Monday, July 28, 2014

The Fullness of the Blessing of Christ

Sixth Sunday after Trinity – Free Texts
July 27th, Year of Our + Lord 2014
St. John and Trinity Lutheran Churches
Fairview and Sidney, Montana
The Fullness of the Blessing of Christ
Romans 15:29, Isaiah 55:6-13, Matthew 28:16-20

     He’ll never be as good.  Concerning the next pastor of St. John and Trinity, the chances are extremely low that he’ll ever be as good as me, at shooting three pointers on the basketball court, that is. 

     That he may be a better teacher or preacher, that he may work harder or be better looking, these things are quite possible.  That he will be more organized and less messy than me seems almost guaranteed.  H e will have gifts I do not have, and he will serve you just the way you need to be served in the years to come, of these things you should be sure.  But that he’ll be able to dribble off a pick and pull up to drain a twenty footer?  That he will curl off a screen and catch a perfect pass on the move into a knock-down jumper?  I doubt it.  It could happen.  But I know a lot of LCMS pastors, and for most, outside shooting is a gift long forgotten, if they ever had it at all. 

     Thankfully, you don’t need a pastor who can shoot jumpers.  Truth be told, sometimes I go on hot streaks shooting the basketball, and other times, not so much.  Playing basketball has been a valuable avocation for me these last ten years, allowing me an outlet for my competitiveness, and excellent exercise.  But you don’t need a pastor who can shoot hoops.  You need a pastor who will come with the fullness of the blessing of Christ.  And of this, you have great reason for confidence.  That a new pastor to comes to you with the fullness of the blessing of Christ is God’s will, and the Lord has set you up to help this happen in a number of ways, giving you earthly, tangible tools you can use to help insure this happy state of affairs. 

     Before we consider the ways each one of you can help your pastor come with the fullness of the blessings of Christ, it makes sense that we first understand what we’re talking about.  What is the fullness of the blessing of Christ?  When Paul wrote to the Christians in Rome, telling them that he planned to visit them on his way to preach in Spain, the Apostle said he would come to them in the fullness of the blessing of Christ.  A brief aside – there are not very many missionaries today who receive a call to go to a specific place mentioned in the Bible.  Pretty cool.  Not tremendously important, except for the Spaniards of course, but cool. 
     What is important for all people everywhere is to have someone come to them with the fullness of the blessing of Christ.   Everywhere Paul went, he very consciously sought to come in the fullness of the blessing of Christ.  That is, Paul always sought to proclaim the full, radical, 100%-God’s-work Good News, that in the man Christ Jesus, the crucified and resurrected Son of God, sinners have forgiveness and righteousness before God.  In Jesus, there is for every sinner the gift of justification, that is, the declaration that you are not guilty, and so are worthy to stand before God and live with Him forever.  This gift is received by faith, completely apart from our works, when we believe that for Christ’s sake we are forgiven. 

     The fullness of the blessing of Christ is the pure Gospel, the Good News of the free gift of salvation for unworthy sinners, delivered to us today through Word and Sacrament, a work the Lord does simply because God is love.   The Lord delivers the fullness of the blessing of Christ through His Word, which God promises will achieve the results He intends. God causes this to happen through Preaching, Baptism, Absolution and Supper.

     Everyone, everywhere needs this gift, because we are all conceived and born sinful, and we fulfill that sinfulness in our daily lives.  It’s my last Sunday, so I won’t go through  a laundry list of your sins, or mine.  Because you know, and so do I.  If we ever doubt our sinfulness, all we need to do is examine our lives in light of the Ten Commandments, and our sinfulness will become apparent, quickly.  All of us are sinners deserving separation from God, unworthy to dwell in His presence. So everyone needs the fullness of the blessing of Christ.  Thinking of God’s Mission in these terms is especially appropriate for Spain.  In Spain, they have Christ, after a fashion, but the fullness of the blessing of Christ is rarely proclaimed in the land of Don Quixote and Bullfights.   

     In Spain you will see many familiar signs of Christianity.  Crosses, crucifixes, churches, images of Jesus, Christian names, including Jesús, and even many Christian expressions are all very common there.  But while the vast majority of Spaniards would call themselves Christian, their faith is very cultural and not very Biblical, very much part of the background, but rarely delivering the blessings of peace and joy from sins freely forgiven.  While the Roman Church is inextricable from the history and culture of Spain, the truth is most Spaniards are very secular, do not attend Church, and most importantly, do not understand the freedom that Christ offers in the fullness of His blessing.  Even for those Spaniards who are faithful in worship, the adoration of Mary and the Saints and the depressing expectation of purgatory conspire, along with many other false teachings, to hide and drown out the Good News of free and full salvation by grace through faith in Christ alone.   

