Monday, September 19, 2022

God and Money

 Jesu Juva

St. Luke 16:1-15                                                           

September 18, 2022

Proper 20C                                    

 Dear saints of our Savior~

          You’re fired!  Have those words ever been directed at you?  Have you ever been terminated?  Sacked?  Let go?  Dismissed?  Have you ever accepted a friendly invitation into your boss’s office, only to learn that you’re being canned?  Do not pass go.  Do not collect two hundred dollars.  Just clean out your desk, turn in your keys, and vacate the premises.  If it’s happened to you, you’ll never forget it. Few things in life are more traumatic than to hear the words, “You’re fired.”

          That was the precise predicament of the man in the parable we heard earlier from Luke 16.  As the parable picks up, this man was about to join the ranks of the unemployed.  He had been working as a manager of his master’s money.  But apparently, when he should have been keeping an eye on the NASDAQ and on the S&P 500, he was otherwise occupied.  He was wasting his master’s possessions.  He wasn’t doing his job.  He wasn’t managing the money that had been entrusted to him; and now, because of his mismanagement and malfeasance, he was being terminated with cause.

          But then things take a surprising turn.  For precisely when he should have been cleaning out his desk and uploading his resume, he makes a rather bold decision.  Before word gets out about his being fired, he calls in his master’s debtors and starts giving them generous discounts.  He knocks off 50 percent here and 20 percent there, collecting what he can at a deep discount.  It’s an incredibly shrewd move.  The man’s boss is cornered.  If he chooses to overrule his rogue manager, and rejects the deals he made, then he’ll look like a scrooge to all his business associates.  But if he takes the deals hammered out by his shrewd manager, then the shrewd manager looks good and wins a lot of new friends.  In the end, the boss commended his dishonest manager for his shrewdness.

          That’s what makes this parable so strange.  Doesn’t it seem just a bit odd when a dishonest, wasteful crook ends up saving the day and coming out on top?  It’s not the ending you would expect.  And that’s where we come in.  For we too are managers, stewards of all the wealth that our heavenly Father has placed into our hands.  The money and possessions we so casually call our own, aren’t really ours at all.  It’s only ours to manage for the brief span of time we spend in this world.  And this parable would seem to indicate that we should use the money entrusted to us shrewdly and wisely.  To be sure, what you do with your money cannot get you into heaven; but how you regard your money certainly does have the potential to keep you out of heaven. 

          Of course, what gets us into those eternal dwellings is faith—faith in Jesus.  But it’s also true that you can tell a lot about your faith by how you handle the wealth God has entrusted to you.  Jesus famously said, “Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”  If you want to see where your heart is, then follow the money.  Look at your checkbook register.  Read carefully through your credit card statement.  What are your financial priorities?  What messages is your money sending?  What are your idols?  What are your gods?  What are your non-negotiables?  On what have you set your heart, your hope for years to come?

          When we conduct an honest audit of our finances it starts to make more sense why Jesus would tell a parable about a dishonest, wasteful steward.  For

we’re all guilty of trying to serve—not just God—but God and money.  Like the Israelites of Amos’s day, we do put in our “God time.”  We do go through the routine of placing something in the offering plate.  But from there it’s back to business as usual—where shekels and sales and income and dividends and profits become the center of life—where money makes the rules—where money orders our days and our deeds—where money promises everything but delivers nothing—just like every other idol.

          Jesus nailed the Pharisees that day for their love of money: “You justify yourselves before men,” He told them, “but God knows your hearts.”  God knows our hearts too.  He knows.  He knows what we fear, love and trust.  He knows that our management has been miserable, and our stewardship a shambles.  If God were to carefully audit our performance in matters of money and stewardship, then what we would most deserve to hear would be simply, “You’re fired.” 

