God's Blessings Come Through the Cross (Luke 17:11-19)

Twenty-first Sunday after Pentecost + October 9, 2016
Text: Luke 17:11-19
Today’s Gospel tells us of one of the many healings which Jesus did.  The recipients were ten men of Jewish descent.  We know this because Jesus directs them to show themselves to the priest in Jerusalem.[1]   As people with a Jewish background, they were familiar with the spiritual significance of leprosy—that it made them unclean and therefore unfit to participate in the life of God’s people, much less be at the temple.[2]
But what if the ten men whom Jesus healed had been Greeks or Assyrians, who knew nothing about the God of Abraham?  Certainly we see healings happen today for those who know nothing or care nothing about the God who made heaven and earth.  Unbelievers receive the same kinds of bodily healing that Christians receive, at the hands of the same medical professionals.
Yet if you were to ask someone who’s not a Christian where their healing came from, they might credit the doctor, or medicine, or a breakthrough procedure.  The point is that God, who created them and preserved their life, gave them healing and they didn’t return in thanks to Him.
On the other hand, there are many who do see God’s hand in the good things we have on earth.  In America, our national motto is, “In God We Trust,”[3] and when our leaders address the nation after troubling times, they end with “God bless America!”  Speaking of that phrase, during World War II, Irving Berlin’s song, “God Bless America” became famous.
“God bless America, land that I love/ Stand beside her and guide her/ Through the night with the light from above”
Berlin praised God for watching over and guiding this country.  What’s interesting though, is that Irving Berlin was a Russian Jewish immigrant.  Yet, he penned a song that Jews, Christians, and even Muslims can sing without reservation.
Even the spiritual but not religious can give thanks to God for His temporal blessings.  But what we should look at is what makes the Samaritan unique so that Jesus praises His faith?
It’s a matter of knowing where the blessings really come from.  Ten lepers received the gift of cleansing, but on their way, one of them was given the understanding of faith.  Nine of them continued to the temple and the priest, but one turned around because the Holy Spirit gave Him insight to see something more.  He was given the bigger picture of why God showed him mercy.  It was because the One who healed Him was on His way to Jerusalem.
In Psalm 121, the people of God would sing, “I lift up my eyes to the hills, from where does my help come?  My help comes from the Lord, who made heaven and earth.”  For God’s people of old, this meant the place where the Passover Lamb was sacrificed and where prayers and sin offerings were daily made for the people of Israel.  But the Holy Spirit has opened our eyes to see that when Jesus climbed the hill of Golgotha, bearing His cross and carrying the sins of the world, He was the true Passover Lamb and all-sufficient sin offering which God made for sake of all people.
In the Law, it was commanded of lepers, “He shall remain unclean as long as he has the disease. He is unclean. He shall live alone. His dwelling shall be outside the camp.”[4]  So it was for the ten lepers, but the Holy Spirit opened the one’s eyes to see that God accomplishing a more perfect cleansing in Jesus.   As the Apostle to the Hebrews wrote, “Jesus also suffered outside the gate in order to sanctify the people through his own blood.”[5]  When God brought this to fulfillment it was the High Priest Himself who went outside the camp, whom God made to be sin who knew no sin—so that all who believe in Him might become clean, even the righteousness of God.[6]
So it is through Jesus Christ that God made peace with this sinful world.  It’s through the peace of the cross that God deals graciously with humanity.  The Lord says that His Father “makes His sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and the unjust.”[7]  It isn’t because we’re such faithful folks that God blesses America.  It isn’t because we deserve better medical care that He gave us skilled doctors.  It isn’t because one couple did something right that they have kids while another is barren.
God gives His blessings through the cross, so that all would come to know what sort of love He has for His creatures—every single person.  “God shows His love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.”  “It was not because you were more in number than any other people…but it is because the Lord loves you and is keeping the oath He swore.” [8]  For those enlightened by Holy Spirit to know Christ, we are able to see how God gives His blessings even to the unthankful and the wicked.
That is also our source of comfort when the apparent blessings don’t come.  There were certainly more than ten lepers in all of Israel at that time, but Jesus didn’t relieve all of them.[9]  There were many who died on the same day as Lazarus of Bethany, but only he was restored to his family.  If we could only praise God at the times when it’s going well, we would have many silent hours, wondering what God is thinking.
Without the cross, we can’t be sure that we have a gracious God.  That’s because the only information we would have to go on is whether things are good or bad.  Unless we hear from the Word that the Lord loves us and that He is faithful to His promises, we might just fall into despair.  But Christ crucified and risen is the guarantee from God that not only gives us reason to glorify him for undeserved blessings today, and also a certain hope for all eternity.  As St. Paul writes, “He who did not spare His own Son but gave Him up for us all, how will He not also with Him graciously give us all things?”[10]   When our eyes are fixed on the One who went up to Jerusalem, we’re confident of God’s fatherly love and trust that He will provide and support us whatever this passing life brings.
So with our Samaritan brother in the faith, we give glory to God not just for the gifts He gives today, but even more for His beloved Son who offered up His life for the world.  In Christ, we will glorify God even beyond the grave.  Amen.
[1] Leviticus 13 details this under the Law of Moses.
[2] Leviticus 13:45-46
[3] Adopted in 1956, possibly in response to the political threat of Communism which had ties to atheism.
[4] Leviticus 13:46
[5] Hebrews 13:12
[6] See 2 Corinthians 5:21
[7] Matthew 5:45
[8] Romans 5:8, Deuteronomy 7:7-8
[9] See Luke 4:16-30
[10] Romans 8:32