     And yet there is today a unique opportunity in Spain for Lutheran Mission, because the Spanish have an inbred sense of liturgy, and they do know the history of Christ, especially of His crucifixion and resurrection.  That’s a big deal.  Spaniards may not truly know the Good News, but they can be quickly told about the full blessing, because they know at least the outward form of the Church, and the key events in the ministry of Jesus.  On top of that, life is increasingly hard in Spain, making many people ready for some truly Good News.  There is an opportunity for the Lutheran Mission to Spain to connect by maintaining a good liturgical sense in worship, combined with always declaring the free and full forgiveness of Jesus.  Many Spaniards will, Lord willing, be ready to hear. 

     And it’s really much the same here, in northeast Montana and northwest North Dakota.  Most people around here, both long time and newer residents, will profess to be Christian.  But we also know that for most people this self-identification is cultural more than spiritual, based in family history, or a sense of morality, but not based in the Word of God.  People may know some things about Jesus, but they have heard too many preachers excessively focused on the works-we-must-do, thereby emptying the Gospel of much of its blessing.  Worse, many have been taught by human wisdom to deny the efficacy of God’s Word to do what it says.  Many have been taught to deny that God´s Word can forgive sins in combination with water, despite what the Bible says.  Many have been taken in by the suggestion that God can’t make bread and wine to be also the Body and Blood of Christ, even though Jesus and Paul and the Evangelists all plainly say that the bread is Christ’s body, and the wine is Christ’s blood.  By these errors people are robbed of the comfort that God truly forgives and saves us through His spoken Word. 

     And so we see there is also a unique opportunity for Lutheran Mission here in the MonDak.  Wherever we live, our calling is to proclaim the fullness of the blessings of Christ, without compromising or watering things down.  This is the calling of the Church, the public office of pastors, and the individual calling of every Christian within their daily lives. 

     You have many tools to help you and your next pastor insure that you are all proclaiming the fullness of the blessing of Christ.  You have God´s Holy Word, and you have it rightly explained, briefly in the Small Catechism and at length in the Book of Concord.  You have the full blessings of Christ proclaimed faithfully in hundreds of hymns, and dozens of faithful liturgies, developed and chosen across 20 centuries of Christian history.  You have the right understanding and faithful administration of Holy Baptism and Holy Communion.   

     And, you have each other.  You have each other, and you have other Christian pastors, like your Circuit Visitor Pastor Hageman and your District President Pastor Forke.  You have your combined wisdom in Christ, plus theirs.  You may not always know exactly what is wrong when you hear someone restricting the full blessings of Christ.  But your instincts are good, and you should certainly ask questions.  Many of you have done just this for me, dozens of times, gently correcting me when I began preaching something less than the full truth of Jesus and His Gospel, guiding me back to the path when I was straying. 

     When we listen and ask questions and gently correct one another, when we seek the council of Church leaders, and when we are ourselves open to correction under the Word of God, then we are being led by the Spirit to maintain the fullness of the blessing of Christ in our midst.         

     We all need help.  We all need each other to stay on the narrow way of Christ´s Gospel, because in each one of us remains a self-righteous, proud sinner who does not want the full blessings of Jesus.  Our reason, our emotions and our pride conspire to twist the good news of free salvation into an achievement, a work we do, with God’s help.  As strange as it may seem, in our sinfulness, each one of us looks for ways to take some credit, to add at least the last 1% to the salvation equation, so we can boast in ourselves. 

     Perhaps we celebrate our baptism in the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, but we reject that we also need all the things Jesus commanded His Apostles, things like daily forgiveness, daily hearing and growing in His Word, regular dining at His table of forgiveness, daily confession and absolution.  It is the self-righteous sinner in each of us who says:  “I’m a Christian already.  Quit talking about the Cross and sin and grace all the time, I don’t need that anymore.”     Of course we do.  

     We all need more than the right tools.  As good and right as it is for all of us to know the pure Gospel, to understand the reality of sin and the necessity of living from the promises of Christ, as precious as these things are, they still aren’t enough.  We have all the right tools, and yet we are still so prone to wandering away.  We need more.   We need more than just having the right teaching, and thanks be to God, Jesus gives us more, by giving us Himself. 

     We do need and we do have the right teaching, the right understanding, captured in Scripture, Catechism and Hymnal.  But just having the Truth, just possessing the right teaching of God’s Law and Gospel is still not quite enough.  For if we must apply it to ourselves, if we must use these tools to keep ourselves in the faith, we will, sooner or later, lose the battle.  Having the doctrine, having the right teaching, clearly explained, as precious as it is, is not yet the fullness of the blessing of Christ.  You don’t just need to have the Gospel, you need the Gospel, applied to your soul.  You need someone to plant it in your heart, to take away your fear, to forgive you and lift you up.  Pastors and people all need the same thing.  To believe that the fullness of the blessing of Christ is really ours, and for us to endure in this faith, we need Christ Himself to come and give us faith. 

