I need to remember that there’s no harm in the hammer of God’s Law—that behind God’s Law is God’s love—God’s love for sinners. Let him who has my Word speak my Word faithfully. So, help me, God. God, be merciful to me, a pastor.

The hammer of God’s law is given to demolish all of our pride and arrogance, all of our idolatries and adulteries. But from that wreckage—from the wreckage of our lives—Jesus Christ is building something new and holy and pure. For this reason, the hammer of God is God’s gift to you just as surely as His full, free, blood-bought forgiveness is also His gift to you.

In this morning’s gospel reading Jesus said that He didn’t come to bring peace, but rather division. It sounds so strange to our ears. But the hammer of God’s Law and the life of repentance that follows necessarily bring division. It’s a division that even cuts through our families and our closest relationships. When we have to tell the people we love that the choices they’re making are wrong, dangerous, harmful—division is sometimes the result. And that division sometimes runs right through each one of us—we who are simultaneously sinful and righteous. The hammer of God needs to smash the idols of our Old Adam so that the New Man might be drawn ever closer to Christ.

Jesus doesn’t promise His followers a peaceful life or even a peaceful family life. The hammer of God doesn’t make things easy for anyone. But the peace of Jesus Christ is a different kind of peace. It’s not the absence of conflict. It’s not something the world can give or know or negotiate. It’s the peace of sins washed away in the blood of the Lamb. It’s the peace of God in Christ reconciling the world to Himself, not counting our trespasses against us. It’s the peace of God’s justifying Word which declares you righteous for Jesus’ sake alone, by grace alone, through faith alone. It’s the peace of a quiet conscience that dares to believe that now there is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus—that if anyone is in Christ, He is a new creation.

At the cross all the power of sin to paralyze, all the power of death to terrorize, and all the power of hell to destroy—is finished. With His holy, precious blood Jesus Himself declares, “It is finished.” So when the day comes that you find yourself beneath the hammer of God’s judgment, remember that God is for you, not against you. Remember, also, that other hammer—the hammer that drove nails into the flesh of the Son of God for your sake—for your sin—to save you. God is indeed serious about every sin we commit; but Jesus Christ has also paid for every sin we commit. So let’s fix our eyes on Him—on Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God.

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Monday, August 5, 2019

Drifting toward Idolatry

Jesu Juva
St. Luke 12:13-21
August 4, 2019
Proper 13C

Dear Saints of Our Savior~

Jesus said, “One’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions.”

I’ve lived in this neighborhood long enough that I can remember a day when many of you lost a fair share of your possessions. Nine summers ago, late one afternoon, it began to rain hard and it didn’t stop for hours. Over seven inches of rain fell that day. No one died in those flood waters, but . . . .property and possessions were ruined. Stuff that was securely stowed in basements—that same stuff had to be piled high at the curb—soggy, and moldy and ruined. After the storm there wasn’t a street without ruined possessions piled high, headed for the garbage dump.

On the one hand, it was just stuff, right? But our lives often become intertwined with our possessions. Much of our stuff is invested with meaning and emotion: a wedding dress, a photo album, love letters from long ago. It’s painful—it hurts—to lose those kinds of possessions. They are, in a sense, reminders of God’s goodness and mercy. But that is all they are, just reminders. Those things themselves have nothing to do with who you are in Jesus Christ. Your God treasures you and loves you no matter how much or how little you have. You are a child of God, holy and dearly loved, come hell or high water.

But possessions can also be perilous. There is always the temptation to draw our meaning and security and identity from the stuff around us, rather than from the God who created us, redeemed us, and makes us holy. And when this happens—when our deepest sense of identity comes from the material things around us—the problem runs far deeper than simple greed. Greed, we learned from Colossians today, is really idolatry—having another god.

The drift toward idolatry always happens slowly and gradually. Nobody wakes up in the morning and says, “I think I’m going to start committing idolatry today. Starting today, I’m going to draw my security, my identity and my very life from the people and possessions around me.” Of course, that’s not the way it happens. But how does it happen? How do greed and idolatry take over?

The parable we heard from Jesus today is a case study on greed and the drift toward idolatry. It’s often called the parable of the rich fool; but I think that title makes it far too easy to dismiss the main character as someone that most of us could never identify with. I think he’s not so different from us. For instance, please notice that the rich man got rich, not through scheming or stealing or gambling. No, Jesus reports that the man was a farmer, and that his land produced a good crop—a bumper harvest. It was God who provided the seeds, the sun, the soil and the rain. It was God who gave the growth. It was God who gave the man his wealth.

Do you believe that about your wealth and your possessions? Do you believe that it is God who has placed these things into your hands? Or perhaps it’s not so black and white? Perhaps your possessions and wealth are 50 percent your accomplishment and 50 percent God’s gift. Or is it 70-30 or 80-20? Is all that you have a gift from God? Or would you be more inclined to say, “I worked for it. I earned it. I bought it. It’s mine?” How you view your possessions reveals a lot about your spiritual health.

As for the man in the parable, we don’t know exactly how he viewed his spectacular harvest. His plan to build bigger barns was a
sensible thing to do. Without barns to store it, his crop would just pile up on the ground and eventually become rotten. Nor do I think we can find fault with the man’s decision to “take life easy; eat, drink and be merry.” Those words don’t sound much different from what King Solomon wrote in Ecclesiastes about how “a man can do nothing better than eat, drink and find satisfaction in his work.” There’s no crime in enjoying God’s good gifts. Would you honestly have done anything differently if you had been in this man’s shoes?