Protecting the Faith of Little Ones (Luke 17:1-10)

Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost + October 2, 2016
Text: Luke 17:1-6 (p. 876 in pew Bible)
When you first hear this passage in Luke 17, it may seem like a cobbling together of different teachings of Jesus.  In fact, this is the capstone of Jesus’ teaching from the beginning of chapter 15, alternating between teaching his disciples and his enemies.  First Jesus addressed His opponents with the parables of the Lost Sheep, Coin, and Son.  Then in chapter 16, Jesus turned to His disciples to teach them about the difference between what God values and what we value.  Lastly, Jesus rebukes His enemies with the true teaching of the Law of Moses and the Prophets.
Given that background, the beginning of chapter 17 ties together all that Jesus has been teaching.  So here, Jesus is answering the question, What is the Kingdom of God really about, if not these human ideas?
As we work through this summary teaching, we need to dig deeper, so please open your pew Bibles to page 876.
“And he said to his disciples, “Temptations to sin [stumbling blocks] are sure to come, but woe to the one through whom they come! It would be better for him if a millstone were hung around his neck and he were cast into the sea than that he should cause one of these little ones to sin [stumble].”
When we hear about temptations to sin, we often think about those things which lure our already-perverse desires toward what is evil.  It’s like the old cartoons with a devil on one shoulder and an angel on the other, and the devil’s telling us to do what we know is wrong.
If you look at the footnote on “temptations to sin,” you’ll see that the Greek literally says “stumbling blocks.”  Skandalon (think of scandal) is a snare used by hunters, so that their prey will stumble and be caught.  Think of how traps are made: they are built to entice by appearing genuine.  Food is laid out for a hungry rodent—only that when the cheese is taken, the snap comes down.
Jesus is talking about those things which ensnare people in their faith and cause them to doubt or fall away entirely.  This happens when Christians don’t practice what they preach—when they live contrary to God’s Word.
(This is what we pray to be protected from in the Lord’s Prayer when we pray, “Hallowed be Thy Name”: “But anyone who teaches or lives contrary to God’s Word profanes the Name of God among us. Protect us from this, heavenly Father!”[1])
The point is that unchristian behavior doesn’t just put your own soul in peril through unbelief.  It endangers the souls of those who are young or weak in faith.
This point is so important that our Lord provides a gruesome illustration: Having a stone tied around your neck and being drown in the sea.  Surely it would be better to be executed this way than for another believer to perish in hell because you failed to “walk in a manner worthy of your calling,”[2] a manner worthy of the Name God placed on you in Baptism.
Pay attention to yourselves! If your brother sins, rebuke him, and if he repents, forgive him, and if he sins against you seven times in the day, and turns to you seven times, saying, ‘I repent,’ you must forgive him.”
Now Jesus teaches us how to avoid this terrible outcome.  How can we, the children of God, sinful as we are, avoid being stumbling blocks to the faith of others?  It’s done by calling sinners to repentance and forgiving them.
This is something we far too easily take for granted: Confession and absolution.  Oh yeah, that thing we do at the beginning of service.  But it’s so much more!  While you have your Bibles open, turn to Matthew 18 on page 823
18 Truly, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven. 19 Again I say to you, if two of you agree on earth about anything they ask, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven. 20 For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them.”
For Christians, being sorry for sin and extending forgiveness is no trifling matter.  This is the heart of the Christian Church because in confessing our sins and forgiving one another is to exercise the Keys of the Kingdom.  By forgiving your repentant brother or sister, you open the gates of heaven to them.  On the other hand, if you fail to forgive them when they are sorry, you shut heaven in their face and endanger them being lost for eternity!
Now turn back to Luke 17 (page 876):
The apostles said to the Lord, “Increase our faith!” And the Lord said, “If you had faith like a grain of mustard seed, you could say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it would obey you.
With all that’s at stake, and all the potential damage we can wreak, this is our prayer too!  Lord, increase our faith, because if it were left up to us, we all too often become stumbling blocks to those around us.  We have pointed the finger at our brothers and accused them on causing division in the congregation.  A cry has gone up to heaven because the people who are called Christian have behaved in an unchristian manner.  Lord, have mercy on us because we have sinned against you and against each other!
Our Lord’s response is good news for us: “If you have[3] faith like a grain of mustard seed, you could say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it would obey you.”  It doesn’t depend on the amount of faith we have, but in Whom we believe.  “If you have faith like a grain of mustard”—Even if your faith is weak and you struggle to believe that God is able to do as much as He says—“you could say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted’…”  It’s possible because, in the words of one commentator, “It is not so much great faith in God that is required as faith in a great God.” (Grantley Morris)
God is the one who makes such a monumental thing possible as sinners like us being forgiven—not only for what we have done against the God who called us, but also for what we have done to hurt our brothers and sisters.
By His great power, our Lord is also able to make this Christian Church, here in this congregation, a place where repentance and forgiveness are abundantly practiced.  He gives us hearts to confess our sins to each other, and yes, to forgive each other even seven times in a day if that’s what’s needed.
This is what the Christian Church looks like: a place where the lost have been gathered together by the Lord, where we have been given ears to heed the Word of God, where our sins have been forgiven by the Lord, and we also must forgive one another their trespasses against us.   Truly, He who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ.”[4]  Amen.
[1] Small Catechism, 3rd Part
[2] Ephesians 4:1-3
[3] Often mistranslated, the first part of this is not contrary to fact.  The NIV gets the first part right: “If you have faith as small as a mustard seed…” then the NASB captures the rest: “you would say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and be planted in the sea’; and it would obey you.”
[4] Philippians 1:6

