Bethlehem Lutheran Church, Lebanon, OR
Ninth Sunday after Trinity + August 18, 2019
Text: Luke 16:1-13
“For the sons of this world are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than the sons of light.”
They say, “where there’s a will, there’s a way.” This was the manager’s tactic: that through tipping the scales in favor of his master’s servants, he would have a fallback plan. He used worldly goods to secure a worldly benefit. We see this all the time—laying on the charm could get you a promotion faster than others, or having a carefully timed conversation that you can claim as a business expense. The manager is called shrewd because he knows how to play his cards to meet his own priorities.
But as Jesus preaches about the Kingdom of God, He is talking not only about worldly things, but also eternal things—things that do not pass away or are stolen or destroyed. In fact, the eternal inheritance He won for us didn’t hinge on money because we “were ransomed from the futile ways inherited from your forefathers, not with perishable things such as silver or gold, but with the precious blood of Christ” (1 Peter 1:18-19)—something of far more value than any treasure or luxury found on earth.
What’s this that Jesus says next?
“And I tell you, make friends for yourselves by means of unrighteous wealth, so that when it fails they may receive you into the eternal dwellings.”
Living as people on earth requires the use of unrighteous wealth—money and possessions. Living as the Church on earth requires the use of these because the Church is made up of people—people who live in houses, eat food, pay taxes, and meet together in buildings. This fact should not surprise us as Christians, because it’s a fact of our daily life that every one of us deals with.
Yet, if Jesus says the sons of this world can use their money to obtain the worldly things they want, what stops the sons of light from using the very same unrighteous wealth to make friends and welcome them into the eternal dwellings?
Perhaps we as the people of God, don’t know what we want or need. What is the mission of the Church after all? What is the mission of this congregation? Isn’t it to proclaim, study, and grow in God’s Word; to gather together for worship; to rejoice in Baptism, Absolution, and Lord’s Supper; and collectively to reflect the light of Christ and serve our neighbors? We’re not here to be a landmark on Grant Street or a storehouse of people’s fond childhood memories. If we are, that’s well and good, but that’s not at the heart of why this congregation exists.
Knowing this about who God has called us to be and what we’re to do in this specific place and time, that’s what the sons of light do—they aim their possessions at God’s ministry. God’s people of old knew this, too. The Lord says in Psalm 50, “Every beast of the forest is mine, the cattle on a thousand hills…the world and its fullness are mine.” (vv. 10, 12b) And yet, God commanded the people to make offerings of those cattle because through them, He delivered forgiveness to His worshippers. In this and other examples, the Lord teaches us what our offerings are for. Of course, God personally doesn’t need our money (except while He dwelt on earth), but in God’s hands, temporal earthly stuff serves as a vessel for eternal riches.
So what are those vessels? Let’s focus on the key ones:
The Lord’s Supper
“26 Now as they were eating, Jesus took bread, and after blessing it broke it and gave it to the disciples, and said, ‘Take, eat; this is my body.’ 27 And he took a cup, and when he had given thanks he gave it to them, saying, “Drink of it, all of you, 28 for this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.” (Matthew 26:26-28, p. 832)
The bread and wine of Holy Communion, which are the Body and Blood of Christ—are ordinary things which are bought from the store or made in-house. But through these earthly elements, eternal treasure is bestowed. This is illustrated by the practice of the Offering in the ancient church, where those in the congregation would bring the bread and wine up to the altar. Justin Martyr (died AD 165), describes it this way:
Having ended the prayers, we salute one another with a kiss. There is then brought to the president of the brethren [presiding clergy] bread and a cup of wine mixed with water; and he taking them, gives praise and glory to the Father of the universe, through the name of the Son and of the Holy Ghost, and offers thanks at considerable length for our being counted worthy to receive these things at His hands…And when the president has given thanks, and all the people have expressed their assent, those who are called by us deacons give to each of those present to partake of the bread and wine…over which the thanksgiving was pronounced, and to those who are absent they carry away a portion.”
