Thursday, August 29, 2019

Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost

Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 16C)
August 25, 2019
Text: Luke 13:22-30
            Lord, will those who are saved be few?” (Luke 13:23; ESV).  So asks an unnamed disciple in response to Jesus’ teaching on the Kingdom.  And it is our question as well, particularly when we are concerned with a loved one, whether they will be included in our Lord’s salvation.  Perhaps it’s a family member, maybe children or grandchildren who have stopped attending Church or even denied the faith of Jesus.  Perhaps it’s a friend or co-worker or neighbor with whom we’ve struggled to share the faith and clearly confess Christ and His Word.  Maybe we’re even worried about ourselves.  There is this false comfort in the idea that the broader the road to salvation, the better my chances of getting in.  But if only a few are saved, then what happens to me, and what about those I love who I can’t be sure are Christians?  It’s a painful question posed to our Lord this morning.  A terrifying question.  And we’re hanging on every word of His answer. 
            But He doesn’t answer directly.  What does He say?  He doesn’t tell you about everyone else.  He tells you and all of His disciples: “Strive to enter through the narrow door” (v. 24).  It’s a jarring reminder that you are not the Savior of all those others.  Not even your children.  Jesus is.  It is not your job to make your friends and loved ones into Christians.  You can’t convert them to the faith.  You cannot save them.  That is God’s job.  In one way, that is a little frustrating.  But when you get right down to it, it is extraordinarily comforting, because it means that God, who loves your loved ones even more than you do, who sent His Son Jesus for your loved one… Jesus, who suffered all hell and gave Himself into death for your loved one, to reconcile your loved one to the Father… It’s His job to save your loved one and bring your loved one to faith in Jesus.  So the pressure is off you.  You let God be God, and you do what you are called to do.  And in this text, you are called to strive to enter through the narrow door.
            Oh boy, that sounds like salvation by works.  To strive, after all, is to work.  What are we to do with this?  Before we talk about what it means to “strive,” let’s first identify the “narrow door.”  The Narrow Door is Jesus.  That is to say, you only enter salvation through Jesus.  In another place, Jesus says of Himself, “I am the door.  If anyone enters by me, he will be saved” (John 10:9).  So the point is, the narrow door is not the ability to carefully observe the rules of Christianity, or even obey the holy Commandments of God.  The Narrow Door is Jesus.  And He’s not narrow because He is difficult or unwilling to save you, or because you have to pass some test or meet some qualification for Him to accept you.  No, quite the opposite.  His salvation is absolutely free and available to all, and it does not depend on anything you do or leave undone, anything you are or are not.  It is all dependent on His sin-atoning death and life-giving resurrection, given to you in His holy Word and Sacraments, received by faith which He Himself gives you by His Holy Spirit through these means.  He is narrow because He is the only way.  The way that leads to death and damnation is broad.  It is anything and everything that is not Christ.  But the way of life and salvation is narrow, because that way is only Christ.  Which is simply to say, you are saved by faith alone in Christ alone, by grace alone.
            When we know that, we know what it means to strive to enter through the Narrow Door that is Jesus.  The command to strive is just another way of saying, “Repent.”  Repent of every other way you’ve gone in search of life and salvation, every other savior or fulfiller or life-giver you’ve made into an idol by seeking from it your every good.  Repent of those sins you won’t give up because you think they give a better salvation or a more fulfilled life than Jesus gives.  Repent of all that has kept you from taking up your cross and following Jesus.  Strive not to go those ways, after those things.  And the reason you strive, the reason you repent, is not to fulfill a condition so Christ will accept you.  It is not to earn your salvation.  It is because you already have that salvation, in Christ, the Narrow Door. 
            Which is to say, with justification… God’s declaration that you are righteous on account of Christ… comes regeneration… renewal, sanctification, the putting to death in you all that is not Christ (repentance) and the striving to walk in His Word and in His ways (your new life as a new creation in Christ).  All of this is God’s work in you as the Spirit applies Jesus and His gifts to you in the Word and Sacraments.  The word “strive” does not put the onus of your salvation on you.  Rather, you are saved and renewed apart from your striving, so that you can now strive.  It’s a matter of rightly dividing Law and Gospel.  It’s getting the order of salvation right.  First comes salvation, then comes striving.  If you aren’t Jesus’ disciple, you will indeed strive for many things including salvation, but you’ll never, ever strive to enter through the Narrow Door that is Jesus.  You only do that because you’re already in Jesus.  You repent and you believe in the forgiveness and life you only have in Him. 
            Jesus tells us many people will be surprised when they don’t make it in on the Last Day.  They’ll be surprised because they strove… but they didn’t enter the right door!  The door will be shut and locked up tight, and many will be on the outside knocking and calling to Jesus that He’s made a mistake.  We ate and drank with you.  You taught in our streets.  We went to Communion and listened to sermons.  We were good people.  We did the right things.  We said the right words.  We took up the right causes.  We gave an offering. … That may all be well and good, but see, even non-Christians can do those outward things.  Even unbelievers can live outwardly righteous and good lives.  But that’s still part of the broad way.  There is only one way into the Kingdom of God, and it is the Narrow Door.  It is Jesus only.  Not your good works and Jesus.  Not your being “basically a good person.”  It is Jesus only.  And so, on that Day, He will say to those who cry to Him from the outside, “I do not know where you come from.  Depart from me, all you workers of evil!” (Luke 13:27).  And they will be consigned to the place where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth, which is to say, hell. 
            And they’ll be surprised who is in the Kingdom of God.  There are the saints, of course, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, the Prophets.  But so also, those from east and west, north and south, Gentiles, sinners forgiven of their sins, tax collectors and prostitutes and Lutheran pastors.  And even you.  It will be a surprise only to those who do not know Jesus.  For these unlikely members of the royal court will have entered, not by their works or their own righteousness (they have none), but because of Jesus.  Simply and freely, by faith in Jesus.  There they are, and there you are, in the safety and security of your Father’s Kingdom, reclining at Table, feasting on the richest of foods, the choicest of meats, the very best wine, as God’s own child.  And that is already your reality.  Baptized into Christ, you really do eat and drink with Him.  You eat and drink Him, His true body and blood, for your forgiveness, life, and salvation, here at His altar, a foretaste of the eternal feast to come.  You are here by grace, and grace alone, not because you strive, but in order to go out there and strive, to work as God’s own, as Christ’s own.
            And one of the most important things you’re given to do as you’re out there striving is tell your loved ones about Jesus.  Not bring them to faith.  That’s not your job.  That’s God’s job.  But just tell them about Jesus.  Confess the faith.  Witness.  Invite them to Church.  Make sure you bring your kids to Church.  Every Sunday.  Bring your grandkids if your kids won’t and you can.  Bring your friends and neighbors.  Be here yourself.  Be fed.  Receive Jesus.  That’s what you are to be concerned with.  Will those who are saved be few?  None of your business.  Strive to enter through the Narrow Door.  Repent of your sins, and know that Jesus alone is your salvation.  His righteousness is your righteousness.  His life is your life.  He brings you into the Kingdom and gives you that very Kingdom as a gift.  It is all by grace.  By His blood.  By His death.  By His resurrection life.  You belong to Him.  In the Name of the Father, and of the Son (+), and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.       