Then why—why does God eventually call the man a “fool?” How was it that this man quietly, slowly, almost imperceptibly drifted into idolatry? How did this farmer become a fool? What kept him from being “rich toward God?” Well, judging from the words of the parable, perhaps the man started to drift when he called the crops “my” crops. Perhaps he drifted a little further when he called the barns “my” barns. Perhaps he drifted further still when he called the grain and the goods “my” grain and “my” goods. And at one point the man refers to his very soul as “my” soul. It’s just a tiny, two-letter word—a possessive pronoun that can’t even stand alone. But how you use your possessive pronouns can make all the difference between being wise—or being a faithless fool. Perhaps the road to idolatry is paved—not so much with money—but with all the wrong possessive pronouns.

There’s only one remedy for those who have drifted into idolatry—those who sinfully refuse to see God as the giver of every good and perfect gift. The remedy we need to reverse course is contentment. “Godliness with contentment is great gain,” the Scriptures say (1 Tim. 6:6). I love the way old King Solomon describes contentment in today’s reading from Ecclesiastes: “There is nothing better for a person than to eat and drink and find satisfaction in his work. This too, I see, is from the hand of God, for without Him, who can find enjoyment?” Being satisfied with what we have—being content with what God so graciously gives us—that itself is a gift from God. This is the gift of contentment. This is the remedy for idolatry. Do you have this gift?

There was one man who was perfectly content—a man who found perfect fulfillment in the work He was given to do. His work, He said, was to do the will of the Father. And the work He did, He did for you and for your salvation. As a true man like you, Jesus toiled and labored under the same hot sun that shines down on us in these dog days of summer. With all knowledge, wisdom and skill Jesus set out to do the work appointed for Him. His work reached its climax on Good Friday. It was a labor of pain and grief. And all that Jesus accomplished at that placed called “Golgotha”—the forgiveness of sins, opening the kingdom of heaven to all believers—these precious gifts Jesus gives away—gives away to those who follow Him in faith. You didn’t work for it. You didn’t earn it. You don’t even deserve it. And that’s why we call it “grace.” (Amazing grace!)

In your baptism Jesus filled the empty void inside you—that same empty void that always wants to name and claim everything as “my” and “mine.” Jesus has filled that void with His Holy Spirit, who daily and richly forgives you all of your sins. And in place of those sins, Jesus gives you His perfect record of obedience. His perfect work record belongs to you, and your future is now tied to Jesus. “You died,” Paul wrote, “and your life is now hidden with Christ in God. When Christ who is your life appears, then you also will appear with Him in glory.” In that resurrection promise you have contentment. You don’t have to run on empty. You don’t have to run the rat race for more and better and bigger. You can be content with what you have because God has said, “Never will I leave you; never will I forsake you” (Heb. 13:5).

What does this mean? It mean that your life, as you now live it, is not a matter of building bigger barns to store and accumulate more and more so that someday you can be content and secure. It means that today—regardless of your circumstances—regardless of your inventory—today you can live secure and content in Jesus. It means living by faith in the Son of God who loves you and laid down His life to save you.

So let it begin today. Let someone else chase after the wind. A person’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions. Watch out when you find yourself attaching the word “my” and “mine” to the people and things of this world. Rather, count the blessings God so richly gives. Rejoice in your work. And you will learn to enjoy life through God’s gift of contentment.

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Monday, July 29, 2019

Praying Shamelessly

Jesu Juva
St. Luke 11:1-13
July 28, 2019
Proper 12C

Dear Saints of Our Savior~

Prayer is the theme of the day. Abraham prayed for sinful Sodom and Gomorrah. Jesus taught His disciples to pray by giving them the very words and petitions they might use—what we call the “Lord’s Prayer.” And then Jesus told a simple parable on prayer—a parable
designed to encourage us to speak to the Father, with faith in the Son, in the power of the Holy Spirit.

But lurking behind whatever pious platitudes we might offer concerning prayer is this inconvenient truth: Prayer isn’t natural. Prayer is basic to the Christian life. Prayer is fundamental and foundational. Prayer is pleasing to God and beneficial for all His children. But prayer isn’t natural. Natural-born sinners simply don’t know how to pray. We can’t pray any more “naturally” than we can just naturally speak Portuguese.

We must be taught to pray. That was the conclusion reached by Jesus’ own disciples in today’s holy gospel. The human beings who were closest to Jesus—the men who listened to the Lord’s preaching and teaching on a daily basis—AND who overheard the Savior’s prayers just as often—they quickly recognized how little they knew about prayer—that praying properly was a mystery to them: Lord, teach us to pray as John taught his disciples. If prayer left Jesus’ own disciples scratching their heads, then how much more so must we admit that it doesn’t come naturally for us? We, too, must be taught to pray.

Prayer isn’t an exclusively Christian activity. Pagans and other religions have their so-called “prayers,” as well. Even though, in the end, prayers offered up apart from faith in Jesus are kind of like those North Korean missiles that get launched every so often, only to fall right back down to earth. And because so many people have hopped on the prayer bandwagon, it’s led to a lot of misinformation about prayer—that God hears and answers prayers based upon the level of sincerity or eloquence or emotion. But that’s not why God hears and answers prayer.

