Tuesday, October 23, 2018

Twenty-second Sunday after Pentecost

Twenty-second Sunday after Pentecost (B—Proper 24)
October 21, 2018
Text: Mark 10:23-31

            The reason it is so difficult… impossible, even… for the rich, or anyone, to enter the Kingdom of God is the same reason the rich young man went away sad in our Holy Gospel last week.  That is the human heart’s obsession with idols, be it mammon, as in the case of the rich young man and the vast majority in the prosperous West, or whatever other idols to which we dedicate our fear, love, and trust.  The trouble for the rich, and for us all, in matters of salvation, is not our possessions, but our heart.  Our Lord makes the shocking statement in our Holy Gospel: “How difficult it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!” (Mark 10:23; ESV).  And when the disciples express their amazement, Jesus expands the statement to everyone.  Not just the rich, but “how difficult it is to enter the kingdom of God” (v. 24), period!  In fact, it is just as possible for the rich, or for you and me, to enter the Kingdom as it is for a camel to go through the eye of a needle!  Now, how possible is that?  It’s not.  And Jesus has the disciples and us just where He wants us, with the question on our minds and in our hearts and on our lips: “Then who can be saved?” (v. 26). 
            Don’t pass by that question so fast on your way to the Lutheran answer.  The Lutheran answer is right, but it lulls you into a false sense of security.  The point is, with man it is impossible to be saved.  Jesus says as much.  With man it is impossible” (v. 27).  It is the first half of the verse, but it is an incredibly important first half.  Nothing you can do, nothing that you are, nothing that you possess can gain entry into God’s Kingdom.  You are wholly disqualified by your sins.  Even if you are a “basically good person.”  Even if you are “an exceptionally good person,” like the rich young man from last week’s text.  Remember, he could say after the review of the Ten Commandments that “all these I have kept from my youth” (Mark 10:20).  He’s a pretty good guy.  But in the command to sell all his possessions and give it all away to the poor, Jesus exposes the young man’s heart problem.  He can’t do it.  Not joyfully, anyway.  He goes away sad.  Because his riches are his god.  Now, I’ll be you dollars to doughnuts the rich young man was a very generous giver to the Synagogue and to the poor.  But Jesus told him to give it all.  And that meant to reject every last thread of the earthly security he thought the money could buy him and rely upon God alone.  So he’s rich.  He’s morally blameless.  He’s the best of the best.  But in and of himself, he’s still outside the Kingdom.  With man it is impossible.  He cannot be saved.  And neither can you.  No matter how much you have, or how much you don’t have.  No matter how much you give to the Church or to the poor.  No matter how blameless your conduct.  No matter how you vote.  No matter how respected in the eyes of all your peers.  You may be the best of the best, but in and of yourself, you cannot be saved. 
            And that is why your Lutheran answer that you’re so eager to jump in with is so important.  It’s actually Jesus’ answer.  With man it is impossible, but what?  But “not with God.  For all things are possible with God” (v. 27).  You have to have both sides of that coin for this to be the splendid Gospel that it is.  With you, there is no possibility of being saved.  You must come to the bitter end of yourself and your own resources.  You must be utterly lost and damned, so that your whole salvation is entirely in the pierced hands of Jesus Christ.  All things are possible with God.  Even your salvation.  Especially your salvation.  That is His great mission, His greatest act of love.  The Father sends His Son.  He gives Jesus.  He gives Him into death.  For you.
            And see what happened there.  The very richest, God Himself, becomes the very poorest, the despised corpse on the cross.  He gives up all and He gives it away to the poor.  Which is to say, He gives it away to you.  All of it.  All of His riches.  All of His righteousness.  All of His life.  His creation.  His very Kingdom.  All things.  It’s all yours.  And you don’t deserve it.  No matter how much of an upstanding citizen you may be.  Still, in your heart, you have rejected God.  You have rebelled.  You have chosen your own way.  He doesn’t do it because you’re worthy of it.  He does it because He loves you.  And He loves you, not because you’re so gosh darn loveable.  He does it because He is good.  It is His nature to be good to you.  It is His nature to have mercy upon you.  It is His nature to give, and to give it all, for you.  The Gospel that all things are possible with God, including and especially your salvation, is only Gospel when you see it up against the utter impossibility for you to be saved apart from His saving you in Christ.  But when you do see it, you are forever changed.  Once a rebel against God, rejecting His Kingdom, His righteous reign, now you are captivated by the God who loves you so much and to such an extent.  That is to say, you have faith in Him.  The Holy Spirit creates that faith by this very Gospel.  The Spirit is active in preaching to do this very thing, to take you captive to Jesus Christ.