Sunday, August 4, 2019

Eighth Sunday after Pentecost

Eighth Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 13C)
August 4, 2019
Text: Luke 12:13-21

            The true riches have nothing to do with financial security or abundance of possessions.  The true riches are yours in Christ.  They are the gifts given freely, poured out upon you from the wounds of our crucified Lord.  They are the forgiveness of sins, eternal life, and salvation.  They are peace with God, the wiping out of your debt, the end of your death and condemnation, the providence of your heavenly Father, and the protection of the holy angels.  The true riches are the gifts of the Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control (Gal. 5:22-23).  The Holy Spirit Himself dwells in you by virtue of your Baptism.  And you are in Christ by virtue of your Baptism, and in Christ, God is your Father who loves you, and you are His dear child, and you possess the very Kingdom.  When you understand that these are the true riches, distributed here, freely, in Preaching and Sacrament, it reorders your priorities now in this life.  Your money and your stuff are really not that important.  All that really matters is Christ.  For it is He who, “though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you by his poverty might become rich” (2 Cor. 8:9; ESV).  God became a man, became poor unto death, that you might be rich unto life and dwell forever with God. 
            You know that by faith, but you live as if it isn’t true.  That is why you worry.  That is why you never have quite enough, and if you could just have a little more, then you would feel secure and be generous.  But of course, when you get a little more, you need just a little more.  Even Donald Trump said, long before he was running for president, that his wealth will never be enough.  He will always want more.  And lest we think this plague is exclusive to the rich, think how this same thinking can afflict the poor.  Poverty, by definition, is a lack of money and possessions.  So what do the poor look for to deliver them from poverty?  Money.  Stuff.  Rich and poor alike think the answer to all that ails them is more money, more stuff.  Covetousness, which is idolatry, plagues us all.  Repent. 
            Is it sinful to have money?  Is it wrong to hold possessions and enjoy them?  No, these things are good gifts of God and should be received with thanksgiving.  God even gives a commandment that affirms ownership and property.  You shall not steal,” God says, which means you should not take your neighbor’s stuff, and your neighbor shouldn’t take yours.  Instead, you should help each other prosper and keep your stuff.  What, then, is the sin Jesus warns us against in our Holy Gospel?  He says, “be on your guard against all covetousness, for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions” (Luke 12:15).  That means, don’t look for happiness and fulfillment in wealth or in things.  God does not give these to you to fill you.  They cannot do that.  And when you look to them to do that, you have made them a god.  You worship a god called Mammon.  And you are enslaved. 
            If you can’t give a thing away or suffer the loss of it, you are a slave to that thing.  If you cannot be generous with your money and give it away, you are a slave to your money.  If you cannot live without that house or that car or even that person, you are a slave to that house or that car or that person.  Repent.  If something has become an idol to you, the best thing you can do is give it away.  After all, you cannot keep it forever, no matter how firm your grasp.  As they say, you can’t take it with you when you go.  Hearses don’t tow trailers.  Naked you came forth from your mother’s womb, and naked shall you go (Job 1:21).  You’re going to die, and all your wealth and all your stuff will be meaningless to you.
            The parable of the rich man in our text is instructive here.  The land produces plentifully.  Already we have the language of gift.  The rich man cannot produce a crop.  God gives the crop success.  But the rich man does not receive the gift with thanksgiving.  He does not credit God for his success.  He credits himself.  And he hoards it up.  It belongs to him, he thinks.  He earned it.  And now he knows just what to do.  He will tear down his barns and build bigger ones that can hold more.  He will store his grain and his stuff and live the good life for many years.  He will relax, eat, drink, and be merry. 