Jesus delivers a brief prayer parable to explain what is at the heart of prayer: “Which of you who has a friend,” Jesus asks, “will go to him at midnight and say to him, ‘Friend, lend me three loaves [of bread], for a friend of mine has just arrived, and I have nothing to set before him.’” Meanwhile, from the other side of the door he hears this: “Do not bother me; the door is now shut, and my children are with me in bed. I cannot get up and give you anything!”

Now, from what you’ve heard so far, which of these two neighbors is normal, and which one is nuts? Which man seems reasonable and rational, and which one is really pushing the limits on normal neighborly behavior? Now, maybe I’m just getting old, but I totally sympathize with the man who’s in bed at midnight (which is where you’re supposed to be at midnight). Who goes knocking on a neighbor’s door at midnight for three loaves of bread? In Whitefish Bay that kind of behavior leads to your invitation to the neighborhood block party getting “lost in the mail.”

But Whitefish Bay culture and the culture of the Middle East are very different. To Middle Eastern ears, the crazy scoundrel of the parable isn’t the midnight-knocker, but the lazy bread-hoarder. The rules of hospitality in that culture meant that you had to provide your guests with food and drink and shelter regardless of what time they arrived. They weren’t just your guests, but guests of the entire village—which is why it was a perfectly sane and rational thing to knock on a neighbor’s door at midnight. The bad guy in the parable is, unfortunately for me, the one who’s too lazy to get out of bed and share his bread.

In this parable it’s the one who is asking, seeking, and knocking who ends up being the “hero” of the story. And they key to this heroic quest for bread is found in one word: impudence. I tell you, though he will not get up and give him anything because he is his friend, yet because of his impudence he will rise and give him whatever he needs. What is impudence, you ask? The lexicon says: a lack of sensitivity to what is proper, carelessness about the good opinion of others, ignoring common convention, disregard for proper decorum, and shamelessness. Prayer is always an act of shamelessness.

And you can’t have shamelessness apart from faith. Faith and shamelessness go together. Faith and shamelessness find perfect expression in the prayers that you pray. It takes faith to believe, first of all, that there is a God on the receiving end of your prayers. And it also requires a rather high degree of shamelessness to assume that this God has time and energy to hear and respond to our little issues (like three loaves of bread at midnight).

This is such a peculiar parable! Jesus wants you to see yourself as the shameless neighbor who knocks at midnight. And Jesus depicts His Father as the grumpy old man who, at first, won’t get out of his warm bed to help a neighbor in need. I tell you, though he will not get up and give him anything because he is his friend, yet because of his impudence (shamelessness), he will rise and give him whatever he needs. God will give you whatever you need—not because He likes you as a friend—but because of the sheer shamelessness of your faith—faith that knocks at midnight, faith that cares not about the opinion of others, faith that lacks sensitivity to what is proper, faith that ignores common convention, faith that sets aside all decorum and protocol, faith that shamelessly goes to the Father, in the name of the Son, in the power of the Spirit.

But be warned: Satan will do all he can to stop it. The devil exploits every angle possible to silence your prayers and to destroy your faith. And one of his most effective techniques for silencing the prayers of sinners is to say, “Shame—shame on you. Who do you think you are? With a track record of transgressions like yours, you’d best keep quiet. Unfold your hands. Get up off your knees. Shut your mouth. Your requests don’t have a leg to stand on. You deserve nothing from God except silence. Don’t ask. Don’t seek. Don’t knock. Don’t waste your time,” declares the evil one.

When that voice threatens to shut you up, remember the man in this little prayer parable—the impudent man, the shameless man who would not be silent. For in Jesus Christ, you are that man. Jesus Christ has taken away your shame and guilt. Your sin and shame were heaped upon Jesus. For your sin and shame He was crucified, died, and was buried. And you were buried with Him, in baptism. And you who were dead in trespasses, God made alive together with Jesus. He has forgiven every trespass—cancelling the record of your debt. In baptism, you have been joined to Jesus. And, joined to Jesus, you can live and breathe in freedom and forgiveness—with no shame and no guilt. As it says in the Psalms: Those who look to him are radiant, their faces are never covered with shame.

You can shamelessly open your mouth every day and every hour in prayer. You can find mercy; just ask. You can find help; just seek. You can find peace; just knock. When it’s midnight and you’re not asleep because some grief or some burden has robbed you of peace, there’s a neighbor who will hear you and help you. Or when it’s noon and you are sinking beneath a load of stress at work or school, there’s a neighbor—there’s a friend—who will hear you and help you. And when the doctor’s news is dire and the test results are all bad—there’s a neighbor—a friend—who will hear you and help you. What a neighbor—what a friend—we have in Jesus. Every time we conclude our prayers “in Jesus’ name,” it’s like saying, “That Jesus, yeah, He’s a friend of mine. In fact, we’re family.” Go ahead and shamelessly drop His name in every prayer you offer.

So what are we waiting for? Let’s keep on asking, seeking, and knocking. Jesus Himself joins with you in your praying. With Jesus you never knock alone. In Jesus you can present your requests to God without shame or guilt. In Jesus you have a friend—all your sins and griefs to bear. What a privilege to carry everything to God in prayer.

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Monday, July 22, 2019

One Necessary Thing

Jesu Juva
St. Luke 10:38-42
July 21, 2019
Proper 11C

Dear Saints of Our Savior~

A few days ago some folks in Fox Point had a very famous visitor. The president of the United States came calling—just up the road a bit. Now, typically, presidents go where the people are. Crowds and publicity are the name of the game. But crowds of people in Fox Point are kind of hard to come by. There’s the Fox Point pool and the Fox Point farmers’ market; but the president didn’t stop there. No, he went to somebody’s home—to a private residence.