          So thank God for the dishonest manager.  Thank God for the shrewd steward of today’s parable.  For if even this shady, shifty, lazy manager—who seemed to be operating from purely selfish motives—if even he could double down and ultimately earn the praise of his master—then how much more should we be the best money managers ever?  How much more should we who have been purchased—not with gold or silver, but with the holy, precious blood of Jesus—absolutely excel at managing the wealth we have been given?  How much more should we who are blood-bought, died-for, and redeemed from sin and death be ever motivated and moved to manage the good things God has entrusted to us with wisdom, with care, with precision and devotion?  How much more should we who have nothing to lose as children of the heavenly Father be empowered to make bold moves with our money—to be generous for Jesus’ sake?  For we know that in Him there is no condemnation—that by faith we are more than just “managers” or “employees.”  We are brothers and sisters of the Lord Jesus Christ.

          Thank God for the dishonest manager.  He shows the way for all stewards.  Think about it:  When was this fellow—with all of his flaws—when was he most productive and effective at what he was doing?  It was right after he was fired.  For it was right at that moment that he realized he had nothing to lose.  Then he lets loose with his “Hail Mary” pass to the end zone.  That day was probably the most productive day of his entire career.  If he’d worked that hard earlier, he might never have been fired.  But it’s only when he is fired—it’s only when his name is “mud,” it’s only when his guilt and sin are exposed before all, it’s only when he doesn’t have a single good work with which to justify himself—that he becomes the manager he was always meant to be.

          Beloved in the Lord, when it comes to money and possessions, you have nothing to lose.  You have nothing to lose because Jesus Christ has given you everything—His love, His forgiveness, His righteousness, His resurrection life.  Now money is not your master; Jesus is.  And Jesus is a merciful Master.  In Him you can live free, with nothing to lose.  The kingdom of heaven belongs to you.  The new you in Christ is not a slave to money, but a master of money.  You can order it around. You can tell Misters Washington, Lincoln, Hamilton, Jackson, Grant and Franklin to get to work helping the poor and unemployed, supporting the mission of the church to seek and save the lost.

          Everything hinges on the fact that you have a merciful Master in Jesus Christ.  He seeks out the wasteful and the dishonest, the shrewd and the savvy.  He receives sinners.  He rescues them from sin and death by His dying and rising.  He feeds us with holy food.  He works forgiveness of sins, rescues from death and the devil and gives eternal salvation.  Money can’t do any of that!  Money can’t bring lasting peace or happiness.  Money can’t wash away sin or give you a clean conscience.  But Jesus does all of that and more—does it for you out of pure grace.  That’s why you have nothing to lose.  For you have a merciful Master.

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

Monday, September 12, 2022

The Savior of Sinners

Jesu Juva

1 Timothy 1:12-17                                                       

September 11, 2022

Proper 19C                                        

Dear saints of our Savior~

          The saying is trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the foremost.  That sentence from First Timothy is one of those solid gold, two hundred proof, gospel-in-a-nutshell passages.  It’s hard to imagine being a pastor—caring for the souls of sinners—without having this verse on stand-by, ready to be applied to the hearts of the repentant.  You just can’t convey the gospel more concisely than this:  Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners.

          This verse is good news for everybody; but it’s especially put out there for pastors.  After all, it comes from First Timothy—the very first of what we call the “pastoral epistles.”  These words were originally written down by the Apostle Paul in a letter to “Pastor” Timothy.  Pastors are sinners too.  Pastors are high-value targets for Satan’s temptations.  One veteran pastor once told me, “We pastors are the devil’s candy.”  Pastors can be easily crushed by the weight of their own sin. A pastor’s sin takes a terrible toll—making him feel weak, worthless and unworthy of the office he holds.  But, oh, the sweet joy this sentence gives:  Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, including pastors.

          When it comes to sinners, the Lord never gives up.  Sinners are what Jesus does best.  Sinners are His stock in trade, His specialty.  Sinners are His cup of tea.  He came into the world to save sinners.  Not to save His friends, but His enemies.  Not to save saints, but sinners.  St. Paul describes all of this as “mercy” and “grace,” undeserved, unmerited kindness.