Longing for the Riches of Heaven (Luke 16:19-31)

Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost + September 25, 2016
Text: Luke 16:19-31
When you’re a kid you can’t wait until your birthday—when I’m 7, I’ll get to…   For adults that still happens, except that we’re not looking forward to being another year older.  We look forward to vacations, getting a raise, or buying a house.  This sense of anticipation, of longing for something better, is what drives people through life.
Anticipation is also a prominent feature in lives of God’s children.  We live in anticipation of something better, more glorious, and perfect.  As St. Paul says, “In this hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what he sees? 25 But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.”[1]
It’s wonderful to meditate on the hope of eternal life, where we will be with the Lord and never have to leave Him.  But while we’re here in this life, the flip side of our anticipation is longing.   It’s a longing that we’re filled with every time there’s a reminder of how far off heaven is.  Chronic illness, poverty, temptation, and children being drawn away from the faith.  Doubt and affliction assail us and fill us with a hunger that cannot be satisfied here in this life.
The story of Lazarus[2] and the Rich Man is a picture of this longing to be satisfied.
19 “There was a rich man who was clothed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day. 20 And at his gate was laid a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, 21 who desired to be fed with what fell from the rich man’s table. Moreover, even the dogs came and licked his sores.”
We’re told very little about Lazarus, but what we are, we can assume that this is how his life was.  He was constantly hungry, perhaps he never had good health, and what little housing he had was barely adequate.  He lived in destitution.  In stark contrast, we see the rich man, who is the exact opposite—filled to the point of being gorged, dressed luxuriously, and having no pangs of want except when it’s time for the next meal.
Then comes that great equalizer: “The poor man died and was carried by the angels to Abraham’s side. The rich man also died and was buried.”  And now there’s a great reversal between the two men: the rich man is in agony, while Lazarus is comforted.   But this isn’t to say Lazarus is being rewarded for his years of poverty, or that the rich man is being punished for having it easy.  While Jesus goes on to stress the importance of hearing the Word while we’re living, this is what the Word of God tells us: This is a broken and corrupt world because of sin—human sin, and we are all contributors.  Poverty, disease, injustice, hatred, and even death are the fallout of sin.  Some of the things we’re personally responsible for, but others like natural disasters and freak accidents no party can be blamed.
The hope for healing this sick world came when God sent His Son into it.  Of Him, John the Baptist says, “Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall become straight, and the rough places shall become level ways, and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.”[3]  Through the Christ, God will right what is wrong and bring about a new creation out of this one.  He began it in Jesus’ birth, completed it on the cross and in His resurrection and ascension, and He will fulfill it completely when Jesus comes again in glory on the Last Day.
As God’s children, we live in between those two monumental events: the Ascension and Last Day.  Our way to Abraham’s bosom has been secured by Christ and received by faith.  Our share in His eternal, perfect Kingdom will mean an end to all suffering, as the angel tells John in Revelation: “He who sits on the throne will shelter them with his presence. They shall hunger no more, neither thirst anymore; the sun shall not strike them, nor any scorching heat. For the Lamb in the midst of the throne will be their shepherd, and he will guide them to springs of living water, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.”[4]  That is our sure and certain hope.
But today we wait, and next week, and next year…until whenever He gathers us to Himself or comes like a thief in the night.  As life wears on, though, it becomes more difficult to feel at home in this world.  As we age, lose our health, see friends and family members die, and maybe even end up stuck in a nursing home, we can identify with Lazarus more and more.  We long to be satisfied because we’ve had it with the sin and trouble of this place.
But even while we wait on the Lord to deliver us, we have the comfort and strength we’ll need.  Just because we’re in anticipation doesn’t mean that God has abandoned His people.  The sons of Israel waited 40 years before they were brought across the Jordan, but His presence went with them in the Pillar of cloud and fire.[5]  The exiles in Babylon waited 70 years before He brought them back to Zion.[6]  The point is that He has been faithful to His people in anticipation in generations past, and He’s no different to each of us in His Church today.
Lazarus was poor in every earthly respect you can think of, destitute of the “good things” of this world.  Yet even though he was poor and needy in these ways, Lazarus was rich through his faith.  God had showered upon Him the riches of being a son of God, a citizen of His Kingdom.   As a man of faith, Lazarus also realized that he was a sojourner on the earth.  His stay in this body riddled by disease and pangs of hunger was passing away with each day.  But because God had an inheritance overflowing with goodness, Lazarus departed this life for his permanent home with the Lord.
It’s the same way for you and me in Christ.  Whether we’re rich or poor in daily bread, God showers us with spiritual, eternal riches.  In popular culture we’re bombarded with dreams of eating out all the time, driving a new car, having a vibrant retirement where you travel the world.  But don’t feel that God is depriving you if you shop at Grocery Outlet, nurse a beater with 190,000 miles, and are too riddled with arthritis to make it down the stairs (much less to Tahiti).  God is not depriving you because you are His child.  The gifts He promises, He abundantly fulfills.  You have His Word and the gift of the Holy Spirit living in you!  You have His full forgiveness and victory over death itself!  You have a God Who neither slumbers nor sleeps and Who commands His angels to guard you against dangers physical and spiritual![7]
We live in anticipation as God’s beloved children, never alone and never forsaken.  “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness,” the Lord says, “for they shall be satisfied.”  At long last, the day will come for us to leave this valley of sorrow and be gathered to Abraham’s bosom.   In full assurance that God will grant this, let’s pray the last stanza of one of our hymns:
Lord, let at last Thine angels come,
To Abr’ham’s bosom bear me home,
    That I may die unfearing;
And in its narrow chamber keep
My body safe in peaceful sleep
    Until Thy reappearing.
And then from death awaken me,
That these mine eyes with joy may see,
    O Son of God, Thy glorious face,
    My Savior and my fount of grace.
Lord Jesus Christ, my prayer attend, my prayer attend,
And I will praise Thee without end.[8]  Amen.
[1] Romans 8:24-25
[2] Different person from Lazarus of Bethany.  Lazarus is the Greek form of Eleazar, “one whom God helps.” (Eerdman’s Bible Dictionary)
[3] Luke 3:5
[4] Revelation 7:15-17
[5] Exodus 33:14
[6] Jeremiah 25:12
[7] Acts 2:38-39, Job 19:25-27, Psalm 121 and 90.
[8] “Lord Thee I Love With All My Heart” (Lutheran Service Book 708:3)