Most of us can only imagine what it would be like to host the president of the United States in our homes. Think of the preparations, the parking, the catering, the decorating—not to mention the security and the invasion of privacy that such a visit would require. I can safely say that our family would not be up to the task of hosting such a VIP.

I suppose that when Mary and Martha hosted Jesus in their home, they had no idea that for the next two thousand years people would be reading about that visit—and preaching about that visit. The scene that unfolded in their living room would live on—in infamy—in places like, well, Fox Point—places that wouldn’t even appear on the map for centuries.

Mary and Martha were sisters; but, like a lot of sisters, they couldn’t have been more different. Martha was hard-working,
practical, task-oriented and, perhaps, just a little bit uptight. Mary was more of a free spirit—a “big picture” thinker with the ability to focus on the important things of life.

When Jesus rang the doorbell, the differences between the sisters were magnified. Martha was distracted by all the preparations. The original Greek text literally indicates that Martha was dragged around with much service. She lost control—what with all the pots to stir, sauces to make, salads to dress, wine to uncork, bread to warm. Her sister, Mary, meanwhile, just sat there, passively, at the Savior’s feet, listening to every Word that proceeded from the mouth of the Lord. His Word was a lamp to her feet and a light to her path. When Martha has her all-too-predictable meltdown, Jesus gently reminds the sisters that only “one thing is necessary,” and that Mary had made the better choice.

Now, right about here is where some less-experienced preachers would insert a paragraph telling you to be like Mary—and not to be like Martha. But I won’t make that mistake. After all, we need our share of Marthas, don’t we? If it weren’t for all the Marthas, then the work would never get done. We need more Marthas who aren’t afraid to roll up their sleeves and get their hands dirty. Sure, you could be like Mary. You could sit around and read the Bible and sing hymns and think pious thoughts all day. But someone has to take out the trash. Someone has to pay the bills, walk the dog, buy the groceries, and get the oil changed. Those works are important too. Those works, done in faith, are good works in God’s sight.

Every day you and I are called to do what Martha was doing—to serve others in the work of our God-given vocations and callings. We provide for others in the name of Jesus Christ. And that loving service—no matter how hum-drum, routine, and ordinary—is God-pleasing. So let’s set the record straight: It wasn’t Martha’s work or her serving that bothered Jesus. It was her attitude: Martha, Martha, you are anxious and troubled about many things.

Couldn’t Jesus say the same thing to most of us here this morning? That we are anxious and troubled about a whole host of things? It’s what tends to happen when you—or someone you love—has a chronic illness, or when members of your own family just walk away from the Christian faith. It’s what happens when the church is shrinking and persecution is growing. It’s what happens when our homes become battlegrounds instead of peaceful places. It’s what happens as stressful days and stressful nights pile up, one after another. It’s true. Like Martha, we are anxious and troubled about many things.

And this is where Mary helps us. This is why Jesus points us to Mary. Mary shows us that, before we can faithfully serve others, we need to be served by Jesus with His Word and promises. Before we can do the cleaning and the washing, we need to be washed in Holy Baptism and cleansed with Holy Absolution. Before we can feed others, we need to be fed with our Lord’s most holy body and blood for the forgiveness of sins. Before we roll up our sleeves and get busy, we need to be still and listen to what God is telling us in His Holy Word. Just like Mary did.

When it comes to Martha, you should share her work ethic, but not her attitude. People with that attitude only tend to become more anxious and more troubled as time goes by. They revel in the role of the poor martyr who has to do it all without the help of anyone else. How different the day of Jesus’ visit would have been if Martha had simply asked her sister to set the table, instead of going to Jesus with her complaint. Did you notice that? Martha never asked for help. Rather than ask for what she needed, she opted for bitterness and recruited Jesus set her sister straight.

But Jesus didn’t come to play the referee . . . or the scorekeeper; He came to be our sacrifice for sin. Jesus came to pay the penalty for our bitterness and faithlessness, for our anxiety and worry and idolatry. That penalty was received by Jesus in the form of nails, thorns, whips—as He was fastened to a Roman tool of torture. No one else can do for you what He has done. That’s why His Word is the one thing we need above all else. That’s why you are here this morning. That’s why Mary planted herself at the Savior’s feet and listened, even as other tasks went undone. For Mary and for us the Word of Jesus is a lamp to our feet and a light to our path.

You are here this morning to do what Mary did—to receive. God Himself has gathered you here. Yes, you got up and drove here. But in reality the Holy Spirit has gathered you and drawn you to feet of Jesus—to be given to. To worship is to sit with Mary, to rest in Jesus, to let His Word have its way with you. Worship is not work, but rest. In worship we find rest from all the burdens that trouble us. Here we find rest in the forgiveness of our sins, in release from our guilt, in forgetting about the demands and expectations that others place upon us. Only God’s expectations really matter in the end; and Jesus Christ has met all of those expectations on your behalf in His perfect life, sacrificial death, and glorious resurrection.

Nowhere does Jesus promise that life won’t be chaotic and stressful—or that VIPs won’t be ringing your doorbell at some point. But in the midst of it all, Jesus does promise peace—peace for you in your troubled life. That peace was established at the cross—signed, sealed and delivered in the blood of Christ—peace that will one day be fully experienced in the life of the world to come. This is the place where that peace becomes your personal possession, in the preaching and proclamation of His Word and through the bread that is His body and the wine that is His blood. This is the place where you can sit at the Savior’s feet and receive the good portion which will not be taken away from you.