          The Apostle Paul’s very life bears witness to the truth that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners.  By his own admission, Paul “was a blasphemer, a persecutor, an insolent opponent” of Christ and the gospel.  He terrorized the first followers of Christ.  He was dead set on silencing the gospel, making sure the name of Jesus would be forgotten and erased from history.  And he thought he was doing the will of God!  He thought his cause was righteous.  But he was wrong!  He was lost.  But by the mercies of God, the persecutor would become the apostle.  The one who tried to silence the gospel would end up preaching the gospel across the entire Roman world.

          It sounds so simple and trite, but it is a profound truth:  Jesus is the Savior of sinners!  The Christ kept company with sinners.  That’s what got Jesus into trouble with the Scribes and Pharisees in today’s holy Gospel.  They grumbled about the company He kept:  This man welcomes sinners and eats with them! they harrumphed.  He broke bread with terrible tax collectors.  But the religious elite didn’t see themselves in the same boat as those sinners.  They looked down on those other down-and-dirty sinners.  They were better than them—closer to God—holier than thou for sure.

          Now, Jesus hung out with the Pharisees too.  He also ate with them; but they couldn’t conceive of the fact that Jesus ate with them because they too were sinners!  There isn’t a sinner around whom Jesus will not receive and welcome to His table.  Jesus sinners doth receive.  No sin is too great for the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.  Jesus stops at nothing.  He gives everything.  He does it all for you and for the whole world.  Every sinner is atoned for by His death; every sin is answered for by the blood He spilled.  Behold the Lamb.  He doesn’t let sin stand in the way of saving you.  Instead, He forgives it.  Pays for it.  Washes it away with water and blood.  He Himself seeks out the lost sheep, the lost coin, the lost sinner.

          The saying is trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the foremost.  Notice that the Apostle Paul wrote that last phrase in the present tense:  sinners of whom I AM the foremost, not sinners of whom I WAS the foremost.  This isn’t some aw’ shucks humility—Paul putting himself down just to be self-deprecating.  Nor is it an exaggeration.  Paul saw Himself—not as the chief of Apostles—but as the chief of sinners. 

          Can you see yourself in the same way?  Can you classify yourself as the foremost—the chief—of sinners?  The only person whose sins you fully and completely know are your own.  And if you know your own sins—every dark thought, word, and deed—everything you should have done but didn’t—everything you shouldn’t have done but did.  If you know and acknowledge all that, then you don’t know a single sinner worse than you.  You, like Paul, are chief, foremost, numero uno.  Of course, the silver lining of being “chief of sinners” is that you can’t go any lower.  You have nowhere to go but up—from being dead to being raised up, from being lost to being found.

          We are each that lost sheep, that lost coin, that lost, prodigal son.  We must all take our place with Paul as the foremost among sinners.  Before God, we must claim that spot as the chief of sinners.  We need to own it—to stop denying it—to stop making excuses and justifying ourselves, saying, “Chief of sinners though I be, you-know-who is worse than me.” We’re in a mess of our own making.  We’re responsible.  At least Paul could claim ignorance, but that was no excuse.  He was still a stubborn, insolent opponent of Jesus Christ.  But the Lord didn’t give up on him.

          In fact, Paul’s life became a sort of object lesson on God’s undeserved kindness to sinners:  But I received mercy for this reason, that in me, as the foremost [of sinners], Jesus Christ might display His perfect patience as an example to those who were to believe in Him for eternal life.  The Lord never gave up on Paul; but sought him and found him and baptized him and used him in ways Paul could never have imagined.  The chief persecutor of the church became its chief apostle.

          Let this be a lesson for you, my dear, fellow sinners.  Jesus Christ never stops seeking and saving lost sinners.  He never gives up.  There is no sheep so lost—no coin so misplaced—no son or daughter so prodigal that Jesus doesn’t seek to embrace them.  You may think you don’t deserve a place at His table—that you are unworthy and unwelcome.  The devil, the world, and your old Adam would all seek to convince you that you are too great a sinner—that you don’t belong here.  And that’s just flat wrong.  What the religious superstars said as criticism turns out to be the sweetest of good news for you and me:  Jesus receives sinners and eats with them.  He invites us to leave behind our rebellious ways, and take our place at His holy supper—His feast for the least—His meal of forgiveness for the foremost sinners.