      And so He does.  We should really be taking off our shoes when we gather for worship, or when we pick up the Catechism, or pause in our homes to read God’s Word and pray.  For whenever we take up the Word of Christ, we are standing on Holy Ground, for then God is truly in our midst, invisible, but truly present with His nail scarred hands and feet, trophies of mercy in His glorified body.  Jesus promised His disciples, “Whoever hears you, hears Me.”  The Word of the Lord that He sends out may pass through human lips, but the Spirit of God goes with it, empowering it to achieve His goals.  This is the good news of the promise Jesus made as He was about to ascend into heaven and leave the sight of the Eleven.  Jesus promised them, and you, “Behold, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.” 

      And so it is not us saving ourselves when we speak the Truth of Christ to each other, but rather, God moves us to speak the Truth, and then God truly re-creates our hearts through those true words, through the water, through the bread and wine.  Through these means, Jesus comes and delivers the goods, His full blessing, His new life.   

     And so you are forgiven, you are a child of God, not because I say so or you say so, but because, through my speaking, and your speaking, through the hymns we sing, through the meal we share, and through the mutual consolation of brothers and sisters in Christ, Jesus Himself is speaking to you, forgiving you, and blessing you. 

     Rest and rejoice in the fullness of Christ’s blessing, today, tomorrow, and forever and ever, Amen.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Of Ants, and God, and Men

Of Ants, and God, and Men

We prayed for a just end to the fighting in Gaza and the Ukraine on Sunday.  I hope you did too.  And Iraq.  Facebook profile pictures are changing all across the web as Christians realize the horrors happening to our brothers and sisters there, suffering from the evil of Isis.  The world is all too often a violent and evil place, we are reminded once again. 

But we don’t need to go anywhere at all to see violence.  As I type, a bitter struggle to the death is winding down on my patio.  A large red fly is now being carried off by tiny brown ants, after a twenty minute hand-to-hand duel to the death.  Well, I guess mouth-to-mouth duel would be more accurate.  When I glanced up from my reading and noticed the battle, the fly seemed like it might escape.  Twenty or thirty times more massive than its opponents, the fly seemed almost to be breaking free from the two ants who clung by their jaws to the end of his long, thin, segmented body.  A third ant attacked the head, occasionally taking a Ferris-wheel ride on an antenna as the fly flopped from side to side.  Random ants crisscrossing my patio joined the attack and left it, but at least one ant always held on to the fly’s tail, and slowly, over the course of ten minutes, the fly’s strength began to fail.  I would probably need a microscope to see them, but I suppose their bodies, attackers and victim, are covered with bites and bruises, wounds perhaps inflamed by whatever venom ants and flies carry. 

I was mesmerized.  This was not a made-up battle royale staged by stuntmen or CGI technicians.  Tiny, and silent to my ears, nevertheless, the violence and the death were real.  My hopelessly self-centered mind marveled at the courage and teamwork and tenacity, imagining a nobility in the spectacle, in the valiant resistance of the fly, and the grim determination of the ants.  Upon just a moment’s reflection, I realize I assume these things with no solid basis.  Did the combatants experience fear?  Or are insects feeling-less machines, who run strictly on instinct until their life ends?  I have no idea.  I do know they fought for their lives, and one life ended.  Violence and death are real. 

And violence and death are everywhere.  God in his mercy restrains most human violence, including preventing me from tearing into the boorish lout who offends me in the grocery store.  God restrains me through laws and police and the voice of my parents in my head, and maybe even through my life experiences, since I’ve come to be friends with many at-first-difficult people.  But violence and death are by no means exceptional.  Living in a happy household, enjoying peace and prosperity, it takes an Ant-vs-Fly death match to remind me.  Living with a brute, or in the inner-city, or Iraq or the Ukraine today, the reminders come more often, and in human form.

As I watched the insect war on my patio, I was slightly reminded of David vs. Goliath, except David was all by himself, no brothers in arms.  Then, being a Lutheran, my look-for-Christ-everywhere mind thought of how the Son of God was killed by puny men, so that the men could live, which is in a sense what happened to the fly, who will be a wonderful meal for the anthill.  (Do ants celebrate when a giant fly is drug up the slope to the entrance?)  But of course, the metaphor breaks down quickly, because, outwardly and effectively, Jesus wasn’t bigger and stronger than His foes.  In essence He was and is bigger and stronger than any foe, of course, since He is God.  But He emptied Himself, taking on the form of an ant, and using none of His almighty power to defend Himself from the swarms of ants who attacked from all sides.  The One Man who could have won every battle gave Himself up, in order to save the very ones who were bent on destroying Him.  There is no comparison for this mystery in all the universe. 