            And when that happens, suddenly your use of wealth, your use of “stuff,” and your whole disposition toward your wealth and your stuff, changes.  What once was an idol, mammon, becomes now a tool for use in the work of God’s Kingdom, for Gospel proclamation and for providing for the needs of your neighbor.  It becomes a tool by which you can love your neighbor concretely.  You can be generous.  Scandalously so, as your Lord Jesus was scandalously generous with you to the point of death on the cross for your forgiveness and life.  That’s the kind of giving, that’s the kind of love we’re talking about here.  It’s as scandalous as our Lord’s command to the rich young man to sell everything he has and give it to the poor. 
            Now, this takes practice.  We’re still in the sinful flesh, even we who have been ultimately liberated from that flesh by the Holy Spirit’s work in the Gospel and in our Baptism.  We still have to deal with old Adam in this life.  So our habit is to cling to our riches, our stuff, for all we’re worth.  Thus there is a battle within you, a struggle for who has control over your possessions.  Christ in you, the new creation in you, wants to use everything at your command in such a way as to bring glory to God and to love and serve your neighbor.  But old Adam wants to hoard it up.  He’s a miser.  Whenever you’re miserly, that’s a sure sign old Adam is in the driver’s seat.  Kick him out, and nail him to the cross.  Kill him, every time you see him.  That is to say, repent.  And that’s not just a theoretical kind of repentance.  You know what kills him every time?  When he says keep it for yourself, give it away then and there.  That’s what it means to take up your cross and follow Jesus.  That’s what it means to crucify the flesh.  Do the very opposite of what your flesh desires and demands.  That is repentance.  And of course this will hurt.  I’m not gonna lie.  You won’t like it.  It hurts to be crucified.  But remember this: Crucifixion always, ALWAYS, ends up in resurrection.  Good Friday always gives way to Easter.  And as you kill old Adam by giving your wealth away, a certain deep and abiding joy will displace the pain.  That is Christ emerging and arising within you, rejoicing to live before God in Christ’s own righteousness and purity credited to your account by faith, and producing the fruit of faith, which is works of love. 
            Well, then there’s Peter.  God love Peter, because he’s always saying the things we want to say, but we don’t, because we know they’re wrong.  “Lord, what about us?  We’ve left everything.  We did what you said.”  There certainly is a little bit of the rich young man syndrome in Peter: “all these I have kept from my youth.”  We never really get over this struggle with self-righteous, pharisaical old Adam, in this life.  Not even Peter does.  Then again, if anyone can say this, Peter can.  He and Andrew and the sons of Zebedee did leave their boats and their nets, their family members and fishing business to follow Jesus.  And what is at the heart of Peter’s assertion?  “We are doing the right thing, aren’t we, Lord?  This is all worth it in the end, isn’t it?  Because we’ve gambled everything on it.”  There is an uncertainty here that is very human and endearing, even if it is sinful.  Because that’s our worry.  If we are generous with our wealth in the Name of Jesus… or if we’re called upon to give it up in faithfulness to Jesus, as certain florists and bakers have been in recent years for refusing to do gay weddings… or if we lose friends on Facebook for confessing Jesus, or real relationships with our loved ones because they reject us on account of Christ… or if we’re called to be martyrs, to spill our blood, to die for Jesus… It is the right thing, isn’t it Lord?  This is all worth it in the end, right?  In other words, you won’t forsake us, will You? 
            And Jesus answers, “I will never leave you nor forsake you” (Heb. 13:5), or as He says to Peter: No one who has lost everything for the Gospel will be left destitute.  I will not forsake him.  I will provide for all his needs.  I will feed him.  I will clothe him.  I will set him in a family, my people, my Church.  Yes, there will be persecutions.  That is so important for us to recognize, that even as Jesus is going through the list of things He will provide a hundredfold for those who have lost, He adds, “with persecutions” (Mark 10:30).  But that’s okay.  That’s actually part of the reward.  Because all the loss, including what is suffered in persecution, is ultimately repaid beyond our wildest imagination in the age to come, which is to say, in eternal life, in the resurrection, in the new creation.  And that is why this is all worth it.  Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul.  Rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell” (Matt. 10:28).  And who can save both body and soul in the resurrection of the dead, and will do it, because that is His promise.