Baptizing and Teaching
“All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19 Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” (Matthew 28:18-20, p. 835)
With divine authority and the promise for His continued
presence, the Lord sends out His Church to baptize and teach—water and
Word. We don’t think that much of clean water
where we live, but God puts great blessings in it. Teaching materials, too, are of this
earth. And any teacher knows how
important it is to have materials and supplies to teach effectively—reference
books, workbooks, curriculums, paper, whiteboards, and whatnot. A projector can be used for your private
Mario Kart party, or it can be used to edify in Bible study. Using those material things, the lessons
bestowed in Sunday school, adult Bible study, and catechism classes are
Supporting the pastor
“For it is written in the Law of Moses, ‘You shall not muzzle an ox when it treads out the grain.’ Is it for oxen that God is concerned? 10 Does he not certainly speak for our sake? It was written for our sake, because the plowman should plow in hope and the thresher thresh in hope of sharing in the crop. 11 If we have sown spiritual things among you, is it too much if we reap material things from you?… 13 Do you not know that those who are employed in the temple service get their food from the temple, and those who serve at the altar share in the sacrificial offerings? 14 In the same way, the Lord commanded that those who proclaim the gospel should get their living by the gospel.” (1 Cor. 9:9-11, 13-14, p. 957)
It is the Church’s responsibility to provide for the man who devotes His life to laboring to keep watch over your souls, interceding for you, praying with you, administering the Sacraments, teaching and equipping you to follow Christ. This is something the Church has done even since the time of Moses. The offerings brought into the temple weren’t just for the building; they were to support the Priests and Levites, the temple workers, who had no inheritance among the tribes (Deut. 18:1-8). It was the practice during our Lord’s earthly ministry as faithful women and sons of peace provided for Him and the Twelve (Luke 8:1-3, Luke 10:2-8). The Apostles lived and traveled by love offerings made by congregations (Phil. 4:17-19, 2 Cor. 11:7-9). Through the centuries, the saints have continued to do this with practices like in-kind gifts, parsonages, or the use of a glebe (a portion of land given to the pastor or the proceeds from the crop given to support the priest).
This is really nothing new, even though it’s taken different forms over the years. So, today’s pastors receive a salary, book stipends, mileage reimbursement, health insurance, and retirement. Yes, he receives a paycheck like anyone else, and the bank doesn’t know the difference. Yes, he has need of health insurance just like anyone else does these days, and the doctor’s office doesn’t know the difference. His retirement pension works the same as any other career worker, for when he no longer has the vigor for full-time service.
But this duty to the pastor is given in gratitude because through the pastor’s labors, you are receiving the Kingdom’s eternal treasures. By providing a living for the pastor, you free him to be available to serve you when you are in need, to devote his days to prayer and meditation, study, and visits, as it says in Acts 6: “It is not right that we should give up preaching the word of God to serve tables. 3 Therefore, brothers, pick out from among you seven men of good repute…But we will devote ourselves to prayer and to the ministry of the word.” (Acts 6:2-4)
Support for the wider church
“I do not mean that others should be eased and you burdened, but that as a matter of fairness 14 your abundance at the present time should supply their need, so that their abundance may supply your need, that there may be fairness. 15 As it is written, ‘Whoever gathered much had nothing left over, and whoever gathered little had no lack’…You will be enriched in every way to be generous in every way, which through us will produce thanksgiving to God. For the ministry of this service is not only supplying the needs of the saints but is also overflowing in many thanksgivings to God…Thanks be to God for his inexpressible gift!” (2 Cor. 8:13-15, 9:11, 15, p. 968)
While it was a monetary gift, what St. Paul is describing something far more important and lasting. Yes, the saints support each other in their temporal times of need. But God is behind that action, filling the people with increased faith and thanksgiving to God who provides far more abundantly than we imagined possible. This is what is happening when we send a portion of our offerings to support to seminary students, ministries like Bethesda, and district and Synod.
These are things which are essential to being the Church on earth: gathering together around the Word, receiving the Sacraments, providing a living for the pastor, and being generous toward the wider body of saints. They should be erected like four walls in which the Kingdom of God is found and the children of God carry out their calling to be light and life in a dying world. Anything above and beyond that may be tradition or what was possible in the past, but it is non-essential to being Church. Remember, the faithful worshipped in people’s homes without dedicated buildings for almost 300 years until the Edict of Milan (AD 313) established tolerance.
10“One who is faithful in a very little is also faithful in much, and one who is dishonest in a very little is also dishonest in much. 11If then you have not been faithful in the unrighteous wealth, who will entrust to you the true riches? 12And if you have not been faithful in that which is another’s, who will give you that which is your own? 13 No servant can serve two masters, for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and money.”
