Monday, August 26, 2013

To the Man - Incarnational Mercy

Mission Sunday – The 13th Sunday after Trinity, August 25th, A + D 2013
St John Lutheran Church, Fairview, Montana
To the Man – Incarnational Mercy      Luke 10:23-37 , 2nd Chronicles 28:8-15

     The Samaritan went to the man.  He had compassion for his plight.  Literally speaking, he had ‘his guts turned out.”    Esplangxnisthe, you can almost hear the visceral reaction, the gut reaction, that is built into the Greek word.  Esplangxnisthe.  Having compassion in his gut upon seeing the beaten, naked, half-dead traveler, fallen on the side of the road, the Samaritan goes to the man, right up close to him, taking on this poor man’s problems, as his own.  To the man. 

     That’s what it takes for real mercy, it takes going to the man, to the woman, to the child.  Whatever person is suffering and in need, to deliver real mercy requires going to the man, getting up close with a person in want and suffering. 

     If Cindi and the gang at ROI, o.k., they’re probably too short staffed to call them a gang, but anyway, it would do no good for Cindi and the other staff at ROI to stand around at a meeting or in a church basement, talking about how there are people with disabilities who could really use some help.  Helen could write letters to the editor every day about how bad domestic violence is.  Shelee could cover the countryside with pro-life posters.  Tim could stand outside every bar in town with a megaphone, warning people about the dangers of drug and alcohol abuse.  None of these deeds would be merciful. 

     They might be useful, like the prophet Oded’s warning to Israel, which kept them from making slaves out of family, kept them from abusing like cattle their captured cousins from Judah. There is sadly a very necessary place for prophets like Oded in our world.  We can and should proclaim the evils of ignoring people with special needs, the evil of violence in the home, the tragedy of taking the lives of babies, a tragedy for the child, for mother and father, and for our nation.  We can detail the destruction of substance abuse.  We can warn and plead with people to flee from these evils, and some people might do less evil.  But that is not showing compassion.  That is not giving mercy. 

     To be truly compassionate and merciful requires going to the man, to the flesh and blood human being. To the woman who fears the man she loves.  To the drug addict.  To the person with disabilities.  To the single mother of two, who is pregnant again.  True mercy is always in the flesh, flesh to flesh, face to face, messy, risky.  True mercy is incarnational, that is, it entails one flesh and blood person going to another flesh and blood person and getting down in the trenches to try to help them. 

     And you and I don’t really want to do that, do we?  We, like the lawyer in our passage from Luke, would like to qualify a few definitions, in order to limit the need for us to press the flesh with needy neighbors.  Who, after all, is really my neighbor?  Do I have to help the single mom next door?  After all, she’s on food stamps, so I’m already helping her through my taxes, right?  Do I really need to go and help my elderly father cut up his food and clean up his messes?  Isn’t that what we have nursing homes for?  Is it really my concern if women all around me are getting pregnant, and then are pressured into abortions by boyfriends, husbands, parents or poverty?  Are these fallen people really my neighbors?

     Yes.  According to Jesus, yes, your neighbor is every person in need you meet.  Consider that the Samaritan has no tie to the wounded man.  Jericho and Jerusalem are Jewish towns, and so the Samaritan was passing through a land where he was a decidedly 2nd class citizen, maybe even 3rd or 4th class.  Why, since Jews have no dealings with Samaritans, should this Samaritan have compassion on the fallen man, who is in all likelihood a Jew?  Surely the Jewish priest and Levite, who perhaps were still visible, riding away in the distance, as the Samaritan came upon the fallen man, surely they had a greater responsibility than the Samaritan, right?  Why should he go to the man, right up to him, cleansing his flesh and bandaging his wounds, sharing his donkey, and paying for his care? 

     Why?  Because God has put him there for just that purpose.  God gave the Samaritan the privilege of feeling compassion in his gut, of getting up close and personal, of delivering incarnational, in the flesh mercy.  God invited the Samaritan into executing the will of God by loving this neighbor as himself.  There is no higher earthly privilege.