Freed to Serve with Eternal Riches (Luke 16:1-15)

Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost + September 18, 2016
Text: Luke 16:1-9
Some parables which our Lord tells are easier to understand than others.  Take last Sunday’s about the Shepherd looking for His lost sheep.  It’s easy to identify as the sheep who Jesus takes up on His shoulders and carries home rejoicing.  Then there’s today’s story, which isn’t so much a parable about the Kingdom of God, but rather a lesson for those in the Kingdom.  At first blush, it seems like the Lord is advocating that we break the Seventh Commandment, “You shall not steal.”  The manager cooks the books at the expense of his master and for his own benefit.  At the end, he’s commended by the master “for his shrewdness.”  Is our Lord encouraging a “goals justify the means” method for the Gospel?  It’s as if He said, “It doesn’t matter what you do, as long as it results in ‘winning people’ for the kingdom.”
However, that’s not the right lesson to take from this parable.  In verse 8, the manager is called more than “dishonest”; he’s called “unjust.”  That’s not an example for Christians to follow.  His master commends his shrewdness, not his actions.  In terms of mammon, this unrighteous manager is a pro: He cleverly used earthly goods to reach an earthly goal.  His brilliance is right up there with Charles Ponzi, Bernie Madoff, and corporations that shelter themselves from tax by locating in Ireland.
As I said, this is a parable for the sons of light.  This is a lesson for the unjust who have been declared just through faith in Jesus Christ.  Our hopes are for more than peace and security in this world.  In this life, people cheat and wrong each other left and right.  A person who succeeds at swindling is kept up at night worrying the same will happen to him.  But as for us, we have been redeemed from futile pursuits by the Creator who poured out the priceless blood of His Son for us.  What’s more, if he’s secured “eternal dwellings” for us, how much more will He provide for the needs of this present life![1]
Now, here’s the lesson from this unjust manager: “For the sons of this world are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than the sons of light. 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.”  Does that mean that we can buy our  way or someone else’s way into heaven?  Absolutely not.  It’s another way that Jesus says, “Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”[2]
Whether it’s for Christians or unbelievers, it’s true that money goes to what we love.  The sons of this world know how to spend their money on what matters most to them.  They stay up at night wondering how they can make just a few more dollars, make their lives just that much easier, and help the people they love most.
And Jesus says Christians should do the same thing!  Our money should go to what we love.  Our eyes have been opened to see that all we have, is provided by God: “The earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof.”[3]  Our hearts have been renewed with love toward God and our neighbor, “God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.”[4]  So, our money goes to what we love: the spread of the Gospel and helping our neighbor.  That’s what stewardship is.
And we do love God, don’t we?  We love Him because “while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.”[5]  He willingly bled and died to take the wrath of God away from us.  We love that He rose from the dead so that that we can know for sure if we die later today or Jesus comes back tomorrow, we can stand before Him without fear.  We love that He has called us to believe this Gospel!  Here especially at Bethlehem, we love that He calls men to serve Him as pastors to preach this Gospel.  We love that He equips pastors, missionaries, deaconesses, and charities to spread His love all over the world.  And finally, we love that we’re here right now and have a beautiful place to gather and receive eternal gifts from our Lord each week.
And because we love all of this, the sons of light—you and me—give our money so that it continues.  It’s important to us—more so than groceries, mortgages, bills, hobbies, and vacations—so we give the first of what we have to support it.  “On the first day of every week, each of you is to put something aside and store it up, as he may prosper,”[6] St. Paul writes to the Corinthians.  And we do this gladly, because “everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.”[7] We do it out of love for every one of them!
Now, the sermon could end there, if we were completely renewed and without sin, but we also need to hear the rest of the text:
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. 11 If then you have not been faithful in the unrighteous wealth, who will entrust to you the true riches? 12 And 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.”
Remember where we came from: we are the unjust who have been declared just through faith, but we come from unjust stock—we are by nature sinful and unclean.[8]  It’s always a short step for us to say, “Lord, Lord” to our bank account or the job that funds it.  So the Lord tests our hearts to know what’s in them and to make sure that our faith is in Him.[9]  Each of us ought to examine our own heart regularly to see whom we have been serving.
“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.”  In the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 6:19), Jesus says this just after, “Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal.”  Don’t put your hope in earthly treasure, because it is passing away.  That’s like building a sand castle and calling it your “forever home.”  Put your hope in God and the heavenly home He has waiting for you in Christ.
It’s sound advice.  But when it comes to money, we are not always sound thinkers.  Even Job faltered on this.  Job was left destitute so he said, “God has cast me into the mire, and I have become like dust and ashes. 20 I cry to you for help and you do not answer me; I stand, and you only look at me. 21 You have turned cruel to me; with the might of your hand you persecute me.”[10]  Because he lost his earthly treasure, he was sure he had lost his God.
And who of us can’t relate?  But our Lord challenges our attachment to the things of this life.  He exposes our love of money and calls us to repent.  He puts our sinful self to death by saying, “You shall worship the Lord your God and Him only shall you serve.”[11]
You are baptized into Christ; your sins are forgiven.  Your unfaithfulness and idolatry have been forgiven.   He renews your heart and mind so that you love and serve only Him.  He takes you from being a son of this world, “seeking all that mammon proffers”[12] and makes you a son of light.  You are freed from serving wealth and chasing it into destruction because you have an inheritance which will never fade or pass away.   So, we let the money He’s given us serve others.  We give our “unrighteous wealth” to spread the Lord’s righteousness, so that we and all who believe may share in the true riches which have no end.  Amen.
[1] Matthew 6:33
[2] Matthew 6:21
[3] Psalm 24:1
[4] Romans 5:5
[5] Romans 5:8
[6] 1 Corinthians 16:2
[7] Romans 10:13-17
[8] Lutheran Service Book, 151
[9] Deuteronomy 8:2
[10] Job 30:19-21
[11] Deuteronomy 6:13
[12] “What is the World to Me?” LSB 730:3