            Beloved, how difficult it is for you to enter the Kingdom of God.  With you, it is impossible.  But not for God.  With God, all things are possible.  Even your salvation.  And even getting you to pry open your wallet now and then to help out your neighbor in need, and not to worry if God is going to hold out on you for the first time in the history of your life because He suddenly thinks you’re being too generous.  With God, this is how the impossible becomes possible and even certain: Jesus gives it all up on the cross.  He gives it to the poor.  He gives it to you.  And now you live and you reign with Him.  I’d call that a miracle.  In the Name of the Father, and of the Son (+), and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.       

Friday, October 12, 2018

Inland Empire Pastors Conference Devotion

Inland Empire Pastors Conference
Christ Our Redeemer Lutheran Church, Sandpoint, Idaho
October 9, 2018
Text: Mark 12:28-34

            Love, when demanded of us, is always a Law word.  It trips people up, of course, because it’s a nice sounding word, and we think nice sounding words are always Gospel, but you know this if you’ve ever tried to teach Law and Gospel to your Catechism students.  You give the students a verse and you make them identify it as Law or Gospel.  I’m not so sure it’s such a helpful practice, but it’s right there in the CPH workbook, so it must be right.  You throw out a few softballs.  You shall not kill.”  Law or Gospel?  “Law!” the students exclaim, with a knowing smile on their faces.  “Go ahead, give us another one, Pastor!  Hit us with your best shot!”  God so loved the world”… there it is, that nice word, “love”… “God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16; ESV), you say, and you smile, and they smile, because they all know it, and you know they know it.  “Gospel!” they yell triumphantly.  And the angels in heaven sing.  But… you have an ace up your sleeve, and they don’t even see it coming.  Love the Lord your God with all your heart” (Mark 12:30).  Two nice sounding words that should be Gospel: “Love,” and “heart.”  At best, you’re gonna get a couple of confused looks.  Those are the smarter kids, but I wouldn’t tell them that.  More likely, you’ll get the self-assured smiles as the kids exclaim, “Gospel!”  And THEN the look of self-doubt as they see that smug look of schadenfreude satisfaction spread across your face.  Because you got ‘em!  You rascal!  You did it!  You outsmarted a pre-teen!
            But it fools every one of us.  Not in the simplistic, “What is the verse, Law or Gospel?” sort of way, but on a much deeper level.  You and I, dear brothers in Christ, actually think the salvation of the Church and of the world depends on us and on our love.  Oh, you know it’s wrong in your head, but I’m telling you, Pastor, your temptation is to place the salvation of your flock and your community and your whole world squarely on your own shoulders and your ability to love those people.  You’ve got a Jesus complex.  You know that you have to love God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength, and your neighbor as yourself, and you think that if you love God hard enough and love your neighbor just the right way the Church will grow like gangbusters and everyone will want to love Jesus like you love Jesus.   But it doesn’t work out that way.  It never does work out that way in the Kingdom of God, and the theologian of glory is always either utterly delusional or bitterly disappointed.  This is why we pastors are forever running around in desperation trying the latest and greatest thing, or suffering silently in the throes of depression.  You bind up your whole worth as a pastor in your ability to love, God and neighbor.  The symptoms are unique to each individual, but finally every one of us is like the scribe in our text, who understands that the higher things of the Law, love for God, love for the neighbor, accomplish much more and are more God pleasing than the minutiae of legalism.  And the Scribe is not far from the Kingdom of God.  He’s not far.  But he’s still not there. 
            Because Jesus must get us there.  It is interesting that when the scribe asks Jesus which Commandment is the most important, Jesus doesn’t answer with a Commandment, He answers with the Creed.  He recites the Shema: “Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one” (v. 29; Deut. 6:4).  And that, dear brothers, isn’t Law, it’s Gospel (though your Catechism kids might not be able to identify it as such).  It is Gospel, because it is the self-revelation of God as Israel’s God, our God, the God who is for us!  Hear” is the imperative.  I’m not so sure imperatives are only Law.  In this Word, He is giving us ears to hear the profound truth: The LORD, YHWH, is one.  And that is a little glimpse, though a very significant one, into the unfolding revelation of God as Trinity, His threeness in oneness, as it will be unpacked by Jesus in His Naming of the Name (singular) of God into which we are baptized: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit (Matt. 28:19).  That’s Gospel.  The Creed is the Gospel.  The Creed is God for you, God for me, God for us.  And that is where we start in any discussion of love.  We start with who God is, revealed in Jesus, for us.  For we can only love if God first loves us.