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Monday, July 15, 2019

Neighborly Love

Jesu Juva
St. Luke 10:25-37
July 14, 2019
Proper 10C

Dear Saints of Our Savior~

Everyone knows the importance of being a good neighbor. And that’s especially true in neighborhoods like this one, where there’s just a narrow driveway that separates one house from the next. During the summertime when windows are open, it’s easy to overhear what’s going on next door—and just as easy to be overheard. During the wintertime, when you have to clear the snow from that long narrow driveway, it’s neighborly not to rev-up the snow blower too early in the morning, and equally important not to blow the snow onto your
neighbor’s house and windows. One positive aspect to living in such close quarters is that if you don’t like what’s on television at your house, you can just look out the window and watch whatever your neighbors are watching. They won’t mind. Whatever the season, neighbors need to be good neighbors in a neighborhood like this.

The parable of the Good Samaritan all hinges on the question, “Who is my neighbor?” And the Biblical definition of “neighbor” is much more inclusive than what we normally think of around here. Who is my neighbor? Just who is it that I’m supposed to love as much as I love myself? But just asking the question implies that there are some people who are not my neighbor. And if some people are not my neighbor, well, then, I can safely go through each day loving who I want to love, while simply bypassing those who don’t fit my limited, segregated, restricted definition of “neighbor.” You see, when we ask the question, “Who is my neighbor?” we’ve got all the veto power. We can define who our neighbors are just narrowly enough to make ourselves comfortable.

But Jesus turned that lawyerly question on its head in the parable of the Good Samaritan. A certain man was on his way down from Jerusalem to Jericho. And it was, in fact, a long way down to Jericho. The road down to Jericho twists and turns and drops nearly three thousand feet in elevation in just 17 miles. That road afforded bandits and robbers any number of good hiding spots from which to surprise their victims. The man in the parable was set upon by thugs—was stripped, beaten, robbed, and left half-dead.

Well, along came a priest—a card-carrying member of the clergy. And those listening to the parable must have heard this as the best of news. Admit it. If you were beaten up and laying half dead out here on Santa Monica Blvd., and I—your pastor—came walking along, you would view that as a positive development, right? It’s my job to be compassionate. But imagine if I crossed over to the other side of the road purposely to avoid you. That’s what the priest in the parable did. He may have wanted to help; there’s nothing that says he didn’t. But according to the Law of Moses, if that priest touched something dead then he himself would become unclean and unfit to carry out his priestly duties. He’d have a lengthy purification process to undergo, an expensive sacrifice to offer, and a lot of explaining to do.

Later a Levite came walking along. Levites were priestly assistants, kind of like elders or deacons. The same Law of Moses applied to him and, like the priest, he made a hasty detour to the other side of the road. Both men could argue that they had kept the law. Both men could justify their actions with a pious-sounding rationale. But . . . neither man loved his neighbor as himself.

Both the priest and the Levite made a conscious decision to look the other way. They made a detour so as not to see the half-dead man—so that they didn’t have to look at the poor guy. Because do you know what might have happened if they had stopped and looked at the beaten, bloody man? All of their excuses might have evaporated. You see, being a good neighbor necessarily involves looking—not looking the other way, but—seeing my neighbor’s suffering and misery. Only after we look can we love. Only after we open our eyes can we open our hands and hearts to do something about the suffering we see.

Beloved in the Lord, don’t look the other way. Don’t do the safe, convenient thing and look the other way when a neighbor is suffering. Open your eyes instead. On Judgment Day Jesus will say to those on His left, “It was me. I was the one that you met in the naked, the hungry, the sick, the imprisoned; and you did not help me.” The response of the accused is not surprising. Do you remember what they say? “Lord, when did we see You? When did we see you hungry, thirsty, naked or sick?” They didn’t see it because they didn’t want to see it—because they looked the other way—because they passed by on the other side.

Who is your neighbor? Who needs you to open your eyes and look? Who is it that you can see lying on the roadside of life, battered and beaten down, hurting and helpless? Is it a frail, elderly family member? A friend recently divorced? Someone who struggles with the stigma of mental illness? The poor widow who lives alone in your neighborhood? Parents of a special needs child? Someone you’re sharing a pew with this morning? All we have to do is open our eyes and look.

The lawyer’s question was the wrong question. Asking “Who is my neighbor?” allows us to go through life with blinders on—unburdened and uninterrupted—helping others when it suits our schedule and when we can get some recognition for our service. The far better question to ask is this: To whom am I a neighbor? Who’s right there lying in my path beaten and bruised? Who is it that needs my neighborly attention? Who is it that needs me to be a neighbor?

That was the approach taken by the Samaritan in the parable. The Jews despised their Samaritan neighbors. Samaritans were considered half-breeds and heretics. They were impure both in race and in religion. When Jesus’ listeners heard that a Samaritan was coming, they probably suspected that this thug would finish off what the robbers had left undone. But they couldn’t have been more wrong.

The compassion of the Samaritan ran so deep that he didn’t hesitate to stop, despite the danger. The Samaritan wasn’t a priest or a pastor of any sort—just an ordinary guy doing the right thing. He did not look the other way, but climbed right down into the ditch with the beaten, bloody man. He bandaged his wounds, put him on his donkey, took him to an inn and spent the night taking care of him. The next day he left two day's wages with the innkeeper and ran a tab for the rest of the expenses.