Just as there is no comparison for the Resurrection.  The fly is being digested, even as I type.  Dead men don’t rise.  But Jesus did, because He is the eternal Son of God.  And in His rising we find the only permanent solution to violence and death, in the forgiveness of all our sins.  The wolf will dwell with the lamb, and the lion with the fatted calf, because of the little child who leads them, the child who has put his hand into the pit of vipers, that is, the Child, the Son of Mary, who threw His whole being into the pit of human sin and hatred, in order to take all the venom into Himself.  In Him, and Him alone, there is hope for violent men like me and you, and the promise of a new heavens and a new earth, where they will hurt and harm no more, forever, Amen. 

Monday, July 21, 2014

At Your Word I Will

Fifth Sunday after Trinity, July 20th, Year of Our + Lord 2014
Trinity and St. John Lutheran Churches, Sidney and Fairview, Montana
At Your Word I Will – 1 Kings 19:9-21, 1 Corinthians 1:18-25, Luke 5:1-11

            Talk is cheap, or so it is said.  At first, I was going to make that, ‘or so they say,’ but part of the problem of talk being cheap is the hearers not knowing who the talker is.  “Or so they say’ is not helpful.  Is ‘they’ everyone, or the authorities, the experts, or some gal who talks so much she seems like many people?  Or, am I saying ‘or so they say’ sarcastically, putting down the value of the saying, by repeating an overused expression?  To use ‘or so it is said’ isn’t much better, but at least I’m admitting I don’t really know who is speaking. 

            Because talk really isn’t cheap.  But rather its value depends very significantly on the identity of the talker.  Who is speaking the words I hear, and whether I know that identity, these two facts go a very long way to helping me understand how much stock I should put into the words I hear. 

            Take for example, the statement: “Sally loves Billy.”  That sounds good to Billy, but who said it?  Did that punk Jimmy, who can mimic Sally’s handwriting, put those words in a note and pass it around biology class?  Or did those words come through the soft lips that are part of the same beautiful face as Sally’s incredible green eyes?  Did Sally, who is a pretty good judge of what Sally thinks, look Billy in the eyes and say, “I love you”?  Or did Billy, in his lovesick, fevered mind imagine she said it, imagining those words so often, he’s convinced himself it’s true?  Or is Sally loving Billy just what ‘they say,’ the baseless opinion of the crowd, which knows neither her heart, mind or words? 

            We tend to think talk is cheap, because so much of what we hear is unreliable.  And yet we also know that very often talk is the most valuable thing, the most cherished thing, like the value of hearing the voice of a loved one you thought was lost or injured, saying, “I’m o.k.”  Or there’s the value of the talk of Sally and Billy, thirty, forty, or even fifty years into their life together, a husband and wife who practice the boring and yet also priceless habit of telling each other, every day, face to face, “I love you,” words backed up not by perfection, but backed up by consistency, service, humility and forgiveness. 

            We cannot perfect our love, nor our consistency, service, humility, or forgiveness.  But we rightly cherish these things in our relationships, because they are shadows of the perfect love that we all innately desire.  They are also words that bring to mind the Lord and God who is revealed in the man Jesus Christ.  The importance of words and their source is for us a shadow of God. 

            When you think about it, words, patterns of waves created in the air that strike our eardrums, sounds that only have meaning by common consent, such lowly things ought not have so much importance.  But they do.  They say, “Sticks and stones can break my bones, but words can never hurt me,” but ‘they’ are dead wrong.  Words are powerful, the greater power being found in the greater speakers.  If we could work our way back up the ranking of speakers, from the least to the greatest, we would at the end find ourselves before the Word of God. 

            Which is what happened to Elijah, and Paul, and Peter.  We poor, miserable sinners cannot work our way up through the ranking of speakers to find God, so God sends His Word down to us. 

            Elijah was hiding on Mt. Horeb, also called Mt. Sinai, the mountain of God, the same place God met Moses in the burning bush, and also gathered Israel to give them the Ten Commandments.  There on Mt. Horeb, at the entrance to a cave, the prophet Elijah came face to face with the Speaker, with the Word of God, who came not in a mighty rushing wind or an earthquake, or in the fire, but in a small whisper, speaking words of comfort and promise, and commission. 

            Paul, heading down the road to Damascus to arrest and perhaps kill more Christians, came face to face with the Word of God, the ascended and glorious Christ, asking Paul “Why are you persecuting Me, by persecuting My people?” 