     Are you feeling guilty yet?  I am.  I can admire the idea of loving my neighbor.  I can praise those who go above and beyond, diving into the really messy situations.  I can allow myself to be caught in situations in which avoiding doing something is impossible.  I can even grin and bear the unpleasantries of loving my neighbor, especially if my reputation is on the line.  I mean, I don’t want people to think I’m the pastor with no compassion.  But my whole heart isn’t in it.  I don’t very often consider it a privilege.  I do not rejoice to deliver incarnational mercy, even when it dawns on me that the thing I’m caught up in is from God.  I do not measure up to the Good Samaritan, not in my actions, certainly not in my heart. 

     No one does.  If we could, then the Lawyer’s desire to justify himself could be fulfilled.  According to Jesus, there is, at least in theory, a way to be saved by the Law:  “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind, and your neighbor as yourself.” Do this, and you will live, says Jesus.”  And so, we are dying.  According to the Law, we have no hope, because our love for God is weak, and dirtied by resentment and anger at His rules.  And our love for the neighbor is very situational.  I love my neighbors who take care of their yards and have me over for parties and don’t ask anything difficult of me.  But needy people?  Not so much joy in having them for neighbors. 

     Even those who do many visible good works cannot but fail to live up to the standard the Lawyer quotes from Moses, the standard which Jesus endorses.  Scripture declares this truth, by works of the law shall no man be saved.  Honest consciences confirm it.  You cannot justify yourself.  You cannot do what it takes to inherit eternal life.  You are not the Good Samaritan, and you never will be. 

     But there is a Good Samaritan.  His name is Jesus.  Almighty God, rejected by the men and women He created, has chosen to come and find us anyway.  Spiritually dead from sin-disease, even from our birth, and dying physically as well, from the very beginning of our lives, our future at the hands of that robber satan was grim indeed.  But Jesus has come to us, all the way to us.  We do not, indeed, in our sinfulness we cannot muster a love for our neighbors to match our selfish self-love.  But Jesus has loved us perfectly, even though we were His enemies.  Jesus came all the way to us, not merely coming along side His fallen creatures, but even entering into our flesh, facing our temptations, struggling through our broken world. 

     Indeed, the heavenly Good Samaritan has come even farther than the Samaritan in our reading today.  For while that Samaritan only came to the fallen man and cared for his wounds, Jesus has shared in our wounds.  Jesus was beaten, and even stripped naked, by the Roman soldiers, just before He was nailed to the tree.  Yes, the all-powerful Son of God has submitted His flesh to the worst beating humanity could dish out.  Even more, Jesus has accepted from His Father the punishment that all of us deserve for all the cruel blows we’ve inflicted on each other.  Jesus became sin, suffering in our place, so that in Him we might become the righteousness of God.  Indeed, our Good Samaritan is still working His righteousness in us, for He is risen from the dead and is still seeking fallen people.  Jesus comes and pours Himself out, baptizing sinners into His crucifixion, that they might share His resurrection, declaring His absolution each and every time a repenting sinner confesses her sins.  Jesus even pours Himself out for us in a physical mystery, by His blood, poured into the Chalice, to give forgiveness and new life to all who eat and drink His Supper in faith. 

     And so, in the midst of our world, still soaked through with sin and sorrow and suffering, a new hope, a new love, a new light shines, as the God who has gathered sinners into His Inn, into His Church, and has cared for them personally, bringing them back to life and health, now sends them out, to deliver incarnational mercy to other hurting people.  It’s no accident that these four leaders of these four organizations are doing what they are doing.  It’s no accident that so many other members of our congregations are involved in these and other efforts to serve the hurting people who are among us and all around us.  It’s no accident that wherever you find real, in the flesh human care, you find Christians involved.  For as God feeds Tim, and Helen, and Cindi and Shelee, and the rest of you at this altar, He is preparing you for the service He intends.  As God reminds you how precious you are to Him, despite the sins that you still have to come and confess, week after week, He is preparing your hearts, preparing your guts, to feel compassion for your neighbors, for whom Christ also died, and rose. 