What makes a congregation pleasing in God’s eyes? Some would say their apparent successes—upticks in attendance, the budget being in the black, the building measuring up to aesthetic standards. But that’s actually not true. God judges His servants by our faithfulness. That is, to do what our Master has commanded, and trusting Him to bless it.
Faith takes God at His Word, and His Word teaches His people what to do. Faith doesn’t say it’s impossible, for all things are possible with God. Faith doesn’t hold tight-fisted onto anything in this life, but is ready to lose it all. The Church is not to save money, but to use money to save souls.
And what will be the lasting legacy of it, even if it should end? That Christ’s disciples have baptized and taught, have received forgiveness in the Body and Blood of Christ, that the Word of God has been gladly heard and learned, that a little slice of the Body of Christ was able to gather in a temple made with hands as we “look forward to the city that has foundations, whose designer and builder is God.” That is no failure, and that is no shame upon us, so long as we have trusted in Him.
But if God does will
for His Church to gather together, for the ministry to continue in this place,
He will provide the necessary means. All
He asks of us is to seek and serve Him. Let
us not fear, love, or trust in unrighteous wealth, but in God who calls
us. May He help us so to do. Amen.
 The First Apology, Chapter 65 – Administration of the Sacraments
 Hebrews 11:10
Church, Lebanon, OR
Eighth Sunday after Trinity + August 11, 2019
Text: Matthew 7:15-23
You can tell a garden that is kept and tended from a garden that has been neglected. The tended garden shows careful attention, addresses weeds before they get out of hand and hurt the good plants preventing them from bearing fruit.
The Lord relates to gardening, because He put Adam and Eve on the earth (and in the Garden of Eden) to tend and care for it. He gave them responsibilities, and didn’t give them a creation that can just take care of itself.
The Gospel for today also uses gardening for a lesson:
“Beware of false prophets…You will recognize them by their fruits. Are grapes gathered from thornbushes, or figs from thistles? So, every healthy tree bears good fruit, but the diseased tree bears bad fruit. A healthy tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a diseased tree bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Thus you will recognize them by their fruits.”
Often, God likens the Church to a garden. Isaiah 5 uses the image of a vineyard: “For the vineyard of the Lord of hosts is the house of Israel, and the men of Judah are his pleasant planting.” (v. 7) John 15 further illustrates who’s Who, when Jesus says, “I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinedresser. Every branch in me that does not bear fruit he takes away, and every branch that does bear fruit he prunes, that it may bear more fruit.” (vv. 1-2) The Parable of the Tenants in Matthew 21 further clarifies that, just as God does the planting, growing, and pruning, He uses human servants to carry out his work: “There was a master of a house who planted a vineyard and put a fence around it and dug a winepress in it and built a tower and leased it to tenants, and went into another country. When the season for fruit drew near, he sent his servants to the tenants to get his fruit.” (vv. 33-34)
And finally, St. Paul applies this to a situation where the Church started picking favorites among those human servants:
“What then is Apollos? What is Paul? Servants through whom you believed, as the Lord assigned to each. I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth. So neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth. He who plants and he who waters are one, and each will receive his wages according to his labor. For we are God’s fellow workers. You are God’s field” (5-9a)
You are God’s field. Pastors are fellow workers of God, like God’s gardeners. Jesus says it’s possible to know a false prophet by their fruits. Of course, there’s a negative lesson from Jesus’ words: Watch out for false prophets, watch for bad fruit. But what that tells us is the fruit is the best rule the Church on earth has for evaluating its servants. To put it another way, If you want to know if you have a good gardener, you ask, how does their garden grow? What sort of fruits are being produced?
Those of us who have gardens enjoy seeing them flourish. We can relate to God’s garden metaphors—His desire for grapes, His work of pruning to remove what is dead and strengthen what is fruitful, His watering and daily attention to what He’s planted. All of it is a labor of love. But sometimes, even though we put all the right effort in, it still fails. Plants get diseased and whither, deer help themselves to our roses and crops, and the weather doesn’t cooperate. Nobody would fault a gardener for this.
These sorts of things happen in the Church too. But when they do, we need to remember the words of the Apostle, “I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth.” But what does that growth look like?