Only God Can Judge and Save (Luke 15:1-10)

Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost + September 11, 2016
Text: Luke 15:1-10
Most people think that Christians condemn sins like abortion, fornication, homosexuality, and divorce.  After all, it’s people who identify as Christians who hold the picket signs outside Planned Parenthood, and it’s people who call themselves Christians who shun a woman after a divorce or avoid teenage mothers.  It must be that Christians condemn sin.
This actually isn’t true.  Christians do not condemn sin.  That right belongs entirely to God.
God is the One who condemns sin by His holy Law.  He condemns abortion when He says, “You shall not murder.”  He condemns sex outside marriage by saying, “You shall not commit adultery.”  And He condemns homosexual relations and divorce by saying, “Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and cling to his wife and the two shall become one flesh.”[1]
God is the Judge, just like we confessed in the Creed.  But His Law goes further than we would.  He also condemns those things we think are minor.  He condemns gossipers, busybodies, and those who show favoritism when He says, “You shall not give false testimony against your neighbor.”  He condemns the miserly and those greedy for gain by saying, “You shall not steal and you shall not covet.”[2]
Really, Christians have no grounds for condemning others.  “Judge not,” Jesus says, “that you be not judged.  For with the judgment you pronounce you will be judged, and with the measure you use it will be measured to you.”  Who are we to accuse others of sin, when we are chalk full of sins ourselves?  The Apostle writes, “Therefore you have no excuse, O man, every one of you who judges.  For in passing judgment on another you condemn yourself, because you, the judge, practice the very same things.”  Before the angry mob that had gathered to accuse an adulteress, Jesus says, “Let him who is without sin among you be the first to throw a stone at her.”[3]
Christians do not condemn; each Christian must repent of his or her own sins.  Now let’s understand that from the Gospel for today:
1Now the tax collectors and sinners were all drawing near to hear [Jesus].  2And the Pharisees and the scribes grumbled, saying, ‘This man receives sinners and eats with them.’”
The truth is that everybody wants to go to heaven.  Heaven is for Real and Love Wins.[4]  Nobody would knowingly choose to suffer in hell for eternity.  Everyone wants to be chosen by God to be with Him in heaven.  Trouble comes when we look for God’s choice in the wrong place.   It’s all too common for us to look for God’s choice in the mirror.  But we don’t hold that mirror right up to our face (especially when we don’t like what we see).  Instead, we tilt it slightly so we can compare ourselves to others.  Ah!  Now we can see how much better we are than those other people.
Last week, Pope Francis made Mother Teresa a full-fledged saint.  She was chosen for this posthumous honor because of her life of good deeds.  Her good deeds are so widely known that she’s become the gold standard for someone who’s got what it takes to go to heaven.  In Roman Catholic teaching, by her being made a saint, she is so good that people are encouraged to pray and look to her for blessings.  Basically, she worked her way to the same plane as Jesus—according to Roman teaching.
But if this is true, I’m certainly no Mother Teresa, and I’m guessing you’d say the same thing about yourself.   Praise the Lord that we are not where God looks for His choice of who goes to heaven.  The decision on who’s good enough to go to heaven was made long before any of us was born, even “before the foundation of the world.”[5]   It’s God’s Son, Jesus, who alone makes the cut.   He is the righteous Man who is free from sin.  The only one who “shall ascend the hill of the Lord and stand in His Holy Place”[6] is Jesus—not the pope, not even the Apostles, not Mother Teresa, and certainly not you or me!
Left to ourselves, there is no distinction between so-called good and bad people.  Every one of us is a lost sheep or a lost coin apart from Jesus.  But just as everyone is lost and condemned, the Lord Jesus Christ took the condemnation for everyone and seeks to find those who are lost.[7]  So, every single person who repents and believes in Jesus is found and there is joy in heaven over this!  “Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance” and again, “Just so, I tell you, there is joy before the angels of God over one sinner who repents.”    What a reason to rejoice!  It isn’t about some people’s fervent search for God, or burning desire to please Him.  The reason to rejoice is in God’s diligent search for us.
And just what does that rejoicing look like?  St. John was given a glimpse in Revelation 5:
And they sang a new song, saying,
“Worthy are you to take the scroll and to open its seals,
for you were slain, and by your blood you ransomed people for God
from every tribe and language and people and nation,
and you have made them a kingdom and priests to our God,
and they shall reign on the earth.”[8]
In heaven, the courts are filled with choirs of angels and people belting out the praise of Jesus, who took us from being very nearly lost in hell.  He snatched us from the grasp of death and sets us in heaven.
With this in mind, there’s no way we can climb into God’s throne and judge another sinner.  We ourselves were lost, but Jesus sought us out.   Now we see that it’s His desire for every lost person to be found because their life is precious in His sight too!  So, when we another lost person, our hope for them is that they will be found by the Lord and come to repentance and faith.  But just as little as we can sit and condemn, we also have no power to turn their hearts.  That too belongs to God.  Knowing this, I would question the effectiveness of picket lines in front of Planned Parenthood, and churchly people shunning someone who’s living in sin.  Wouldn’t it be better to pray to the God who seeks sinners to intercede?  Wouldn’t it be better for us to show mercy to a fellow sinner, knowing that it could just as easily be us who were wandering from the Lord?  Let God with His Word be the power to turn their hearts, because that’s how He saved us.
May God make us so heavenly minded that our focus and our joy is like that of the angels: Praising the Lord for His mercy and rejoicing every time it’s received by one such as us.  Amen.
[1] Exodus 20:13, 14; Genesis 2:24
[2] Exodus 20:15-17
[3] Matthew 7:1, Romans 2:1-2, John 8:7
[4] The titles of two popular, but unbiblical views of salvation.
[5] Ephesians 1:4-5
[6] Psalm 24:3
[7] Romans 5:12-21
[8] Revelation 5:9-10

Onesimus: A Portrait (Philemon 1-21)

Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost + September 4, 2016
Text: Philemon 1-21
The story of Philemon and his slave, Onesimus is one of redemption.  Cultural background: slavery is integral to households in the Roman world.  Masters, even though they owned their household servants, were responsible for their wellbeing.  In turn, slaves served their masters in a variety of ways and kept busy households functioning.  Onesimus, however, was a wicked slave who run away for his own selfish reasons, having lied to and probably stolen from Philemon, his master.
Philemon may have been a believer when it happened.  Perhaps that’s why Onesimus gets away.  Whatever the case was, Philemon has become a leader in the Church because a congregation gathers at his house (v. 2).
But while he’s away, Onesimus meets Paul of Tarsus.  After hearing Paul preach about the Lord Jesus Christ, Onesimus is brought to faith and baptized.  As Paul would write to the church in Corinth, “he who is called in the Lord as a slave is a freedman of the Lord” (1 Cor. 7:22).  But having died with Christ and risen, Onesimus begins to realize there’s unfinished business with his former master.  Paul, who has become like a father in the faith to Onesimus, writes a letter of appeal to Philemon.  In it, he addresses Philemon, not just as Onesimus’ owner, but as a brother in the Lord.  So we have as part of the God-breathed Scriptures, the Book of Philemon.
It’s funny that Onesimus never really caught on as a name, considering how much biblical names are in our society.  But what you and I should realize is that this is our story too—after all the Holy Spirit inspired this Epistle to be written for our learning.
God has appointed us to be His servants, from the moment He created our human race.  But, in our vocation as servants of God, we have acted wickedly.  When it was His will for us to lead a pleasing life, we chose our own path.  When He has called out to us, we have fled (Gen. 3:8-9).  Think about all the times we’ve lied to Him—promising to do better after we’re caught but then going right back to our evil.
In our flight from Him, we’ve also broken ties of friendship and household, too proud to admit our selfish ambition.  Like Onesimus, we have left a wake of destruction behind us by our sin.
But Jesus found us in our flight from God.  His Word came to us through a pastor, a parent, or a friend.  We were baptized, joined to our Savior’s death and resurrection.  He redeemed us from the slavery of sin that we foolishly mistook for freedom.
Out of households broken by our sin, He has made us each to be members of a new household: God is our Father and Jesus our Brother and Lord.  In His household, we are a new kind of slave: “Thanks be to God, that you who were once slaves of sin have become obedient from the heart to the doctrine to which you were committed, having been set free from sin, have become slaves of righteousness(Rom. 6:17-18).
With the gift of God’s Holy Spirit, our service to our heavenly Master is not merely with our lips or our hands.  It is a service from the heart we love our Master.  “Serve the Lord with gladness! Come into His presence with singing!” (Ps. 100:2)  This could only be possible because of the peace which God made with us through Jesus and our union with Him!
Think about those whom you have hurt in your own sinful wake of destruction.  Would you willingly stand in front of them?  Like Onesimus before his betrayed master, Philemon, would we be able to approach those we have wronged?   But like Onesimus, you have been baptized into Christ.  Your guilt and shame has been nailed to the cross (Col. 2:14).  The debt you owed to God has been canceled because Christ said to His Father, “If he has wronged you at all, or owes you anything, charge that to my account” (Phm. 18).
God has given you a new heart along with washing away your sin and canceling your debt.  He has given you confidence to stand before God, forgiven with all your misdeeds covered.  It’s out of this that Onesimus approached his former master, and it’s out of that which we are able to approach those we have wronged in the past to make peace—to ask forgiveness for hurtful words, to restore what we stole, and to heal the rifts which can only be closed by the blood shed by Jesus.  This is what it looks like to fulfill what St. Paul writes to all of us, “As we have opportunity, let us do good to everyone, and especially to those who are of the household of faith” (Gal. 6:10).
Even though very few are named Onesimus, we can see that his story of redemption is also our story.  Slave or free, Greek or American, man or woman—we all have one Lord who has redeemed us from the prison house of sin and death and made us servants of a gracious Master.  Truly we too can say, “I shall dwell in the house of the Lord forever” (Ps. 23:6).

Beauty Runs Faith Deep (Luke 14:1-14)

Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost + August 28, 2016
Text: Luke 14:1-14
As you stand in the checkout line, what sort of people look back at you from magazine covers?  Pretty people having fun.  We’re drawn to youth, health, and say that these are what makes someone beautiful.