            It doesn’t dawn on the scribe or on us right away that when Jesus says the Lord our God, the Lord is one, He is referencing Himself.  The whole content of the Creed has arrived, in the flesh.  God is born of the Virgin Mary.  And now, in that context, He begins to talk about Commandments.  The greatest, of course, is the First Table of the Law.  You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength” (Mark 12:30).  Your whole being, your very essence goes it to fearing, loving, and trusting God above all things, keeping His Name holy by your words and actions, and learning, loving, and cherishing His Word.  The second greatest is the Second Table: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (v. 31).  Honor your parents and other authorities.  Don’t murder your neighbor, but save him by dying for him.  Don’t take his spouse, but be faithful to yours.  Even if she’s unfaithful to you.  Die for her, in fact.  Don’t steal.  Give your all, your very self for the neighbor.  Don’t give false testimony.  Suffer it against yourself, though, even when they crucify you on account of it.  Do not covet, which is idolatry, but keep commending yourself to the Father, who will rescue you and vindicate you.  And see, Jesus is the only One who fits this description of the great Fulfiller of the Commandments.  These two great Commandments, given us to keep, but not kept by us, Jesus takes upon Himself, and He does them to the very end of Himself on the cross.  He loves God, loves you, to His death on the cross.  To bring you, not almost into the Kingdom of God, but all the way in.  All the way in to the throne room of the Almighty, with a seat at His Table. 
            And what He does for you, He does for all His people.  Pastor, your salvation and the salvation of your flock, the salvation of the lost, the salvation of the world does not depend on you or your love.  It depends only and entirely on Jesus Christ, crucified for sinners, and risen from the dead.  It depends only and entirely on His faithful love for God His heavenly Father, and for you, His neighbor, His blood-bought brother.  And this is incredibly freeing news.  You don’t have to be delusional or disappointed.  You don’t have to run around desperately trying to save everyone, and when the demons come around with their lies to cause you to despair, you can tell them where to go.  Hear, O Pastor: The Lord your God, the Lord is one.  And He is for you, not against you.  He forgives your sins.  Even your lovelessness.  He makes you God’s own child.  He loves you with an everlasting love.  He will never leave you nor forsake you.  Love, when attributed to God, is always a Gospel Word.  And the perfect love demanded for God and for neighbor in the two great Commandments is the love of God incarnate, Jesus Christ, for you and credited to your account.
            And now, of course, you should love.  You should love God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength.  You should love your neighbor as yourself.  And now, in Christ, you’re finally free to do just that.  Imperfectly, of course.  Haltingly.  Stumbling all over yourself.  But you do.  You love because God first loved you.  You receive God’s love in Christ, and His love flows through you to the dear people in your flock.  Pastor, God is graciously using you as a conduit.  He’s pouring out His love on His people through your ministry, in your preaching and teaching, even pre-teen Catechism kids; in your baptizing and visiting the sick and the dying and placing the body and blood of Jesus on the tongues of sinners for whom Christ died.  It’s not all that creative.  But it is the mask of God by which He loves His people.  By which He gives them ears to hear.  Hear, O Israel, hear, O Church: The Lord your God, Jesus, loves you.  He saves you.  You belong to Him.  In the Name of the Father, and of the Son (+), and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost

Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost (B—Proper 22)
October 7, 2018
Text: Mark 10:2-16

            The LORD GOD said, ‘It is not good that the man should be alone’” (Gen. 2:18; ESV).  God settles the solitary in a home” (Psalm 68:6).  Unless the LORD builds the house, those who build it labor in vain” (Ps. 127:1).  Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh” (Gen. 2:24).  What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate” (Mark 10:9).  And God blessed them.  And God said to them, ‘Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it” (Gen. 1:28).  Behold, children are a heritage from the LORD, the fruit of the womb a reward.  Like arrows in the hand of a warrior are the children of one’s youth.  Blessed is the man who fills his quiver with them” (Ps. 127:3-4).  This morning our Lord teaches us about marriage and family.  All the Bible verses I just read to you are only the beginning of the theology of marriage and family our Lord gives to us in Holy Scripture.  Family is foundational for life.  It is the most basic unit of society where individuals live together in relationship.  Everyone has a place.  Everyone has a role.  Husband and wife, mother and father, parent and child, brother and sister, grandparent and grandchild, aunts and uncles, nephews and nieces, the household and its relationship to the extended family.  Society as a whole is made up of these little units of society.  And God did this on purpose.  Because man is created to live in fellowship.  Life is lived in relationship to others.  Not everyone gets married.  Not everyone has kids.  But we all have a place by God’s design, or at least that is how He would have it.  And in the family, when it works how it is supposed to, we get a little picture of the inner-relationship of the Trinity, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, one God, three Persons, living in continuous and harmonious relation to one another.  And we get a little picture of how that inner-relationship turns outward to create a new object of love: man, who is to live in relationship to God and to his fellow man.  God loves within Himself, which love creates man to be a receiver of that love.  Husband and wife love within their one flesh union, which love begets children to be receivers of their love.  That’s the ideal.  That is how God originally created it to be. 