            Simon Peter, having heard the teaching of Jesus and having followed the simple instructions to try one more time for a catch of fish, realized he was in the presence of the Word of God and fell on his knees in the boat, begging pardon for his sinfulness.  And Jesus said, “Fear not.”  Jesus assured Peter his sins would not be held against him, that Peter had been chosen by God and would be used by Him, to teach and preach the very same Word that had just given comfort and peace to his terrified heart.  “From now on, Peter, you will be catching men.” 

            We base our teaching and confession on Scripture alone, because Scripture is the Word of God, the Word of Jesus, and the Word of Jesus is reliable.  ‘He said’ is completely reliable when the ‘He’ is God in the flesh, Jesus Christ.  For Elijah and Peter in our readings this morning, the ultimate basis of that reliability was as yet a future event, centuries in the future for Elijah, about three years for Peter.  The Word of God to Elijah and Peter was true, and powerful, but it was not fully revealed, not fully accomplished before the eyes of humanity. 

            But for Paul in our Epistle today, telling the Corinthians about the Word of the Cross, as also for you, the ultimate foundation of the authority and reliability of the Word, the reason you can and should stake everything on the Word of God, is a revealed and accomplished-in-human-history fact.  For the Jesus who spoke to Paul, converting Him to Christianity and making him into the Church’s greatest missionary, is the Jesus who bears the scars of the Cross in His own glorified body.  The Jesus who spoke to Paul, and who speaks to you today, is the Jesus who delivered on all the threats and promises of God, not by wreaking destruction and woe on us sinners, but rather by accepting all the wrath of God onto Himself, dying once for all, so that in His resurrection, you can believe, and rejoice, that the Word of God to you is “fear not.”  The Word of God in Christ is “God loves you, forgives you, is with you now and looks forward to having you with Him, face to face, in joy and glory, forever.”   This is not what “they say.” This is “Thus sayeth the Lord.”  This is what God has said, and done. 

            Peter does an amazing thing in that boat turned into a pulpit.  Peter says: Master, at Your Word I will.  Peter gives us the good example, showing us how to live.  Peter makes time to hear the Word of Jesus, setting aside his work, literally loaning his workroom to Jesus as a place from which to preach.  Then Peter sits, and listens to Jesus.  Well, I assume he sat, since standing in a boat is tricky.  Regardless, sitting or standing, something in the Words of Jesus made an impression on Peter.  And so, despite the seeming foolishness of Jesus’ suggestion that they let down the nets and try again, Peter hears the Lord’s command and says, “At Your Word, I will.”  Convinced by Jesus’ Words that the foolishness of God is wiser than men, Peter lets down the nets, and receives a miraculous catch of fish. 

            We too, need to set aside our work, and sit, and listen to Jesus, as we have done today.  And, at the Word of Jesus, we should say ‘I will,’ and do whatever God tells us.  But we don’t.  Not fully, not very often.  We can’t quite trust enough.  We usually falter at the edge of action.  We really want Sally to love Billy, like she promised, and for Billy to love Sally, like he promised.  We want to see that love lived out, and Sally and Billy want that too.  But we all know how hard that is in the long run.  If they don’t have a well of forgiveness to draw on, the risk is high that Billy and Sally’s words and love will not endure.  And this, sadly, applies to every promise we make.  In promising to do what we say, especially in promising to do the will of God, our talk is cheap.  We should still make and keep promises, but we cannot completely rely on anyone’s promises. 

            Except One.  There is One who said it and did it, every time.  There is One who heard the Word of God, who heard His Father say, “Put down the nets for a catch,” and replied, “At Your Word, I will.”  Jesus shares His Father’s will from eternity, so, when He heard the command, “Go, catch me a great catch of fish,” Jesus did it.  Jesus did it, and does it today, and will continue doing it until the boat of His Church is completely filled.  Jesus is the Fisherman.  The net Jesus casts is His own Body, arms spread out on the Cross to catch all our sins.  Jesus spread out His arms because the catch the Father desires is sinners, sinners in need of forgiveness, dying people in need of new life. 

            The result?  After all the casting of nets, which is the proclamation of Christ, and after all the squirming of those fish, which is our ongoing sin, after all the Word of Jesus is spoken, for however long it takes, then comes the harvest of salvation, forever and ever. 

            Jesus has been speaking His Word to Makyya and Milanya, and they were publicly caught into the net of His Body today, through Holy Baptism.  Sorry to say, they will wiggle and squirm and try to get out of God’s net.  They will still sin, and suffer from sin in their lives.  But the Fisherman, the Talker, Jesus, the One whose Word is completely reliable, is drawing them in, and He will not stop.  When they sin, when you sin, when I sin, Jesus speaks to us again, calling us on our sin.  Jesus reproaches us and warns us of the punishment our sin deserves.  Do not think you can hide your sins from Jesus.  Do not think that because the world says something isn’t a sin, Jesus goes along with what “they say.”  God hates sin, and so when you sin, when you ignore and break His Law, you are in danger of squirming out of His net, and back into the sea of condemnation.  