     We rightly rejoice in the care provided by these organizations, but all the credit goes to God.  For there is no truly good work among human beings, except those God leads His faithful into.  For it is Christ alone who is purely good, and only by our communion with Him can any of us sinners do anything worthy of God’s Kingdom.      

     Today we support and celebrate the work of Richland Opportunities Incorporated, District Two Drug and Alcohol Program, Sunrise Women’s Clinic, and the Richland County Coalition Against Domestic Violence, four local organizations that are going to the man, to the woman, to the child in need in our community, meeting hurting people in the flesh, in order to serve them as best they can.  None of these organizations are Churches.  But that does not mean God is not there, working His mercy, for God has put His children in these organizations.  Where there are Christians, there is Christ, moving them to serve compassionately, and even creating opportunities for them to tell others the reason for the hope we have. 

     And these are by no means the only places where God is delivering incarnational mercy through His people.  Every Christian mother or father, changing a messy diaper, loving and disciplining their child through 18 years and beyond, is God’s instrument of incarnational, in the flesh mercy.  Every Christian who runs a business and works hard to make sure she can keep her people employed for the long run is God’s instrument for service to the neighbor.  Even when you and I are not whole-heartedly thrilled to be helping out a person in need, God overcomes what is weak in us, as He works out His perfect plans. 

     And so we rejoice to see God at work, through the lives of His people.  We rejoice even more at the Good News that our good works don’t save us, our good works aren’t part of what it takes for us to inherit eternal life, so we can do them freely, without fear of failure.  And most of all we rejoice at the love and service and incarnational mercy of God, found in the crucified, resurrected and ever-present Son of God, Jesus Christ, our true Good Samaritan, who has come to the fallen man, all the way to us, to save us and give us life, eternal life, in Jesus’ Name, Amen. 

Sunday, August 18, 2013

The Preaching We Hear

Twelfth Sunday after Trinity, August 18th, Year of Our + Lord 2013
St. John and Trinity Lutheran Churches, Fairview and Sidney, Montana
The Preaching We Hear – Mark 7:31 - 37

     Jesus really works at healing the deaf and mute man in our Gospel this morning, pulling him aside for a private consultation, putting His fingers into the non-working ears, even spitting and touching the mute tongue, sighing and calling to heaven: Be Opened!  Ephphatha, for you Aramaic speakers in the congregation this morning.  Why did Jesus put His fingers into the man’s ears?  Did He need to dig something out first, before He could heal them? 

     Could be.  I can’t say much about what might have been plugging up the ears of a man in Galilee in the year 30 A + D, but consider this about our ears.  There are 168 hours in a week.  According to the American Time Use Survey of 2011, Americans age 15 and over averaged 8.7 hours of sleep per day, which sounds pretty good, a couple more hours a night than I usually get.  Using the average, 8.7 hours per night equates to 61 hours of sleep per week, which leaves 107 waking hours, 107 hours per week when we are hearing, taking in information, talking, and thinking to ourselves, seeing and feeling and processing and reacting to all kinds of input, 107 hours per week to have our faith shaped. 

     Of that 107 hours, how much time do we spend listening to God?  How much of what we hear and see and think and say is good and right and true, and how much is false, contrary to God’s Truth, and harmful to Christian faith?  In terms of the quantity of hearing we do, how much crud might there be in our ears, that Jesus has to dig out first, before He can heal us?   

     Well, let’s keep doing the math.  Let’s say you gather for the Divine Service every week; good for you!  More or less, for 1 hour you hear God’s pure Word, your eyes see and your mind reads His true Scripture, your mouth sings faithful songs, 1 hour of seeing and hearing, confessing and receiving God’s gifts in Word and Sacrament.  Then you head out, for 106 hours of what the world has to say. 