            So marriage is to be the lifelong union of one man and one woman in love and fidelity.  Sexuality is to be kept holy, reserving this expression of love for marriage alone.  The marriage bed it to be kept pure (Heb. 13:4).  No adultery, which is to say, no mixing in of another by sexual activity outside the marriage.  And from this expression of love, husband and wife beget children, who are loved and provided for and protected by a father and a mother, and raised by them in the discipline and instruction of the Lord (Eph. 6:4).  Again, not everyone has to get married.  Not everyone has kids.  But this is the family blueprint God gives us as a gift in the Holy Scriptures.  This is how we order our relationships among one another.  God gives us this blueprint for our good.  This is how we can all thrive in our life together.  These are holy vocations to which God calls us, to give and receive, and together, to flourish.
            But we also know we’ve messed this all up.  Christians are not excluded from this indictment.  Husbands and wives are unfaithful to one another.  Spouses are abandoned.  There are messy divorces.  Evil words are spoken.  Spouses and children are threatened and hurt by violence.  Our culture would have us believe that sex outside of the loving and safe commitment of marriage is normal, to be expected at a younger and younger age, and can be consequence free.  That’s how our children and all of us are catechized by the television set and the internet and every other form of mass media.  And we who regard sexuality as holy are looked upon as prudes, stuck in the past, as judgmental, as hateful.  Meanwhile, porn use is at an all-time high.  Easy access, right there on all your electronic devices.  It is destroying homes.  It is destroying lives.  It has reduced especially our young women, but also our young men, to a commodity, a thing to be used and abused for our own enjoyment. It is demonic.  Lord, have mercy.  Then there is homosexuality and so-called same-sex marriage, which is entirely opposed to the natural law (two people of the same gender cannot beget a third), and to God’s Law, His gracious plan for us as revealed in Holy Scripture.  So we mess up our marriages.  We make marriage meaningless.  And then we butcher our children in abortions and sell their body parts for research.  We guilt the elderly and the terminally ill into hastening their own death, lest they become a burden to us.  We call it “death with dignity.”  A theologian of the cross should call a thing what it actually is: Suicide.  Murder.  Christ, help us. 
            He does.  The sadness you feel as you hear these things, and the guilt you suffer as you come face to face with your own role in them… this is the Holy Spirit working repentance in your heart.  This is God calling His people, His dear children, to Himself for forgiveness and healing, to be made whole in the wholeness of Christ and His redemption.  Are you divorced?  Have you been abandoned?  Have you been unfaithful?  Repent.  And rejoice.  Christ Jesus will never leave you or forsake you.  He is faithful.  He keeps His Promises.  And He holds you in the pierced palm of His hand.  Nothing can snatch you away from Him.  Have you been abused, or are you an abuser?  Have you abused your own body by uniting it with others, becoming one flesh with those to whom you have no intention of committing?  Have you lived together outside of marriage?  Are your eyes and your heart full of lust and dissatisfaction with what and who God has given you?  Have your eyes looked upon things they should not, things that are evil, things that are demonic?  Have you used the flesh of others like meat to be consumed, rather than as precious bodies and souls for whom Christ died?  Repent.  And rejoice.  The blood of Jesus washes away your sins.  Let him who is without sin cast the first stone at the one caught in the sins of the flesh (John 8:7).  If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.  But if we confess our sins, God is faithful and just to forgive our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness (1 John 1:8-9).  Have you failed to speak up for the defenseless: the unborn, the elderly, the weak, the vulnerable?  Have you supported an abortion, advised an abortion, had an abortion?  Have you failed to care for your elderly or ill parents and loved ones?  Have you sought to hasten their death with a lethal dose of drugs?  Repent.  And rejoice.  Our Lord survived the womb of His mother for the sake of those who did not, to die for them and for all of us who have blood on our hands, to wash our hands and our hearts and our whole being clean in His Blood.  The Lord Jesus was obedient to Mary and Joseph, He honored them, served and obeyed them, loved and cherished them, for us and in our place.  He cared for His dear mother, placing her in the care of the Apostle John even as He was dying on the cross.  In Jesus, every life is sacred, from conception to grave, because He gave that life in the first place, and He has redeemed it by His death on the cross. 