It’s important that we don’t equate growth with increase, or increase with growth. God’s work for His Church is growth, not just increase in numbers. There are lots of ways to attract people under the guise of religion. False prophets are excellent at this, but they create a deception. They give the appearance of church, but devoid of the genuine fruits which God is seeking.
There is only one way to make growth: Planting, watering, and tending the good Word of God. That is the gardening which God blesses. Yes, it might go through brown times or lean times, but let us trust our heavenly Vinedresser and be faithful to His instructions for care: “I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth.”
When we get growth and increase confused, it can lead to problems. This especially comes up when we’re looking for “more people” to come into the Church. Let’s be honest, in gardening terms, we have a very large plot in this sanctuary, but it’s not densely populated. Maybe that leads to the thought that we should be able to fill those empty pews, and that we’re doing something wrong if they’re not. Maybe it leads us to envy other churches around town that seem to be increasing.
But just like having a garden that’s way too much for you to manage, it’s a strain on appreciating what we do have. It makes us have ulterior motives for wanting to see new faces arrive. But all we need to be is God’s field, tended by a faithful gardener (pastor), growing with a growth that comes through the Word of God.
The Lord does not bid His Church to “bring people in” or “keep the doors open.” He’s in charge of that. What matters to Him is what we do with those He has given us, and how do His servants tend the garden that is there? In order to grow the Church God’s way, this is what to do:
- Planting His Word: Live as witnesses of His forgiveness and firm foundation in a world of shifting sand. Invite your friends and family when, after praying, the time seems right.
- Watering that Word by recognizing that your need for Sabbath rest is greater than the grind of the week, and when it all passes away, you will still have God, your rock and fortress. Come to Bible study, or if you can’t, invest in a Lutheran Study Bible and use that during the week.
- Tending that Word: Yes, of course it’s the pastor’s duty to tend God’s garden, weeding and fertilizing, etc. But we also do that for one another: “Brothers, if anyone is caught in any transgression, you who are spiritual should restore him in a spirit of gentleness. Keep watch on yourself, lest you too be tempted. Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ.” (Galatians 6:1-2) The Church is the Communion of saints, of brothers and sisters who lovingly watch out for each other not just in temporal things but more importantly in our spiritual welfare!
Bethlehem Lutheran Church, Lebanon, OR
Seventh Sunday after Trinity + August 4, 2019
Text: Mark 8:1-9
Recently in the news, there has been a story about a USDA rule change that would render 3.1 million people ineligible for food stamp benefits. Of course, an outcry ensues, because food is important for people to have. Every sane human being would agree that it’s vital to have enough to eat. In fact, as those who know the Lord, we know a bit more about this. Hunger is part of the curse of sin on this creation—“cursed is the ground because of you…by the sweat of your face you shall eat bread till you return to the ground.” (Genesis 3:17-19)
It’s also true that hunger and lacking in the things needed for life is unpleasant, and we try hard to avoid it. If given the choice, we’d much rather have our choice of what and how much we could have, than to be restricted. But that’s not always possible because of finite resources.
People are right to be concerned with making sure everyone has enough to eat, especially children who rely on adults to provide for them. Speaking of fathers and children, hunger is important to God as well:
In those days, when again a great crowd had gathered, and they had nothing to eat, he called his disciples to him and said to them, 2 “I have compassion on the crowd, because they have been with me now three days and have nothing to eat. 3 And if I send them away hungry to their homes, they will faint on the way. And some of them have come from far away.”
It’s true. Hunger is a problem, but the curse of sin did more than make food harder to come by. It changed the way we think about food—and really all the things we need. Bigger than the problem of world hunger is the problem of covetousness in your heart and mine.
Covetousness looks at
what we have and doesn’t think it’s enough.
It wants to reach wide and gather as much as it can and still have
enough for what we fearfully assume the future will bring. Covetousness looks at the things we do have
and says they’re not good enough and not the “right” things. We look at our car and find all of its flaws,
our spouse and see nothing but negative, one crack in the screen and suddenly
we need to have a new cell
phone. In Colossians 3, the Apostle Paul
admonishes us to “Put to death what is
earth in you” and two of the examples he mentions are “evil desire and covetousness, which is idolatry” (3:5) Those evil desires (evil lusts) combined with
turning our eyes to things we aren’t given, constitute idolatry. Why?