          The saying is trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the foremost . . . [Now] to the King of ages, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honor and glory forever and ever.  Amen.

Monday, September 5, 2022

Philemon's Forgiveness


Jesu Juva

Philemon 1-21                                                                

September 4, 2022

Proper 18C                                  

 Dear saints of our Savior~

          The three main Scripture readings for each Sunday of the church year are always predetermined.  Those three readings are laid out for us in advance by what’s called the “lectionary.”  The lectionary we use runs on a three-year cycle.  Now, here’s the beauty of the three-year lectionary:  If you faithfully attend every service here for three years straight, your ears will hear God’s Word proclaimed from each and every book of the Bible—all sixty-six, including the briefest of those books.  Nothing gets overlooked—not Second John or Third John or Jude.  Not even Obadiah or Philemon.

          Today’s the day for Philemon.  Philemon is on the menu today; and we won’t hear from Philemon again for another three years.  But there’s a problem with preaching on Philemon:  Reading the book of Philemon is like arriving late for a movie.  After you stumble around in the dark to find your seat, a lot of the action has already taken place.  The main characters have already been introduced.  But by paying close attention, you can piece together the plot; and, ultimately, enjoy the show.

          So, dial-in to what I’m about to say because here’s what you’ve missed; here’s the back story:  St. Paul, who wrote this epistle, is in prison somewhere—probably Rome or Ephesus.  In prison, Paul gets a visitor named Onesimus.  Onesimus, whose name means “useful,” had been a slave in the household of Philemon.  And this Philemon was a wealthy Christian layman in the city of Collosae.  In fact, the Christians of that city met together for the Divine Service in Philemon’s house.

          Philemon’s slave, Onesimus, had run away.  It might actually be better for us to think of Onesimus as Philemon’s household manager, since “slave” has so many negative, modern connotations.  Onesimus ran away (which was bad enough); but to make matters worse, he didn’t just run away emptyhanded.  No, Onesimus helped himself to Philemon’s cash and credit cards when he made his dash for freedom.  Philemon had trusted Onesimus, gave him great responsibility, promoted him, compensated him, educated him.  It might well have been Philemon who gave Onesimus his name which, as you recall, means “Useful.”  But now, as a fugitive thief, “Mr. Useful” had become quite useless.

          But while Onesimus was on the run as a fugitive—as he rose to the top of the FBI’s most wanted list—a beautiful thing happened.  He came into contact with a prisoner named Paul; and this Paul told Onesimus the good news about Jesus.  And Onesimus—the useless, fugitive thief—became Onesimus—the baptized child of God.  The fugitive became a faithful follower of Jesus, the Christ.  St. Paul became a father in the faith to Onesimus.  St. Paul called Onesimus “my very heart” and “my child.”

          Only one problem still loomed large—Philemon.  He was still counting his losses back in Collosae—filing police reports and insurance claims—preparing the blood hounds to track down Onesimus.  The epistle reading we heard today was St. Paul’s attempt to play the peace-maker—to make peace between Philemon and Onesimus.  “Blessed are the peacemakers,” said Christ our Lord.  Have you ever attempted to play the peacemaker?  Have you ever attempted to reconcile two Christians who had solid reasons to write one another off?  Today St. Paul shows us how it’s done.

          St. Paul begins by appealing to Philemon’s faith in the Lord Jesus, and his love for all the saints.  I thank my God . . . because I hear of your love and of the faith that you have toward the Lord Jesus and all the saints.  Faith and love go together.  They are like two sides of the same coin—faith and love.  You really can’t have one without the other.  It’s why we often pray after the Lord’s Supper that God would strengthen us, in faith toward [Him] and in fervent love toward one another. 

          It would be on the basis of Philemon’s God-given faith and love that peace would be achieved.  Peace wouldn’t happen because of Paul’s powers of persuasion, or even because of the power of prayer.  Peace between Christians—peace-making between Christians—rests on God’s gifts of faith in Christ and fervent love for one another.  That faith and that love changes everything about how we treat one another.  What are you doing to strengthen and deepen that faith in you?  What are you doing to exercise that fervent love for those around you?  How will you exercise that love today?  With whom do you need to make peace?