            Now, it’s not that God is against relaxation and feasting and merry making.  The Bible paints heaven in these very terms.  But what is the man doing?  He is building his own heaven on earth.  And to what does he look to deliver him to that heaven?  His riches.  His stuff.  And he does not stop to consider that God does not give His gifts so that we can hoard them up and be selfish with them, much less look to the gift instead of the Giver for every good, thus making the gift our god.  God gives His gifts, not only to be a blessing to us, but to be a blessing to our neighbor through us.  This is the key for the Christian when it comes to money and possessions: God gives us gifts so we can be generous with them.  God gives us gifts so we can give them to our neighbor in love.  To give the gifts (which don’t belong to you, anyway… They belong to God!) to your neighbor is to be rich toward God.  And these gifts are not a zero sum game.  God does not forsake you when you give the gifts away.  He gives you more.  To give away more.  And then He gives you more.  To give away more.  God is an unfailing fountain of good.  You are His conduit, His pipe.  The gifts flow through you and to your neighbor and you both enjoy God’s abundance.  But even this, the wealth and the stuff God gives, is not the treasure.  The treasure is the forgiveness and life He gives in Christ.  Heaven is where we’ll relax, eat, drink, and be merry.  And here at Church, where heaven meets earth, we relax in the Word and eat and drink the Supper and we’re merry with praise toward God.  But so also, here, now, we have work to do, because our neighbor is in need.  God has given us provision to provide for our neighbor.  Do it and rejoice.
            The rich man was a fool, for he spent all his time and energy in laying up treasure for himself, but that very night death robbed him of his wealth and it all went to someone else.  There is a way, though, to save up wealth that lasts for eternity, and this kind of saving takes a wisdom alien to our nature and reason.  You want wealth that lasts forever?  Give it away now.  That’s the way it works in the Kingdom of heaven.  The first shall be last, and the last first.  The exalted shall be humbled, and the humbled exalted.  The hungry shall be filled with good things, and the rich sent empty away.  He who would save his life will lose it, but he who loses his life for Jesus’ sake and for the Gospel will save it.  It’s the great reversal.  It is death and resurrection.  God uses what is foolish to shame the wise, what is weak to shame the strong.  Tax collectors and sinners go into the Kingdom before Pharisees.  Jesus dies and sinners live.  He gives up His life and the Father gives it back to Him for all eternity.  Christ is risen.  The filthy are made clean, the unrighteous are justified, declared righteous for the sake of the Crucified and Risen One.  
            St. Paul tells us in our Epistle to think on that.  (S)eek the things that are above,” he says, “where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God.  Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth” (Col. 3:1-2).  Why?  Because “you have died” … That’s what happened in your Baptism.  You died with Christ.  And you’ve also been raised to new life in Him, but “your life is hidden with Christ in God.  When Christ who is your life appears, then you also will appear with him in glory” (vv. 3-4).  Christ is your life.  Christ is your glory.  All your riches are in Christ.  So, rich or poor by earthly standards, you are rich in the Lord.  And think about these things.  God has never yet failed to provide for you.  You’re here, aren’t you?  You’re alive.  You’ve been fed and clothed and sheltered.  And in Christ, all things are yours.  That is what St. Paul says in another place (1 Cor. 3:21-23).  Your brother, the world, may refuse to divide the inheritance with you, but in the end, it all goes to you.  It is the Christians who will inherit the earth.  Those in charge now are operating on borrowed time.  Jesus is coming back, and then everything will be set right.  But there’s more.  All these things will be renewed on that Day.  They will be recreated.  You will be recreated, refashioned into the image of God once again.  And since all this is true, think how silly it is to covet the stuff of this earthly life.  Imagine a prince envying the possessions of a beggar.  That’s what it is when we live for the stuff of this world.  But you don’t have to do that.  Your life does not consist in the abundance of your possessions.  Your life consists in this, and this alone: Christ possesses you.  He bought you with His own blood.  All things are yours, and you are Christ’s, and Christ is God’s (vv. 22-23).  Set your mind on this, and let God worry about the rest.  In the Name of the Father, and of the Son (+), and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.             