The Samaritan undoubtedly had people to see, places to go, appointments to keep. But when you’ve got your eyes of compassion open, you have to expect interruptions. You have to be ready to improvise. It’s Murphy’s Law that some poor, wounded, needy neighbor is bound to show up or call right about the time we’re running out the door—right about the time we’re sitting down for dinner—right about the time we’re settling in for a good night’s sleep—right when it seems that life can’t get any more hectic. There’s never, ever a convenient time to be a neighbor to someone in need. And most of the time we’re not—not very neighborly or compassionate.

But in Jesus you have a neighbor who’s even better than the good Samaritan. Jesus Christ, the Son of God, took on human flesh and became your neighbor. He has compassion on you and He has joined you and me in the ditch of death. God sent His Son to be our Good Samaritan neighbor. Jesus loved God and loved a world full of neighbors so purely and perfectly that no one is excluded. He binds up your wounds with the wounds He endured on the cross. He pours the healing balm of holy Baptism on you. He brings you here to His church, which is essentially a hospice for sinners justified by Jesus. He forgives your sins and pays your debt in full. He serves you the bread of His body and the wine of His blood for nourishment, strength, healing and forgiveness.

Then the day will come when these half-dead bodies of ours will die altogether. The people and places and noises of this life will be silenced. But right then—at that very moment—Jesus Christ will be your neighbor—the neighbor who will not forsake you—the neighbor who will never look the other way and who will not pass you by when you need Him most. Jesus has already faced that robber called death, so that He can walk with you through that last bitter stretch—to the life of the world to come.

Already here and now—today—when you’re suffering in a way that others don’t understand—when loneliness or anxiety or depression seems to have robbed your life of joy and meaning—there’s still One who is your neighbor, right by your side. Because on the cross Jesus suffered in the dark dungeon of ultimate loneliness. Already here and now—today—as you stand all alone, quivering under the awful guilt of your sins, which nobody else even suspects, which would cause your friends to desert you if they found out, here too Jesus is the neighbor who stands with you—who cleanses you with baptismal water, who forgives and forgets, who feeds you with the healing medicine of His body and blood.

The question is not, “Who is my neighbor?” The question is, “To whom am I a neighbor? Who needs me?” That’s the question for all of us who follow in the footsteps of the Good Samaritan. This is the Christian life—admittedly easier to preach about than to do, and never, ever done without the Lord’s help.

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Monday, July 8, 2019

Harvest Time

Jesu Juva
St. Luke 10:1-20
July 7, 2019
Proper 9C

Dear Saints of Our Savior~

Right now in my home state of Kansas, it’s all about the harvest. There are places in central and western Kansas right now where golden fields of wheat stretch out as far as the eye can see—from one horizon to the other. Right now all the talk in all the corner cafes
is about bushels per acre and the price per bushel. It’s harvest time. Family and friends come home to help. Everything else is secondary—everything else can wait—while there are amber waves of grain just waiting for the harvest.

In today’s holy gospel Jesus was concerned about a different kind of harvest—a harvest not of grain—but of men and women who believe the good news that the kingdom of God has come near in the person of Jesus Christ. And still today in the church of Jesus Christ, it’s all about the harvest. Everything else is secondary compared to the life-changing, life-giving good news that Jesus Christ has come into the world to save sinners—that on the day of resurrection the earth will yield up her dead, some to everlasting life and others to everlasting punishment. The Lord Jesus is all about this harvest.

Perhaps what’s most surprising about this harvest is that Jesus enlists the help of others. Jesus authorizes and deputizes—Jesus calls and sends—men to help carry out this holy harvest. He enlists the labors of ordinary men. They have a hand (and a voice) in this harvest. Today’s Holy Gospel—the sending out of the seventy-two—serves as a model—a preview—of the calling and sending of men for the work of the holy ministry—for the work of the harvest which continues to this day.

Why seventy-two? Why not twelve or a hundred forty-four? This is probably a symbolic move by Jesus. Seventy-two was the total number of nations listed in Genesis after the flood. It’s a number that corresponds to all nations and all peoples. Jesus was on His way to Jerusalem to suffer and die, not just for one nation or for one people, but for the sins of the whole wide world. His ultimate aim is to make disciples of all nations, baptizing them and teaching them to observe all that He has commanded.

As Jesus surveyed the landscape into which He was sending the seventy-two, He saw what we cannot always see--what a lot of farmers in Kansas are seeing right now: a plentiful harvest, but a scarcity of workers. There’s not enough hours in the day—not enough manpower—to take the good news of the gospel to all the people and places where it needs to be heard. I’m always a little surprised at what Jesus says to do when the church’s harvest is too much to handle: Pray. Pray earnestly to the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into His harvest. Jesus’ grand plan to procure a harvest begins with prayer. Pray for more pastors. Pray for more missionaries. Or, for that matter, pray for someone specifically whom you know to be outside the church and without faith—that the Holy Spirit would make that outsider and insider, filled with faith and ready for the harvest. Most of you are not pastors or missionaries, but you can all pray. As we will sing in just a few minutes: With your prayers and with your bounties You can do what God commands; You can be like faithful Aaron, Holding up the prophet’s hands.

Now, as you pray for more pastors and missionaries, Jesus wants you to realize also the danger involved in this kingdom work. Jesus told the seventy-two, “Behold, I am sending you out as lambs among wolves.” The people Jesus calls and sends to labor on the harvest are lambs. Pastors, particularly, are lambs—lambs who serve in the stead and by the command of the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.