     Coming to Church every Sunday is good, but maybe you’re even more active.  Maybe you stay another hour for Bible study, or Sunday School.  Now the ratio of God’s Word to the world’s word in your life is 2 to 105.  But maybe you’ve started some really good habits, adding another 15 – 20 minutes per day of personal devotions, maybe even using this insert, with its readings and devotions, and the brief order for prayer on the back of this bulletin.  Now your ratio is 4 to 103.  Think of it.  For the every-Sunday worship attendee who adds nothing more, a ratio of 1 to 106.  For the very most devoted among us, 4 hours of hearing God’s Law and Gospel, in and amongst 103 hours of worldly ideas, messages and images.  Perhaps it’s no wonder if Jesus has to stick his fingers into ears to open them up. 

     After all, what is the content of those other 100 + hours?  What does the world preach?  What do our minds think about God, when left to their own devices?  Does the message of Christ alone, of Christ as our only hope, of Christ crucified and resurrected for the sins of the world, does this message fill much of the 100 + hours of worldly and human messages we hear every week?    Not hardly. 

     First of all, the day to day world we live in doesn’t work like the Kingdom of God.  Earthly living is full of working for rewards.  This is fine, but we should be aware that life in this world teaches you that you get what you deserve.  Glory on earth depends on you doing what it takes, on you being the best you can be.  Making it in day to day life is all about you and your works.  Day to day life is all law, all commands and principles that bring rewards, or punishments, depending on how well you follow them.  And that’s fine, for this life.  But God’s Word is very clear – salvation for sinners, entrance into God’s eternal kingdom, comes only by God’s free gift, given to us in Christ Jesus.  Standing before God, you don’t want what you deserve.  You need His free gift.  But, life on earth is not very often about free gifts.  Indeed, as we all learn painfully, worldly things offered for free are almost never truly free.  There’s usually strings attached, hidden costs.  Simply living in this world contradicts the Good News of free salvation in Christ. 

     But at least this part of the world’s messaging might leave you broken and ready to hear some Good News about a Savior who comes to rescue you from your failures and pain.  There is worse preaching out there, worse preaching, like the intentional atheistic preaching the world throws at you, day after day, hour after hour.  Today in our world the denial and mockery of Christianity is rampant.  Mocking the claims of the Bible is standard fall-back material for many stand-up comedians.  Darwinian evolution, which is built on the rejection of God, is the official story forced down our throats in the public school system, from kindergarten through college.  Mockery, insult and accusation of bigotry are the typical responses a confessing Christian receives in popular circles.  And who doesn’t want to be popular?  The favored pseudo-intellectual position in America today is to reject and ridicule Christianity and Christians, and there aren’t any public service campaigns urging us all to stop this kind of bullying.  I dare say you never pass through 100 waking hours without hearing this preaching of godless atheism, many times, from many quarters. 

     The preaching of atheism usually wears a veneer of respectability and intellect.  The peddlers of plain old temptation typically don’t concern themselves with the integrity of their proclamation.  They just tempt, tempting us to lust, by changing clothing fashions little by little, till you can’t walk down the street today without seeing way more of the shape and skin of the opposite sex than you should.  You can hardly play a video game or watch a movie or read a magazine without hearing and seeing just how much fun it supposedly is to give in  to fleshly pleasures, regardless of the consequences.  You know all the slogans:  Just do it.  You only live once.  Don’t miss out on the fun.  How many of your 100 hours are filled with such temptations to lust after momentary pleasures, after booze or drugs, thrills, or violence, pleasures that always end, sooner or later, in sorrow and pain? 

     It almost makes me think being deaf isn’t so much of a curse, spiritually at least.  After all, if I couldn’t hear, or maybe if I couldn’t see well, it would be harder for the world to preach its lies to me.  But that wouldn’t fix our problem, because, in the end, the biggest obstacle to faith is us, our sinful nature, which rejects God’s Law, and His Gospel.  Our rejection might seem naïve – like living in the delusion that “people are basically good, and so God must be pleased with us, at least when we try hard.”   Or, our rejection may be defiant – we may declare “no one, not even God, will tell me what to do.  No one better tell me that my will, my actions, my life aren’t good.  Certainly I’m not going to sit around listening to some preacher who accuses me of being so evil that God had to die to save me.” 