Thursday, August 1, 2019

Seventh Sunday after Pentecost

Seventh Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 12C)
July 28, 2019
Text: Luke 11:1-13

            Lord, teach us to pray” (Luke 11:1; ESV).  Teach us, for we know not what or how to pray.  Our prayers are weak and inadequate.  The words of our unclean lips and the desires of our unclean hearts are unworthy of Your divine majesty.  And when You, in Your mercy, answer our prayer anyway, we are not pleased with Your answer.  You do not do our will in heaven as it is done on earth.  And we don’t like it.  Not one bit.  Therefore, You must teach us to pray.  You must open our lips, that our mouths declare Your praise.  You must give us the words.  And You do.  You give us Your prayer.  And in that prayer is included every need of body and soul, for time and for eternity.  By that prayer, because it is Your prayer, Your Word, You bestow Your gifts.  You grant the faith to speak it in confidence and receive Your answer with thanksgiving.  You bring our fallen will in line with Your holy will.  You bestow Your Kingdom in bread for the belly and Bread that is Your Body, in the forgiveness of sins and defense against temptation and evil.  Your prayer is the perfect prayer, and You give us poor sinners to pray it.  And in it You place us before God as our Father.  Father, You teach us to call God.  As dear children ask their dear Father.  For that is who we are, and that is who He is.  Baptized into Your death and resurrection, made one with You by water and the Word, God’s own child, I gladly say it!  Baptism bestows the right to call God “Father,” and to address Him as little children learning our first words.  Lord, teach us to pray.”
            “Father” is a faith word.  It is the key word in our text.  It is a confession that God is for us and not against us.  It is a confession that God delights in our prayers, loves to hear them, and will always answer them.  And it is a confession that God will answer in a way that is good for us, in such a way that His Kingdom comes and we are saved.  God is a better father than I am, and yet I, being evil, still have some experience giving good gifts to my children and withholding things that will hurt them.  Now, there is nothing in the whole world my children cannot ask me.  That is what it means that they are my children, and I am their father.  They can ask me all their needs and desires, and they should.  And I should hear, and I should answer.  But it often happens with children that they ask for ridiculous things, and so also it often happens that they ask for things that will hurt them.  They’re kids!  They’re very smart kids, and they don’t want to ask for things that are ridiculous or may hurt them.  But the fact remains, I know what is good for them, and what is bad, and they don’t know.  Because I am the father, and they are the children.  So, many times they ask, and I say “no.”  And they don’t like that word, do they?  They think that word is bad, and that my will for them is bad, and that I’m against them, and not for them.  The truth is, though, just as I will not give them a serpent if they ask for a fish, neither will I give them a serpent if they ask for a serpent.  Because even I, being evil, know that will hurt them.  And if that is true for me in relation to my children, how much more will our heavenly Father withhold what is harmful (or just ridiculous), and instead give the Holy Spirit, faith, the very Kingdom, and every good gift to those who ask Him? 
            We’re the kids, guys!  Our Father knows, and we do not know, what is good and what is evil.  Adam and Eve thought they could know good and evil for themselves, and look what it got them.  Look what it got us.  Sin.  Rebellion against God.  Death.  Hell.  That is what Adam and Eve chose when they got to do their will.  And that is what our will apart from the Spirit chooses, every time.  So when the Father says “no,” it is a good thing.  He’s protecting us.  He’s providing for us.  He’s loving us.  And we throw our temper tantrums, as children do, and God disciplines us, as good fathers do.  Not punishment.  Discipline.  Teaching.  Lord, teach us to pray.”  And notice that the things Jesus teaches us to pray are the opposite of things we choose on our own, apart from the Spirit.  Jesus teaches us to pray for the hallowing of God’s Name, that we keep His Name holy.  To pray that His Kingdom come, not that we get to be king.  To pray for daily bread, for the things we need for body and soul, not for great wealth and possessions.  To pray for the forgiveness of sins, which is a confession that we are not worthy of things for which we pray, and to commit ourselves likewise to forgiving.  And to pray for defense against temptation, defense against the very things after which our flesh runs with reckless abandon.  