It sounds kind of nice to be compared to a lamb—until you realize that lambs among wolves are tasty treats and delicious appetizers. Jesus sends us out as wolf food—clergy-flavored kibble. Where two or three lambs are gathered together, there you have a smorgasbord for wolves. It’s a humbling reminder that kingdom work and the harvest of souls isn’t so much about victory and success, as it is about patience, and cross-bearing, and remembering that His grace is sufficient—that His power is made perfect in our weakness.

The message Jesus tells His workers to speak is simple: Peace be to this house. But this simple message means much more than just, “Have a nice day.” The peace proclaimed by those sent by the Lord is the peace of Jesus—peace that ultimately flows from the cross of Jesus. It’s a peace that surpasses our understanding. It’s the peace that comes from knowing the truth about ourselves . . . and better by far, the truth about Jesus. The truth about ourselves is grim. Our sin has earned death and condemnation for us. The evil things we aim to avoid are the very things we keep on doing; and the good we aim to achieve never quite gets done. But a gracious Lord has lifted us up. In Jesus Christ the kingdom of God has come near to you. In His crucified body your sins—all of them—have been dealt with and forgiven. Now nothing can separate you from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. You have the peace of knowing that your name is written in heaven.

There’s also a warning here for all of us. The peace of Jesus that flows from the cross is rejectable. Baptized Christians can reject the faith and walk away from it. Jesus singles out several cities for condemnation in today’s gospel. The warning for us is that the cities that had the most Jesus—the cities where Jesus carried out the bulk of His ministry—those cities received the greatest condemnation from Jesus. In other words, to whom much is given, much is also expected. That’s us! We are those to whom our gracious Lord has given much. And from us, much is expected.

Where can we turn for forgiveness? Where can we look for the faith and hope we lack? Where is a dependable source of strength for us? Jesus doesn’t leave us guessing. Jesus told the seventy-two: The one who hears you hears me. Jesus told the ones He sent out like lambs among wolves: The one who hears you hears me. If you’re searching for the voice of God in your dreams or in your feelings or in your intuition, you’re looking and listening in the wrong places. Listen instead to the ones Jesus sends. Listen to your pastors. Hear them; hear Jesus. When your pastors absolve your sins this is just as valid and certain . . . as if Christ our Lord dealt with us Himself. When your pastors proclaim that the bread is the body of Christ and the wine is the blood of Christ, hear those words with complete confidence. Hear them; hear Jesus. And in that holy hearing you are being ripened and prepared for the final harvest, and for the life of the world to come.

There’s a happy ending to the sending of the seventy-two. They returned from their mission with joy. Jesus had given them success. They found that in the name of Jesus, even the demons had to retreat. And Jesus declared that He saw Satan fall like lightning. At the sending of the seventy-two, Satan suffered a setback. He took a tumble. Satan is a threat, to be sure. But he’s losing. His time is short. He’s judged; the deed is done. Here through word and sacrament the kingdom of the Christ is advancing; the harvest is growing and ripening. But our greatest joy is that our names are written in heaven. This is why God sent His Son into the world—that whoever believes in Him shall not perish but have eternal life. The harvest is coming. And everything else is secondary.

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Monday, June 3, 2019

The Church in Transition

In Nomine Iesu
Acts 1; John 17
June 2, 2019
Easter 7A

Dear Saints of Our Savior~

The painting on the cover of this morning’s bulletin always leaves me with lots of questions. Grab a copy of your bulletin and take a look with me at this painting. It is, at first glance, a church in ruins. Not very impressive. What will become of this church? Will
it be rebuilt or razed? Is it destined for resurrection or destruction?

The painting doesn’t give away many answers. For instance, is the material in the foreground merely debris and rubble? Or do you see stones and wooden beams, stacked and organized for an upcoming re-build? Look at the sky. See how gray it is. There’s a burst of yellow sunlight filtering through from just behind the church. Is it meant to depict the hopeful dawn of a new day? Or is the light fading away to darkness—into night, when no man can work?

As fragile and damaged as this church is, it still serves one purpose. It leads the viewer to look upward—up through that blood-red roof to a steeple which still points to heaven, from whence cometh our help. There’s no cross in the painting; but did you notice that ladder in the center of the ruins? It’s probably just there for practical purposes; but ladders, too, lead upward. Think of Jacob’s ladder. Ladders make accessible what is otherwise inaccessible. No one can come to the Father apart from Christ and His church. A ladder inside the church reminds me that outside the church there is no salvation—no access to heaven. But what will become of this church?

Today is the Seventh Sunday of Easter. It’s that unique week in the church year where we see the church in transition—filled with questions and uncertainties. Jesus had just ascended into heaven which, on the face of it, didn’t bode very well for that tiny body of believers. In the whole world, there were only 120 Christians—just a dozen or so more that are gathered here today. They had been told to wait. Pentecost was yet to come. What would become of this tiny church? Would they face destruction or resurrection? Failure or success? Was it the hopeful dawn of a new day, or the beginning of the end? We know the answer, of course; but they didn’t. All they could do was wait and pray and trust the promises of Jesus.

Today we can look back and see what those first believers couldn’t see—that the story of the church of Jesus Christ is one of unparalleled success and growth and longevity. What other organization has lasted this long? What other organization spans the globe to include members from every nation, tribe, and language? What other organization bestows the benefits and blessings of salvation—which you find served up every Sunday between these four walls?

