Monday, July 29, 2013

Is He Ready?

Ninth Sunday after Trinity, July 28th, Year of Our + Lord 2013
St. John and Trinity Lutheran Churches, Fairview and Sidney, Montana
Is He Ready?  2nd Samuel 22:26 – 34, Luke 16:1-13

     Is he ready?  Will he be up to the task?  Now?  In a year?  Will he succeed, or fail?  Many years of preparation have led us to this day,  hours and hours of study and discussion, trial and error, tentative steps and stumbles, moments of promise, and awkward ones too. 

     Can he effectively balance the multiplicity of tasks that are before him: defending the faith in the public square; calling the erring to repentance; consoling the sick and broken-hearted; planning hymns and services appropriate to the texts and the congregation; clearly proclaiming God’s Law in all its harshness, for the sake of proclaiming the Good News, the Gospel, in all its sweetness?  Can he counsel the troubled, encourage the timid, equip the saints, mourn with the bereaved?  Can he be organized enough to not hinder the Gospel?  Can he strike the balance between extolling the Sacrament, and yet maintaining our confession and administering the Supper in keeping with Christ’s Institution?  Is he ready to tackle a tough text, a really tough one, like today’s Parable of the Dishonest Manager, in which our Lord Jesus seems to be endorsing sinful behavior? 

     Is he ready?  A fair question, indeed, since in just 11 days, your pastor will celebrate the ninth anniversary of his ordination.  Am I ready to be a competent minister of the Gospel? 

     What’s that?  Oh, you thought I was talking about someone else?  You thought I was referring to Vicar Toombs?  Oh, no.  If nothing else, nine years have taught me to avoid picking on individuals in sermons, that almost always backfires. 

     Is he ready?  It is a fair question, one that applies to me, and to Vicar Toombs, and to every man called, or seeking a call, into the pastoral ministry established by Christ.  We all want every vicar and every seminarian and every pastor to become ready, and to continually become more ready, to deepen knowledge, to learn compassion and humility, to become bold in defense of the truth without becoming harsh and overbearing, to learn to fight off the wolves and shepherd the lambs, even when they are manifest in the same individual.  We all want these things, and the Gospel deserves our best efforts to achieve them.  Just as the Good News of Christ crucified and resurrected for your salvation calls for the very best effort from musicians and singers and ushers and all of you, so also the glory of God’s love revealed in Christ calls for the very best from pastors. 

     However, while ‘Is he ready?’ is a fair question, it isn’t the thing that matters, not ultimately.  It is indeed a good work to do your best in service to the Gospel, and God does work through the good works of His people, (indeed He has prepared these good works in advance, that we should walk in them).  We Christians can receive no higher honor in this life than when, through our preaching and confessing, through our music, our service to neighbors, our singing, when through whatever thing we do in joyful response to the Gospel, God builds His Kingdom.  What a privilege to be used by God.  But neither your readiness and good works in your vocations, nor my readiness and good works in my vocation, nor Vicar Toombs good works and readiness in his vocation, none of these are the thing.  These are all fruit of faith, wonderful, joyous things.  But we are not saved, we do not fail or succeed, by the production of fruit.  We can’t be.  For because you and I are involved in these works, they are not, in and of themselves, perfect and righteous.  No, our very best works are still imperfect, still tainted by sin, still unworthy of God. 

     But, they are still precious, because God moves us to do them.  By our communion with Christ, we are moved to do good works, to live well, confess well, preach well, serve well.  And even more, by our communion with Christ, by His ongoing mercy, what is lacking in our works is fixed, restored, made perfect, not by us, but by God.  May we never think our success or failure as Christians, as members, servants, or pastors, depends on our works. 

     The good works we do in our vocations are all fruit of faith, wonderful, joyous things.  But even if we fail, we are not lost, for our works are not the thing.  Christ crucified, resurrected and present with us today to deliver the mercy of God, this is the thing.   God is the One whose way is perfect.  The Word of the Lord, not of the Pastor, proves true.  The LORD, not the pastor or the vicar or the very best Christian, but the LORD is the shield for all those who take refuge in Him.  He enlightens our darkness, and gives us courage and strength to run against a troop, and leap over a wall.  He is our Rock, the Giver of life, and Savior of sinners, body and soul. 