          What would have to precede peace between Philemon and Onesimus?  What would have to come first?  Paul doesn’t even use the exact word, but it’s fairly obvious what would need to happen:  Though I am bold enough in Christ to command you to do what is required, yet for love’s sake I prefer to appeal to you.  What was Paul getting at?  What exactly was “required” of Philemon?  You know.  Philemon would need to forgive Onesimus.

          Let’s let Philemon teach us a thing or two about forgiveness.  It’s easy to talk about forgiveness—in a theoretical, hypothetical way.  It’s easy to pray that our Father in heaven would forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.  But in real life—actually forgiving someone who has hurt or harmed you—seems nearly impossible.  Imagine Philemon’s anger and disappointment with Onesimus.  He had trusted Onesimus with everything—treated him well and gave him great responsibility—and Onesimus stabbed him in the back—betrayed him, stole from him, really, really stuck it to the man.

          I suspect you don’t have to imagine how Philemon felt.  I think you know that same anger and disappointment because someone you trusted has hurt you and stuck it to you.  That pain is real pain.  That pain makes you want to inflict pain on the one who sinned against you.  That pain is not easily forgotten or swept aside.  We can’t know for a fact whether Philemon forgave Onesimus or not; but we do know that it is exactly what St. Paul expected and anticipated would happen.  But how?  How could Philemon actually, honestly, earnestly forgive a sinner—a scoundrel—a thief—like Onesimus?

          It would be easier said than done; and it could only be done on the basis of love.  Not on the basis of human love; but on the basis of Jesus’ love for all sinners.  For Philemon to forgive, he would need to give up his rights.  Runaway slaves could be put to death under Roman law.  Philemon had the “right” to prosecute and persecute and strike back at the one who had struck him first.  But he didn’t.  He wouldn’t.  He couldn’t.  He was following Jesus Christ in faith! 

          Instead Philemon would need to give up every right and every claim for justice and fairness and equity.  In fact, Philemon—wealthy, free Philemon—would

need to make himself a slave, letting go of everything for Jesus’ sake.  Take a minute to savor the irony:  The slave, Onesimus, comes home a free man in the love of Christ; while the free man, his master, Philemon, makes himself a slave in the love of Christ.  Philemon gives up everything, takes up his cross, and follows Jesus in the wonderful way of forgiveness.

          That way of forgiveness is also the way forward for you.  You can deal with those who sin against you like Philemon—on the basis of love.  For on the basis of love, God Himself has chosen to deal with you.  On the basis of love, the Son of God was born of the virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried.  On the basis of love, God reached out to name you and claim you as His own dear child in the water of Holy Baptism.  On the basis of love, Jesus takes your sins and has them all charged to His account, instead of yours.  He has paid for them in full.  On the basis of love, He draws near this hour to feed you personally with His body and blood for the forgiveness of sins.

          That calling, cleansing, feeding, forgiving love of God in Christ makes you what you are.  It defines you.  It equips and empowers you to do the impossible—to forgive the people who cause you pain—just as you yourself have been forgiven by our Savior.  The love of God changes you.  It makes you “useful” like Onesimus.  How many people long to be useful—to accomplish meaningful work?  Whatever you do in faith toward God and in fervent love for others—THAT is useful.  Those good works have eternal significance.  Our God makes the useless useful.  He makes the loveless lovely.

          I said earlier that reading Philemon is like arriving late for a movie; but it’s also like leaving the movie early.  We don’t actually know what happened when Onesimus returned home to Philemon’s house—walking up the driveway with nothing more than a letter from Paul in his hand.  There’s no tear-filled, heart-warming embrace before the music swells and the credits roll.  But that’s how it is in real life too.  How your attempts at peace-making and sin-forgiving will work out, no one can say for sure.  All we know is that as you head back out into this messy life, you carry the life of Jesus in your body.  On the basis of His love, you can press on with confidence and joy, knowing that your labor is not in vain—that in Christ you are useful.  You are loved.  You are forgiven.  You will live forever.

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