     I can turn off my computer, T.V., and radio.  I can shut out the world and its lies, pretty completely.  But I can’t escape myself, my sinful desire to stroke my ego, and pat myself on the back. I carry around a false preacher in my sinful nature, the Old Adam who plagues me, and you, 100 + waking hours per week, and maybe even preaches lies in our dreams. 

     I’m not sure why exactly, in this particular healing miracle, Jesus touched the man’s ears and spit and touched his tongue.  Scripture doesn’t give us a clear explanation.  And it is important to remember this is a healing miracle, not yet the miracle of salvation by faith alone.  Jesus is helping a deaf-mute man, and, as always, He is also teaching.  I will not downplay the striking fact that Jesus spitting and speaking combines Water with God’s Word.  But still, exactly why Jesus did these strange things is hard to say. 

     Scripture doesn’t explain every detail about this, or many other things.  But Scripture is very clear about the main points.  Our sin-problem is just this bad:  Nothing any sinner could ever do could overcome the chasm that sin has created between God and us.  Our best good deeds do us absolutely no good in being saved.  God had to do it all.  God has to do it all, still. 

     God has to do it all.  And so, because God is love, because God wants to have you with Him forever, God has done it all.  Jesus put His fingers into the deaf-mute man’s ears, showing that He’s willing to get intimately involved in saving us.  But even more, some 30 years earlier, God’s Son showed His commitment to His mission by putting Himself, His divine essence, into human flesh, becoming fully human, by the power of the Holy Spirit, conceived and born of the Virgin Mary, in order that He could bear all human sin and suffering. 

     The deaf-mute man suffered, like so many people, from physical disabilities, unable to hear, and so also, unable to speak rightly.  His suffering was worse than some, but less than others.  For we all suffer from this thing or that thing.  The hard thing, however, about listening to God’s Word is that it tells us, quite plainly, that our sins and sinfulness make it impossible to argue that we don’t ultimately deserve the curses we suffer.  The wages of sin is death, and we are sinners. 

     But God would not have this Word of condemnation be His last Word.  While we each of us sinners bear our particular curses, Jesus, who had no sin, bore all our curses, all our suffering.  The whole point of His life and ministry was so that He could die the death that we all face for our sinfulness, and suffer the punishment we all deserve for our sins.  Now, risen from the dead, having destroyed the power of sin and death that loomed over us, Jesus has Good News – your sins are forgiven; God in Christ has made you worthy to enter His Kingdom, today by faith, and also for eternity.    

     We’d be fools not to hear this preaching as often as possible.  We’d be idiots to let the preaching of the World drown out the Word of God, because it is by His Word that God gives us and sustains in us saving faith in His Son.  But of course all too often we are, each one of us, fools and idiots, neglecting God’s Word, avoiding His services on Sunday, taking for granted His incredible gifts, meanwhile listening to the world’s preaching all too eagerly.  Thanks be to God, salvation doesn’t depend on us achieving a certain ratio of hearing God’s Word vs. hearing the lies of the world.  And thanks be to God, His Word, His Good News, is infinitely more powerful than worldly lies.  God’s Word is divinely powerful, able to wipe away your sin, relieve your guilt, and sustain your faith. 

     If you’d like to build better habits to hear more of God’s good preaching during your week, I’d be very happy to help you.  If you’d like to find ways to still gather with faithful congregations when you travel, I can help you with this as well.  But today, right now, forget your foolishness, and rejoice.  Rejoice, that right now you are on the receiving end of that grace filled chain Paul writes about, God’s chain of sending preachers to preach, so that you can hear, so that hearing, you can believe.  This grace-chain of God is why you are here today, calling on the Name of the Lord. 

     Rejoice that you have been gathered by God here this morning, to hear His promise to you once again:  Ephphatha, be open, your ears, and your heart, to hear and believe the Good News, that God forgives you all your sin, claims you as His child, loves you, and promises to keep you, today, and forever and ever, in Christ Jesus our Crucified and Risen Savior, Amen.