            Jesus forgives.  Jesus restores.  And Jesus blesses.  Oh, how He loves the children.  He is indignant with His disciples when they turn the children away.  Let the children come to me; do not hinder them, for to such belong the kingdom of God” (Mark 10:14).  And He takes the little ones up in His arms and He blesses them.  This is what He does for our precious children and for each one of us in Baptism.  That is where He takes us into Himself and blesses us with the very Name of God.  That is where He makes us children of the Heavenly Father.  Beloved, do not hinder your children.  Bring them to Jesus.  Bring them to Baptism.  Bring them to hear His Word in Church.  Every Sunday.  This is part of being a parent, guys.  Bring them to Sunday School where they can learn more about His Word.  Bring them to Catechism instruction so they can join us at the Table of Jesus’ Body and Blood.  That is what this text is about.  And do not hinder yourself.  Because all of this is for you, too.  You are a child of God.  You belong to Him.  Jesus has made it so.  Rejoice.  Because here you have a home.  And here there is always a place for you at the Family Table.  And that frees you up to live joyfully in the relationships in which God has placed you.  Love your spouse.  Delight in your spouse, and be faithful.  If you’re living in sin, repent and make it right.  Believe in Christ’s forgiveness.  Love your children.  Delight in them, and bring them to Jesus.  Love your parents.  Honor them, serve and obey them, love and cherish them.  Love your extended family and your circle of friends, your neighborhood, your community, your nation, and the people of the earth.  Love your Church and, as you do so well, love your pastor. 
            Things are messed up in this fallen world.  There is no such thing as the ideal family.  None of us perfectly follows the blueprint our Lord has given us.  And for this, we repent.  But though we be unfaithful, the Lord doesn’t stop being faithful to us.  He sets us in a family.  He gives us a home.  He brings us to His Church.  This is great comfort for all of us, but especially for those who are single, who long to share their life with someone, but it just hasn’t happened yet… Or those who long to have children, but for whatever reason, can’t… or those who suffer loneliness and isolation, those who mourn a spouse or a parent or a sibling or a child they have lost…  This is comfort for you.  Look around you, brothers and sisters.  This is your family.  This is your home.  These are your parents and your siblings and your children.  Now, we’re not perfect.  To be sure, we fail and we fight and we have to forgive.  Love takes work.  It is not an emotion, this love.  It is a decision and an action.  But here you are, and you are loved.  Warts and all.  And you are called to love the person next to you, warts and all.  Because in this family, we live by grace.  In this family, we live in the forgiveness of sins.  In this family, we live by the cross and empty tomb, by the death and resurrection of Jesus, by the cleansing water of Baptism and the life-giving food of His Body and Blood.  And we live by every Word that proceeds from the mouth of God.  Here in this family, beloved, you are never alone.  You are always in the bosom of your mother, the Church, with your brothers and sisters in Christ, attended by the holy Angels.  And always, always, wherever two or three are gathered in His Name (in His Baptism!), there is Jesus.  And wherever Jesus is, there is your Father, and there is the Spirit.  In Jesus, God brings you into the inner-relationship of the Trinity.  In Jesus, God begets you as His beloved child.  In Jesus, you are home.  In the Name of the Father, and of the Son (+), and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.               

Wednesday, October 3, 2018

Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost

Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost (B—Proper 21)
September 30, 2018
Text: Mark 9:38-50

            There are two parts to this morning’s Holy Gospel.  The first relates St. John’s consternation over someone outside the circle of Jesus’ disciples who was casting out demons.   They tried to stop him.  And why?  Out of jealousy, perhaps?  To protect Jesus?  There was this rather reasonable concern that whoever it may have been, he wasn’t following Jesus.  At least not full time, like the Twelve.  But he was doing what he was doing in the Name of Jesus.  And Jesus gives His approval to it.  And here we learn that it is fruitless and nonsensical to be jealous of other Christians, other congregations, or even other church bodies who are casting out demons by their preaching of the Gospel or administration of the Sacraments.  Now, this in no way means we should just pretend there are no differences between denominations, or that we shouldn’t be concerned about false doctrine.  False doctrine, after all, is from the evil one, and we should call our brothers and sisters in other denominations, and in our own denomination, to repentance whenever false doctrine is taught or the Sacraments are denied.  But it also means we can rejoice when they preach the Gospel and where they get the Sacraments right.  This is the thing you have to keep in mind whenever we’re teaching about the weaknesses and sins of other church bodies.  Those weaknesses and sins must be exposed to be dealt with, and to warn you against them, but in no way does that mean we are unchurching our brothers and sisters in those denominations, or condemning them to hell.  When you walk out of here thinking that I have said that, or another confessional Lutheran pastor has said that, you are willfully misunderstanding, because you’ve been so shaped and molded by political correctness that you think it’s out of bounds to criticize anyone.  John may have had a legitimate criticism.  But not about the exorcism.  We should always rejoice when a demon is cast out.  We should always rejoice when the Gospel is proclaimed in its truth and purity.  We should always rejoice when there is a Baptism of a little one or a new Christian in the Name of our Triune God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  We should always rejoice when the body and blood of Jesus in the Supper is not denied, but received in faith for the forgiveness of sins.  In this sense, “the one who is not against us is for us” (Mark 9:40; ESV).  There is a lot more we should say about this, but for now, this is sufficient. 