     Thus far our good works and salvation.  What about our money?  Jesus does an odd thing in our parable today.  The meaning is not unclear; He gives it in the last verse:  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.  Pretty straightforward, First Commandment stuff – you shall not make anything, no earthly good, into your God.  If you do, you are rejecting the One True God, in whom only is there life and joy and goodness.  This is all very clear, very clear law.  But the way Jesus brings us to His concluding statement is very strange.  The master commends the shrewdness of the dishonest manager, who upon his firing stole from him by lowering the bills of the master’s debtors, in order to win friends for himself.  And Jesus seems to commend such shrewdness as well, when He says: “the sons of this world are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than the sons of light.” Then our Lord takes it even farther, muddying the waters of our minds even more, by telling us “make friends for yourselves by means of unrighteous wealth, unrighteous mammon, so that when it fails they may receive you into the eternal dwellings.”

     Does the Lord think it’s o.k. for us to cheat a little for the sake of heaven?  Can we somehow insure our heavenly dwellings by being shrewd with our material things now?  Did Jesus just cancel the 7th Commandment, You shall not steal? 

     No.  Jesus is not saying any of these things that might be entering our minds.  Note that Jesus says:  make friends by unrighteous mammon.  The material goods God gives you are unrighteous because they are part of this fallen world, and cannot save.  But you can and should use them to make friends, that is, use worldly goods to serve your neighbor.  This is how we love God with our money and possessions, by using them for the good of others, by treating them as mere tools for service to our neighbor, which of course also means we will not be worshiping them as our greatest good. 

     Also note how easily we become confused  by this parable.  Why is that?  Why do our minds leap to understanding this parable in ways that justify our own greed and dishonesty?  Because, almost as much as we like to think our good works achieve our salvation, we really like our stuff, our money, our unrighteous mammon.  If the worship of worldly possessions weren’t a problem, the Holy Spirit wouldn’t bring it up so much in His Bible.  But it is.  For you, and for me, the temptation to value and love our money and our things most of all is very great.  And so Jesus final words are damning, no?  You cannot serve God and money.  If you are serving your money, if your I-phone or your clothes, your house or your boat, or any other earthly thing is most important to you, then you are cutting yourself off from God.  If your wealth and possessions are more important to you than God, you are heading down the path to hell. 

     What a way to end a Gospel reading.  Don’t leave us here, Jesus!  But if you keep going in Luke 16, you’ll only find Jesus turning up the heat, sharpening the Law, revealing again and again how hopeless keeping the Law is for sinners like you and me, and yet also declaring the Law will not pass away.  Jesus just keeps on going, removing every hope for us to find salvation, keeping on and keeping on…  until He reaches Jerusalem.  And the Upper Room.  The Garden of Gethsemane.  The midnight sham trial before the high priest Caiaphas.  The Bema of Pontius Pilate, where the Roman governor tried repeatedly to spare Jesus.  But there the angry crowds, whipped up by the Jewish religious leaders, showed just how much they hated God and loved mammon, worldly goods, by demanding Christ be crucified.       

     And so, even as He proved our unworthiness, Jesus also made us worthy.  What the Law of God could not accomplish in us sinners, the Grace of God achieved for us, by the suffering, death and resurrection of Christ.  In Jesus, God’s Law is completely fulfilled for you, and His extravagant mercy is revealed to you.  For Jesus sake, God has forgiven you all your sin. 

     You shouldn’t worship your money and things.  Your life now would be happier if you stopped, and oh by the way, it is a sin worthy of eternal death.  You shouldn’t worship your good works.  Your life now would be happier if you stopped, and oh by the way, it is a sin worthy of eternal death.  But do not despair, Jesus has died your death, and paid for your sinfulness, and for all your sins.  He has bought you out of slavery to the idol of money, and released you from the idol of self-justification by good works.  You are free, in Jesus. 

     Christ is risen, and He lives to forgive you and restore you.  So confess your sins of greed, and your sins of pious self-satisfaction.  Confess your sins of thinking that Christ’s Church won’t make it if you don’t do your part, if you don’t become the perfect pastor, or if you don’t somehow fix your pastor, or be the perfect Christian yourself.  Of your own strength, skill, and goodness, you will never be ready for salvation.  But Christ is ready.  Indeed, He has finished achieving your eternal life.  It’s not about you; it’s about Christ for you.  Rest in His grace, mercy and forgiveness, every day, and He will give you life, today, and forever and ever, Amen. 

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