             God hates sin.  But He still loves you, so Jesus speaks to you again, granting you repentance through His Law.  Jesus by His Holy Spirit brings you to repentance, brings you to sorrow for and fear your sin, and to desire to do better.  Jesus brings you to repentance, so that He can then deliver once again to you His salvation, delivered through His Gospel, the Good News of the Absolution, the completely reliable forgiveness of God, delivered to you through His Word.
           Fear not, God has caught you.  In Jesus, the Word made flesh, the Word of God to you is “I love you, forever and ever,” 

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen. 

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Go for the Bronze

Fourth Sunday after Trinity, June 13th, Year of Our + Lord 2014
Trinity and St. John Lutheran Churches, Sidney and Fairview, Montana
Go for the Bronze – Luke 6:36-42

     Did you know there’s an eleventh commandment?  I’m not sure where to find it, maybe in 2nd Hezekiah.  But, apparently, given Jesus’ words to us today, at some point, He gave one more law:  Thou shalt have no pieces of wood in the eye.  God apparently hates wood in the eye.  He wants our eyes to be cellulose fiber free. 

      So, then, you just happen to notice your neighbor has a speck of sawdust in his eye.  That may not seem like much, but God has spoken:  Thou shalt have no pieces of wood in the eye.  And so, to obey God, because He hates to see wood in our eyes, to obey God, and of course to also love your neighbor, you offer to take the speck of sawdust out of your neighbor’s eye, because you want to help.   How loving of you! 

     Very well, says Jesus, but first, maybe you should do something about that telephone pole sticking out of your own eye.  Before you can be of any use to another person who has a speck of sawdust in their eye, God says you must first confess and address the log that is in your own eye.  In this word, Jesus teaches us the priorities of Christian living, and Christian relations.  God comes first, the real needs of my neighbors come second, and I come third.  Or, to put in terms of Olympic medals, the life of Christian love means no gold for me, that belongs to Jesus, nor even silver, that’s for my brothers and sisters.  I’m aiming for the bronze. 

     Go for the bronze, and watch out for that demon, hypocrisy.  We like to pretend that when we try to fix the sins we think we have observed in our neighbors, we do this from the generosity of our heart.  But Jesus warns us, and our consciences agree, that all too often we start correcting others in order to puff ourselves up, to make ourselves look better than those other sinners.  We may feel a need to puff ourselves up, because we doubt our standing with God, because of our sins.  We doubt our standing with God, and we think we can win some points with Him, relatively painless points for us, by doing what we assume is His work: going around, fixing people.  Our motives and our self-awareness are both pretty shaky in these matters.  “I only meant to help.”  We may not easily recognize when we do this to others, but we certainly recognize it when it’s happening to us.  Lord willing, the Spirit will help us better recognize our hypocrisy before we stick our thumb into our brother’s eye. 

     Go for the bronze, because it’s more than you deserve.  We are right that sin is the problem, but we are starting in the wrong place.  Just before his death, perhaps driven to look inside himself by the failure of his mortal body, Luther summed up our worthiness with these words: “We are beggars still.”  Now, this was not some down-in-the-mouth whining, “please God, oh, poor me.”  No, Luther was simply speaking truthfully about his own sinful unworthiness before God.  Luther, like all of us sinners,  could claim no personal worthiness before God.  None.  Now, in Christ, we have all things, and no one could rejoice more eloquently than Luther when the topic was the riches of our inheritance in Jesus.  But, in this life, we also need to remember that being on God’s team is entirely an undeserved gift, the Lord’s selection of an unworthy teammate, forgiven and restored by grace.  When we forget this truth about ourselves, it is never long before we are prowling around, looking for a neighbor’s eye to purge of sawdust. 

      Go for the bronze.  Actively seek to exalt Christ as champion, and your neighbor as better than you.  Go for the bronze, because it’s right; Christ is certainly the champion.  Jesus, the crucified and resurrected Son of God is the once for all Savior, our champion who fought sin, death and the devil, and won.  Christ is the gold-medal winner, and so we should honor Him.  And your neighbors come into the silver medal, because Jesus says so.  Christ has told us to honor and serve Him, by honoring and serving our neighbors.  Think about it.  God doesn’t need our help and service for Himself; He’s God.  But our neighbor does need our love and service, and God is pleased to have us serve them, in His Name.  This is, in the end, simply being who you are.  For God made you, re-created you even, in His own image, which means He created you to love and serve your neighbors, because God is love, always loving and serving His neighbors.  This loving work He seeks to do through you.  Go for the bronze.