Today we learn the secret of the church’s success (and it’s probably not what you think it is). Our secret? Jesus Christ is praying for us—for you—for His whole church. Today’s Holy Gospel presents a portion of the high priestly prayer Jesus offered on the night when He was betrayed. And on that night, in that prayer, our Lord intentionally, unambiguously prays for us: for those, He says, who will believe in me through the word of the apostles that they may all be one. You are among those who believe, having heard the apostolic word, inspired by the Holy Spirit.

The church is always in transition—growing and declining, expanding and contracting—but that transition is always guided and directed by the prayer of our Lord. He prayed for you in the upper room on Thursday night of Holy Week—at the very table where He first gave His disciples His own body as bread and His own blood as wine—the very table where He had stooped down to wash their feet as an example of humble service. There Jesus prayed for them, and for us. And where Jesus’ prayers are concerned, there’s no expiration date. What He asked for then, He asks for now—that we be kept safe with the Father and the Son in the unity of the Holy Spirit.

This is why the church is still going strong—despite all her enemies, and despite periods of terrible persecution—despite Islam, communism, socialism, rationalism, pietism, and atheism. And let’s not forget all the enemies that spread like cancer within the church: heresy and heretics, corrupt clergy and lazy laity, sex scandals and constant conflict. It’s a sad record of human mismanagement that would have driven any other organization into the ground long ago.

But much like the dandelions that keep popping up in your lawn, the church seems to march on, popping up here and there all over the world. Now, the church isn’t uniformly strong and fruitful everywhere at the same time. In some places, including the United States, the church is shriveling and shrinking. But in other places the church is fruitful, vibrant, and growing. It’s fruitful, vibrant and growing in Togo, West Africa. Our missionary to Togo, Micah Wildauer, will be standing right here next Sunday. He’s a theological educator. He teaches and trains indigenous African men to become Lutheran pastors in the surrounding cities and villages. And three weeks from today I plan to be worshiping with our other missionary, Deaconess Kim Bueltmann, at her church in Leipzig, Germany. The church in Germany has been on life-support for nearly two centuries. But the recent influx of middle-eastern refugees, many of them Muslim, has led Lutheran church pews to start filling up, and bone-dry baptismal fonts now can’t be filled with enough water to welcome all the new converts to Christianity.

Times are getting tougher for the church in these parts. And that reality means two things for us. It means, first of all, that we need to realize the window of opportunity for spreading the gospel and for living out our faith in freedom—that window is closing. We need to get busy now—make our hay while the sun shines—do our work and witness while it is day, knowing that night is coming when no man can work. Now isn’t the time to be timid and to hold back. We are blessed. But the years of feasting are giving way to years of famine.

We need to act now—with great intentionality and purpose—to make sure our children are taught the faith—are being grounded in Scripture, and in the catechism, and in the hymnal. They need to be in Sunday school, and parents need to teach the faith at home. Parents of middle school and high school youth need to be discussing at home what gets taught at school. Because right here our local schools routinely advocate for homosexuality, for evolution, for sexual experimentation, and for a spirituality that embraces all religions, but which leaves no room for Jesus.

But even as we get to work and prepare for tough times, yet, we are not without hope. Jesus Christ is praying for us! Jesus said, “I will build my church and the gates of hell will not prevail against it.” That doesn’t mean that every congregation is bulletproof. But it does mean that whether the church grows or declines, it’s not our doing. The church is the bride of Christ. He purchased and won her with His blood shed on the cross. He washes her with the water and the word of baptism. He clothes her with the beautiful robe of His own righteousness. He nourishes her with His own body and blood. He absolves her. And He prays for her. Jesus prays for His church and, in that prayer, He prays for you also. He prays for our union with Him and with the Father. He prays for our oneness and unity with each other.

But notice that even as Jesus prays for our unity and oneness, He adds, “so that the world may believe that you sent me.” We exist for the blessing and benefit of the world. The point of this sermon is not that we become fearful about the welfare of our congregation—that we become preoccupied with our own self-preservation—that we have an “us vs. them” mentality—drawing lines and building walls to keep ourselves “safe.” No, Jesus calls us the light of the world—the salt of the earth. And our goal is always simply to be faithful to our Savior—to hear the Word of God and keep it. The results are out of our control. What happens to the church—and to this congregation in the decades ahead is not for us to say. But what we can be certain of is this—that the Lord will use us, in the vocations He gives us, to accomplish His good and gracious will. Or as Jesus once put it, “Let your light shine before men so that they may see your good works and glorify your Father who is in heaven.”

The glory is the Lord’s, not ours; yet, God shares this glory with you as one of His baptized believers. You possess a share in that glory—earned for you by Jesus—the down payment of which is the Holy Spirit which you received in your baptism. That glory is shared with you, as well, as you receive Jesus’ body and blood for the forgiveness of sins. Right now that glory is hidden, to be sure. But one day we will see it all in paradise: the river of the water of life, the tree of life, the healing of the nations, and no more tears. Until then, the Spirit and the Church say, “Come.” Until then, Jesus Christ is praying for you; and you are held safely in that prayer.

The church will always be in transition until the last day. And then comes, not destruction, but resurrection—a new creation. And as for the church in ruins on the cover of today’s bulletin—it too has been “resurrected.” You can see it the next time you’re in Munich. In fact, you can ascend the steeple and survey that beautiful city, and be reminded that our help comes from the Lord, the Maker of heaven and earth.

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.