In the Gospel reading today, we see that spill over into the Church:
One Sabbath, when he went to dine at the house of a ruler of the Pharisees, they were watching him carefully. And behold, there was a man before him who had dropsy.
Picture this: Jesus is having dinner with the religious elite.  The ones who are invited to this meal are those who, by all appearances, have everything going for them.  They know the Scriptures inside and out, they keep the Law flawlessly, and—just to put another feather in their hat—they’ve invited this popular teacher to show how welcoming they are.  They are adorned with much beauty in the eyes of man.
But in contrast to all this, there’s a man with dropsy, or as we know it today, edema.  Outwardly, he’s not a pretty sight, with one or more parts of his body grossly enlarged with fluid retention.  He’s grotesque, and he’s standing against this backdrop of men who, whether they’re young or old, have the appearance of wellness.
Then Jesus helps us to see wellness and sickness in a spiritual light when He asks, “Is it lawful to heal on the Sabbath, or not?”  Why would Jesus connect the Sabbath with healing?  Wasn’t it just about not doing work and gathering at the Temple?  From the Small Catechism, don’t we learn that the Sabbath is about “not despising preaching and God’s Word, but hold it sacred and gladly hear and learn it”?  What does that have to do with healing?
You see, for God, bodily health isn’t just a matter of hereditary traits and healthy choices.  Sickness and death entered the world because of sin.  Every illness, disease, and deformity remind us that we are fallen creatures living in a world that is corrupt.  When we witness illness in ourselves or others, our conscience is stirred up to remember what St. Paul said in Romans 5, “death spread to all men because all sinned” (Rom. 5:12).
Outwardly, we might be spared the visible result of our sin.  We might have good health on the outside and look good to others.  We might have poor health and look varying degrees of bad.  No matter which it is, every one of us needs the healing Jesus gives, and that’s a healing that goes greater than skin deep.
That’s when the question is turned to each of us, what are we gathered here for?
If we’re concerned with outward appearance—of looking “healthy”—then we can show others that we’re good church-going folk.  Shame on those others who slept in this morning or went to the coast.  At least we can maintain our spiritual “physique” by doing what God wants.
On the other hand, if we feel the disease of sin, and feel its symptoms day to day—regardless of how we look on the outside—then we are in the right place to find healing.  The Sabbath is nothing but a place for healing those wounded and sick with sin.
Our Lord goes on to describe our health in God’s sight with a parable set in a different kind of dinner:
When you are invited by someone to a wedding feast, do not sit down in a place of honor, lest someone more distinguished than you be invited by him, and he who invited you both will come and say to you, ‘Give your place to this person,’ and then you will begin with shame to take the lowest place. 10 But when you are invited, go and sit in the lowest place, so that when your host comes he may say to you, ‘Friend, move up higher.’ Then you will be honored in the presence of all who sit at table with you.
This is far more than an etiquette lesson from Jesus.  The lowest place is what God’s Law is supposed to do to our hearts—“You shall have no other gods”; “You shall not misuse the Name of the Lord your God”; “Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy.”  These aren’t a matter of outward action, but a condition of our heart and the Law calls it out and puts us in our place.
But One steps into the wedding hall who is worthy.  He took the sinner’s seat, “He took our illness and bore our diseases” (Matt. 8:17).  He became grotesque inside and out before God and man.  Stripped and humiliated, bleeding and dying, He hung on the cross and rose on the Third Day.
Now, on His account, the Master says to us, “Friend, move up higher.”  Take the seat of a son, not of an enemy.   This isn’t because you’ve earned it, because you have it together.  It’s a gift.  It’s healing of the soul, delivered through the Word and confirmed with the Sacraments.
Then, this wedding feast doesn’t look like a show of outward beauty—the way we expect to see in the world.  This wedding feast is filled with the “the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind”: people like us who are sick with our sins, but who have been called forth by the mercy of God in Christ.
This is the wedding feast we are invited to at every Lord’s Supper.   To our poor and feeble spirits, Christ our Savior and Physician says, “Take eat; this is My Body, given for you.  Take eat; this is My Blood, shed for you for the forgiveness of your sins.”  Rise and be healed of your diseases.  Your sins are forgiven, and you have been freed from death.  In Jesus Christ, you are beautiful and perfect in God’s sight.  Amen.