     Go for the bronze, and, (spoiler alert), you will discover that seeking gold for Christ and silver for your neighbors ends up being the best thing for you, including in this life.  Our fearful, sinful hearts think we need to protect and hoard and serve only ourselves.  But it truly is better to give than to receive.  The fulfilled and joyful life is the life lived not in fear and selfishness, but rather in freedom and generosity.  Go for the bronze.   

     Going for the bronze is certainly good advice for me, and for Shelee, as we head off to Spain.  Sidney and Fairview were fairly easy fits for us, both of us being from the West, me growing up just a ways upstream on the Yellowstone in Forsyth.  We knew the lay of the land, the local way of speaking, and how people interact here.  We were not dealing with any significant culture shock, and so were not prone to overstepping hidden lines.   And besides, Trinity and St. John had been vacant long enough, you were willing to put up with a lot.  Good thing, too. 

     But now, we will be dealing with LCMS Inc., a bunch of largely Midwestern people, who think and talk funny.  Even more, we’ll be relating to them from a distance, over the phone and in e-mails, with no ability to shake hands and smile and read body language for clues that we are trampling on a neighbor.  We’ll also be working with supporting congregations and individuals, from all over the place, people who are concerned and excited to support our mission, but also who may feel they are taking a risk, supporting us.  Most especially, in Spain, we will be interacting with Spaniards, Lutheran Spaniards, and others to whom we hope to tell about the joy of being Lutheran.  With all of these new Spanish neighbors, we especially need to demonstrate humility and courtesy.  Because we will not be serving Christ and His Gospel if we come across as high and mighty. 

     Everything Lutheran in Spain is new.  It would be easy to come across as know-it-alls, as if we thought we were better than the Spanish Lutherans.  In reality, we will learn much from them.  They have, by becoming Lutherans, lived through a significant leap of faith from their own culture, a leap of faith Shelee and I know nothing about.  We also might hear things that seem flat out wrong and sinful to us, but which we simply don’t understand, because we don’t yet fully have a handle on the Spanish language.   Certainly, in relation to the typical Spaniard we will meet, if we want the privilege of actually talking with them about the pure Gospel of free and full forgiveness, we need to avoid thinking of them as lowly, and ourselves as holy.  We are going to help as we are able, but also to learn and grow, to love our new Spanish neighbors, and in all things to put Christ and His Gospel first.  Pray for us, that we will be daily checking our own eyeballs for logs, and not taking a magnifying glass to our Spanish neighbors.      

     Going for the bronze is good advice for me, and Shelee, and also for you, as you head into a vacancy.  There will be a vacancy pastor and a circuit counselor to relate to, neighbors who are taking on extra work for your sake and the sake of the Gospel.  There will be a secretary and organists, directors and elders and ushers taking on decisions that for the last ten years they could discuss with me.  Sometimes they will be able to get their questions answered by the circuit counselor or the vacancy pastor.  Sometimes they will just need to do what seems best to them.  There will be bumps in the road, and great opportunities for people to be upset about those bumps.  You can allow yourselves to get frustrated.  You can decide to take things into your own hands, even if nobody asked you.  Or you can complain, but do nothing , or even quit attending.  None of these options are good.  There will be great temptation to forget Christ and His Word, and trample your neighbor.  Don’t do that.  Go for the bronze.  Hear and ponder on Christ and His Gospel, and think of the needs and struggles of your brothers and sisters, and remember your own sins, the planks in your eye that keep you from seeing clearly, the planks that keep you from truly serving your neighbor. 

     If we forget, here or in Spain, to go for the bronze, it will become like the blind leading the blind, no one knowing exactly where we’re going, unable to see the path, a rising sense of fear welling up in our throats, until everyone falls into a pit.  If we decide to go for the silver, (forget my neighbor, it’s just me and Jesus), or if we even dare go for the gold for ourselves, we will quickly leave God’s Word behind, and lose its grace and power.  If we seek for our neighbors at best the bronze, or maybe a participation ribbon, we will blindly wander off into who-knows-what mischief. 

     But it’s not really a question of ‘if,’ is it?  Rather we should say “When we forget,"  when we forget to go for the bronze, when we fail to put Christ and His Gospel first, when we fail to serve and love our neighbors.  When we find ourselves with our fat fingers gouging into our poor neighbor’s eye, while the reputation of the our Savior Jesus is dragged through the mud, we must repent.  Stop.  Apologize.  Confess our sins. 