Because it’s a denial of who the true God is and what He is always
doing. Whenever you blame God for not
giving enough or taking away what you have, you’ve set up in incompetent fool
for a god who wishes you evil.
The Feeding of the Four Thousand shows us that scarcity is not a problem for God—never has been and never will be. He is the God who created out of nothing, so why are we such materialist fools to think our lives are limited to what we see at this very moment? No, it’s not scarcity that’s the problem; it’s our weak faith in Him and contentment with what He actually has provided each of us.
It says in the Explanation to the 4th petition of the Lord’s Prayer, “God certainly gives daily bread to everyone without our prayers, even to all evil people, but we pray in this petition that God would lead us to realize this and to receive our daily bread with thanksgiving.” Daily bread means a whole lot more than just flour, water, oil, sugar, and yeast; it “includes everything needed for this body and life.” The lack is less in the daily bread, than in the faith and thankfulness.
This is one of our biggest weaknesses as people, trusting like the birds of the air or the lilies of the field that God really is a faithful provider. It’s more than we can comprehend that God is able and willing to provide for all of His creation. The Lord teaches man in Proverbs 3:5, “Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding.” And, yes, this applies to our daily bread, too. While we’re busy fretting about our lives by the smallness of our vision and vastness of the future, God is at work from eternity. Understanding has its part in planning that belongs to us, but faith leans on God to do the actual provision.
In Psalm 104, after listing a series of activities God actively does to care for His creation, the psalmist summarizes: “These all look to you, to give them their food in due season. When you give it to them, they gather it up; when you open your hand, they are filled with good things. When you hide your face, they are dismayed; when you take away their breath, they die and return to their dust.” (Psalm 104:27-28) God even provides for those whose hearts are far from Him, because He still has a Fatherly goodness and mercy toward them. But for us who do believe, it’s still a lifelong battle of putting to death what is earthly and letting the Spirit renew our hearts.
The fear of not having enough is serious. When your job or your living situation are on the rocks and the future of your family is in limbo, that anxiety can do some real harm. If you’re one of those people whose Oregon Trail benefits are in question, you’re wondering how you’ll meet your needs on an even thinner shoestring. And none of us is in a place to judge another for their lack of faith, because we all struggle with doubt, especially if it was happening to us.
Repent, all of us, before God gives us a scarcity both of daily bread and of His mercy. Open your eyes and take a fresh look at what you do have, and if there is scarcity, learn how to make faithful priorities. God will provide what we need for this body and life. Take that as a constant, because it is His solid promise. Jesus was not commanding us to pray, “Give us this day our daily bread,” in vain. But then pray God for a trusting and thankful heart, that doesn’t measure His infinite power by finite quantities and our own inability to foretell
4 And his disciples answered him, “How can one feed these people with bread here in this desolate place?” 5 And he asked them, “How many loaves do you have?” They said, “Seven.” 6 And he directed the crowd to sit down on the ground. And he took the seven loaves, and having given thanks, he broke them and gave them to his disciples to set before the people; and they set them before the crowd. 7 And they had a few small fish. And having blessed them, he said that these also should be set before them. 8 And they ate and were satisfied. And they took up the broken pieces left over, seven baskets full. 9 And there were about four thousand people.
As much as God is gracious to provide for our bodily needs, His mercy gushes out to care for our souls. Through Jesus, He has satisfied our true hunger—the one we often don’t identify correctly—the forgiveness of our sins, the need for our hearts to be cleansed and made anew, so that our minds think of Him and what He has provided rightly, and our appetites are content with the daily bread He gives.
But now, come, receive the food and drink which feeds your souls and strengthens your mortal body. It is Jesus’ own Body and Blood, given and shed for you. It is no coincidence that the Lord uses bread, the food of the curse made by the sweat of your face. But this is not your daily bread, liable to lost tomorrow; it is the Bread of Life, and even though a small quantity, its benefits never expire. Eat and drink, for in this you have life and salvation.
To conclude today, I’d like to end with a sung prayer from hymn 774 – Feed Thy Children, God Most Holy:
Feed Thy children, God most holy;
Comfort sinners poor and lowly.
O Thou Bread of Life from heaven,
Bless the food Thou here hast given!
As these gifts the body nourish,
May our souls in graces flourish
Till with saints in heavenly splendor
At Thy feast due thanks we render. Amen.
 Explanation to the 1st Article of the Creed