Whose Your Father? What’s Your Inheritance? (Luke 12:12-31)

11th Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 13C) + July 31, 2016
Text: Luke 12:13-21
Lawsuits – what are they over?  Money!  Everyone in the world is so worried about making sure there’s enough for them that they will scratch and step on each other.
But what’s at heart in these fights over money?  This one was over an inheritance, something that a person didn’t even earn, but was given.  There’s a clue: They are fighting over something that is really a free gift.
So, let’s compare two worldviews:

  • We live in a closed universe. Everything that ever has been and ever will be is right here in front of us.  The future of the earth and everyone on it is up to us in a complex form of survival of the fittest.  Who gets to use what resource is a matter of human arrangement.  Some people rise to the top where they get the privilege of controlling a greater share than the next person.  But ultimately, we are each on our own to make sure we get a piece of the fixed pie for ourselves and our family.
  • We live as creatures of a God who creates by His Word. “I believe that God has made me and all creatures; that He has given me my body and soul, eyes, ears, and all my members, my reason and all my senses, and still takes care of them. He also gives me clothing and shoes, food and drink, house and home, wife and children, land, animals, and all I have. He richly and daily provides me with all that I need to support this body and life. He defends me against all danger and guards and protects me from all evil. All this He does only out of fatherly, divine goodness and mercy, without any merit or worthiness in me.” (Small Catechism, Creed, Article I)

In this worldview, we don’t provide for ourselves, but we are provided for by a God who loves and cares about all His creatures.  “The eyes of all look to you [O Lord], and you give them their food in due season. You open your hand; you satisfy the desires of every living thing.” (Psalm 145:15-16)
So what was the worldview of the rich man in the parable?  Certainly he had a lot of stuff, but that wasn’t the problem.   He reveals his worldview when he says, “Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.”  In his closed universe, he’s on top of the heap.  And then he dies, and where does he go?   Well if the universe really is closed and godless, then he just ceases to exist.   Unfortunately for his belief, the heavens and earth are ruled by a God who not only provides, but to whom all people must give account.
What’s the worldview we get taught most of the time?  Save the earth!  Limited resources!  We’ll be out of safe drinking water by the year 2030!  Oh, but before you perish, do everything you can to live the “good life” and the “American dream.”  Raise the minimum wage, break the glass ceilings, all so that by our own abilities we can rise to the top.  Scratching and scrambling over one another, just so we can get a greater share before we die and must leave it to another.
But in your Baptism, you were baptized into a different worldview—one where God became your Father.  He is the giver of all good things both temporal and eternal.  The world and universe continue not by accident but by His upholding (Heb. 1:3).  The people on the earth survive not by how fit they are but by Him opening His hand to provide for them.   Life itself is not an accident, but a gift from our Creator.  Every breath, every morsel of food, every member of your family, every safe arrival in a car trip, every morning you wake up—these are all gift from God, given in love.
Yet our hearts are inclined to love these gifts and forget the giver, as the Rich Fool did.  All of us so often spiritually look a gift horse in the mouth, are not satisfied with what He’s given and demand more.   Knowing this evil full well, God gave the greatest gift of all when He gave His Son’s life to reopen eternal life to us.  These are the true riches, because the value of redemption and resurrection surpasses that of gold or silver.  These riches outlast even death itself, so that when everything crumbles for both rich and impoverished in this life, those who receive the gift of faith will receive the crown of eternal life.
So back to the original prompt, “Teacher, tell my brother to divide the inheritance with me.”  You’ve got the wrong gifts and the wrong father in your heart.  Repent and believe in the Lord who speaks to you today, that God might be your Father and the inheritance you receive would be one of eternal riches.  Amen.