We’re praying against ourselves in the Lord’s Prayer, against our old sinful nature, and for ourselves as the new creation in Christ that daily emerges from the baptismal water to live before God in Jesus, and in the Spirit.  Luke, by the way, gives us the short version of this prayer.  For the full version, you’ll have to look in Matthew.  But notice how whichever version you’re looking at, it includes everything God promises in Scripture.  That is why we don’t have to pray it with conditions, like “if it be Thy will.”  The petitions are terse.  Demanding, even.  But we pray them confidently, because these are the Words Jesus has given us to say to the Father.  And there is the Promise: He loves to hear it.  He will answer.  To this prayer, His answer is always and unequivocally “Yes!”  Just ask, seek, knock.  You will always receive, find, and enter the Kingdom through the open door that is Christ Himself.
            And what about our other prayers?  Some of you are going through some pretty tough things.  You’ve prayed, and I’ve prayed for you, and we’ve prayed together, as our Lord commands, and we know He has heard our prayer, as He promises.  Some of the things we’ve asked, He has not given.  What does this mean?  What are we to do with that?  Does this mean God is against us?  Has He actually, for the first time in all eternity, failed to act for our good?  Our Lord’s prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane is instructive here.  He prayed, “Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me. Nevertheless, not my will, but yours, be done” (Luke 22:42).  And what is the Father’s answer? … The cross is the Father’s answer.  He does not take the cup from His Son.  Jesus must drink the cup of God’s wrath for our sin down to its very dregs.  It is God’s will.  God was against Jesus on Golgotha, His own beloved Son.  He was against Jesus who bore our sin, our rebellion, our will so stubbornly opposed to His own.  He was against Jesus in order to be for us.  And see, look what good God accomplished by bringing the ultimate evil upon His Son.  The cross was not some sadistic and arbitrary act for God.  It served a purpose; namely, the forgiveness of sins for the whole world and the salvation of all who believe it.  And even Jesus Christ, the Son of God, through His suffering and death has been exalted.  He did all this for the joy set before Him, the joy of saving you and making you His own and bringing you into His Kingdom.  And He is risen from the dead, ascended bodily into heaven, and is seated at the right hand of the Father.  There He rules all things.  For you.  What great glory.  And He’ll bring you there to reign with Him.  And He’ll raise you bodily on the Last Day.  That is the good our Father accomplished by giving His Son into death on the cross.
            And if that is what He has done with Jesus’ cross, that is what He will do with the crosses He lays on you.  There are things in your life that you have not wanted, that cause you to hurt and be sad.  There are financial difficulties and questions of employment.  There is sickness and the frailty of the body.  This week we grieve the death of a dear sister in Christ, Odessa Johnson, and though we know she is safe in Jesus and enjoys the relief and joy only He can give, we do shed our tears that death has touched us and because we will miss her until we see her again.  There is pain and there is loss.  There is family conflict and all manner of sin, your sin against others, and their sin against you.  Christians are not immune from this kind of suffering.  These things are crosses to be borne in faith.  Not for your salvation, for that is complete in Jesus, but because God is working these things to Your greater good.  And like children, you don’t understand the things your Father is doing.  You experience them as bad, though your Father knows they are good.  He has given them because He loves you.  So what are you to do when God lays a cross upon you?  Jesus teaches you what to do.  He gives you words to say.  You are to address God as “Father,” and pray the prayer the Son teaches you. 
            And then you receive His answer right here in the Means of Grace, in the Word of God and the Holy Sacrament.  That is how God’s Name is hallowed.  That is how His Kingdom comes.  Here is the Bread of Life you really need, the Body of the Lord.  Here is the forgiveness of sins and shelter against temptation.  Here at the font.  Here at the pulpit.  Here at the altar.  Here where Jesus is for you, here where your Father gives His Spirit.  Your Father will give you a cross, but never a serpent or a scorpion.  Trust Him on this.  He is always working what is best for you.  He does all things well.  In the Name of the Father, and of the Son (+), and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.