            The second part of the Holy Gospel is the main part for our consideration this morning.  Here we see how greatly Jesus loves the little ones, the little children.  I think He primarily has them in mind, here, though what He says applies to any Christian who is new to the faith, or weak in the faith, or vulnerable to a particular temptation.  Whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin,” says Jesus, “it would be better for him if a great millstone were hung around his neck and he were thrown into the sea” (v. 42).  It would be better for him to die.  That is how jealously Jesus guards His little ones.  If you scandalize them (and the Greek word for “cause to sin” is “scandalize,” which is to say, “cause them to stumble,” so that they lose their faith)… If you scandalize them, it would be better to be dead.  That’s about as serious a warning as you can have.  So we should be careful about this.  We should think about this.  The first thing we should say is that the little ones believe.  That’s what Jesus says.  They “believe in me,” He says.  That means we can have every assurance that when we bring a little baby to the font and baptize them into Christ, they believe.  They have faith.  Faith, after all, is not the ability to rationally comprehend, nor the ability to confess with the mouth.  Those things are fruits of faith.  But faith itself is simply trust in Jesus, as a newborn instinctively trusts his mother, even before he knows or can say the word “Mom”!  He knows her.  He believes in her!  He trusts her for protection from all evil and providence of every good! 
            But we must also admit that an infant’s faith can be harmed, abused, or even lost.  And much of that has to do with the scandals we place in front of them.  So what are those scandals, those stumbling blocks?  What things do we do or say that could destroy the delicate faith of a baptized child of God?  Well, you don’t want to hear some of these things.  But then again, that’s precisely why you need to hear them.  St. Mark identifies one of those things as divorce.  That is the Holy Gospel for next week, and unfortunately, some uninspired Bible scholar put a chapter division between today’s reading and next week’s, and the lectionary committee followed suite.  But clearly St. Mark has in mind that one of the scandals for these little ones who believe in Him is their parents getting divorced.  Now, I understand that divorce happens, and there are many reasons people get divorced, and we’ll talk about all of that next week and whenever else you want to talk about it.  But for today’s purposes, let’s at least be honest with each other enough to admit that divorce always hurts the children involved.  No matter what the reason for the divorce, we call it a broken home because the people in it are broken.  It’s not a good witness to the faith.  It’s not a good witness to God’s love.  How do you expect your children to believe in the reliability of God’s love for them when your love for their other parent has failed?  It’s not a good example for the children.  And the children blame themselves for it.  Always.  And they look for ways to cope, and most of the time they don’t choose wise ways to cope, because the adults in their lives aren’t in a good place to help them choose wise ways, and maybe aren’t choosing wise ways themselves.  So there is that.  Then there is the culture of promiscuity and libertine sexuality, which we now officially sanction and teach our children, in many cases, in our schools.  We can’t teach abstinence, saving yourself for marriage, but we can teach them various ways they can do what should only be done in the context of holy marriage.  God help us.  And we teach that the fruit of such illicit unions, namely, another child, pregnancy, is expendable.  Just have an abortion and the problem goes away.  Which, of course, is not the case.  Not only is it the murder of the child in the womb, a child for whom our Lord Jesus was conceived and born and died on the cross, but it also leaves the mother and father (and that is what they are!) broken.  Christ have mercy.  And to top it all off, we teach our kids that everything is ultimately meaningless, a product of random chance, a cosmic accident that took shape over billions of years.  No wonder they don’t believe. 
            And we don’t equip them to stand strong against this worldview, because we send them anywhere and everywhere but Church to be molded and shaped.  Jesus will teach us next week that we should let the little children come to Him and that we must not hinder them.  That is to say, baptize them and get them to Church.  This is, perhaps, the greatest stumbling block.  Parents, you simply must bring your kids to Church.  Every week.  This is not an option.  You cannot raise your children to do other things on Sunday morning, or make Church one possibility among many other possibilities for your family’s weekend agenda, and then be surprised when your kids stop coming to Church, and maybe even renounce the faith altogether.  The biggest stumbling block you can place in front of a child is to not bring him or her here to Jesus to be baptized, to hear His Word in preaching and have their sins forgiven, to learn the faith in Sunday School, in Catechism class, and to eat and drink the body and blood of Jesus in the Sacrament.  Don’t dismiss this like it’s not a big deal.  Listen again to what Jesus says: “Whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him if a great millstone were hung around his neck and he were thrown into the sea.”  This is serious stuff.  We all make mistakes on this as parents.  Don’t make excuses.  Just repent.  Confess.  And hear the beautiful Absolution Jesus speaks to you.  Your sins are forgiven.  And then get the kids to Church, and make sure your own posterior is in the pew. 
            And make no mistake about it, Jesus is as concerned about your eternal salvation as He is about your children.  That is why He changes the subject from you scandalizing the little ones to your members scandalizing you.  And He is just as pointed.  If your hand causes you to sin, scandalizes you, cut it off!  Better to go into life, that is, heaven, minus a hand, than go to hell.  Jesus doesn’t want you to go to hell.  He wants you to be with Him in heaven.  Same with your foot.  Same with your eye.  Better heaven without those than your whole body in hell.  Now, our Lord, who took upon Himself our flesh to redeem our flesh, who is risen from the dead bodily, to give life to our bodies, is not here recommending mutilation of your members.  But He is running through the stages of sin in reverse order: Your hand: that with which you commit the sin.  Your foot: that which leads you to the sin.  Your eye: that which sees and desires to commit the sin.  And while your hands, feet, and eyes have indeed been complicit in sin, have scandalized you, you could certainly cut them off and gouge them out, but you know that then you would simply be a handless, footless, eyeless sinner.  The answer to your sin is not mutilation, it is Jesus Christ.  It is Christ crucified for you.  And that is the point of all of this. 
            Our Lord Jesus Christ suffered the mutilation of His whole body in payment for your sins.  His hands were pierced, for the sins of your hands.  His feet were nailed to the wood for the sins of your feet.  His eyes were blinded in death for the sins of your eyes.  And that isn’t all.  His head was crowned with thorns for all your wicked thoughts.  His side, His very heart, was impaled for the real source of your sins, your heart.  The solution to your sins is not the cutting off of your members, but the death of Jesus Christ.  You are baptized into His death.  His death is your death.  He died the death you should have to die.  And His death counts for you.  It is the death of your Old Adam.  It is the crucifixion of the sinful flesh.  Repentance is the daily return to Baptism, the daily drowning of the Old Adam in you so that the new creation in Christ can daily emerge and arise to live before God in righteousness and purity.  For Christ is risen from the dead.  And you are baptized into His resurrection.  His life is your life.  He lives in you.  You live in Him.  Jesus Christ is your very life.
            Now, that doesn’t mean you won’t suffer.  Everyone will be salted with fire, Jesus says.  Unbelievers are salted with the unquenchable fire of hell, where their worm does not die.  There is a hell.  Jesus is very pointed about that fact this morning.  And unbelievers go there.  Which is why this is such serious business.  But you… you who believe in Jesus Christ and are preserved in the faith by His grace, you are salted with the fire of repentance.  That is always the reason for preaching God’s Law.  It isn’t just to make you feel bad about yourself like some pointless guilt trip.  It is so that you see that in and of yourself you are full of only death and corruption, and so you need Christ, who is full of only life and righteousness and goodness.  The Law is preached so that you repent.  The Gospel is preached so that you believe.  And now you have salt within yourselves, which is to say Christ and His Word.  And He sends you out into the world with this salt to do what salt does: to season and to preserve.  God preserves the world for your sake.  And He seasons the world through your steadfast confession of His Holy World.  And you live at peace with one another, for that is what seasons and preserves the Church.  Having been forgiven all your sins on account of Christ, you forgive one another on account of Christ, and you are patient with the failures and weaknesses of your brothers and sisters in Christ. 
            And this begins with your children, the little ones.  So do not scandalize them.  Give them Jesus Christ.  And receive Him yourself.  In the Name of the Father, and of the Son (+), and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.