      Repent, and remember, Jesus is the champion who has never forgotten you.  He knows all about the kinds of wood that fill and blind your eyes, so He hung on the wood of Calvary, to open your eyes to His love.  He is your Gold Medal Champion, who put himself not second, not third, but rather put Himself dead last, in order to save you.   Jesus willingly stepped off into the pit of hell, eyes wide open, so that he could rescue us from all the pits we stumble into, the pits of pride and conflict in this life, and the ultimate pit of sorrow, separated from God forever, suffering with Satan in the pit of Hell.  Jesus has destroyed the power of Satan, and torn down the doors of Hell.  Jesus is the perfect loving servant who has loved you to death, and to new life, through your Baptism.  In Him, you and I are champions, forgiven, restored, guaranteed a place with God in eternity, and blessed to receive a foretaste of the feast to come, in His Supper of forgiveness. 

      In Christ we are free to put Him and our neighbor before ourselves, free to go for the bronze, because our crown of gold is already laid up for us, in heaven.

 In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, Amen.

Sunday, July 6, 2014

The Difficulty and Joy of God's Mission

Third Sunday after Trinity, July 6th, Year of Our + Lord 2014
St. John and Trinity Lutheran Churches, Fairview and Sidney, Montana
The Difficulty and the Joy of God’s Mission – Luke 15:1-32

     It’s hard to be involved in God’s Mission.    What?     You think I’m referring to myself?  No, I’m not talking about me.  Not at least, any more than I’m talking about you.  But before we get carried away arguing about who’s in mission, first let’s just consider some of the difficulties those involved face.  Let’s consider the Searcher that Jesus describes in the three part parable He tells the Pharisees, because they don’t like Him hanging out, and even eating, with sinners.    
     Jesus describes the joy in heaven over one sinner who repents, and at first, the mission doesn’t seem too unpleasant.  If you have 10 silver coins and you lose one in your house, wouldn’t you have energy and enthusiasm for sweeping and cleaning and finding it?  I’ve even heard of messy people who rejoice a little when they have to stop and pick up in order to find something important, rejoicing because of all the other missing things they find along the way.  And maybe because it’s the only way they ever really clean up their study.  I’m not suggesting the woman in Jesus’ parable was messy, but if being involved in God’s Mission simply requires a little housecleaning, well, how hard is that?  Things do seem a little whacky in Jesus’ calculus of course.  What percentage of the value of that silver coin did the woman spend on the party she threw for her friends and neighbors?  But hey, it’s Jesus’ parable, let’s just marvel at the celebration over one found coin!

     The lost sheep seems a little more odious.  Who knows where a wandering critter might get itself, or how long the shepherd might have to look?  But still, animals are loveable, often easier to love than people.  They may frustrate us, by getting lost or by getting into trouble, but it’s hard to blame that on them.  If we understand, as the Bible teaches, that every bad thing in the world flows from the sin that our first parents committed, then we can also remember that it really isn’t, ultimately, the animal’s fault.   People are sinners; the fallenness of the world is our fault, not the animals’.  Between their lovability and our responsibility, it’s not hard to imagine going above and beyond to rescue a beloved animal.  In fact, many of you have probably done some pretty crazy things to help out one of your animals. 
     Cleaning up the house to find a lost coin doesn’t make being involved in God’s Mission seem too bad.  Seeking a lost sheep is a little more difficult, yes, but still, not unthinkable.  And, given the stakes, I think we’re up for it.  But what about Jesus’ third example?  What about an ungrateful child?  How happy are we to sacrifice for a person to whom we have already poured out our love, who then thanks us with betrayal and scorn?  Think of what the younger brother does.  What does it mean to demand to receive your inheritance?  Don’t we usually inherit when our parents die?  Isn’t the younger son’s request the same as wishing his father dead? 

     I think most of us have been involved in family squabbles, large and small.  Is there anything more hurtful that the injuries we incur from our blood relatives?  And yet, as Jesus describes God’s Mission, He describes a father who not only doesn’t take offense at his son’s insult, but who gives and gives, and says good bye, and then stands on the edge of the road whenever he has a minute, staring longingly into the distance, hoping to see the figure of his lost son, walking back home.  Are those involved in God’s Mission supposed to stand around, looking and longing and praying that those who betray the family of God would somehow be moved to come home, and then throw a party when they do? 
     Yes.  Like I said, it’s hard to be involved in God’s Mission, because there are real sins in this world, real hurts.  Being in Mission means we will be involved in overcoming sins and hurts, and part of us doesn’t want to have anything to do with that.  It is hard to be involved in God’s Mission, and I don’t refer to myself any more than I am speaking of you.  You don’t have to be boxing up your stuff to go to Spain to be involved in God’s Mission.  All of us are involved in God’s Mission.  The question is how well we understand the Mission, and our role in it. 

     All of us are involved in the Mission of God, and the first thing to know and remember is this:  God’s Mission belongs to God.  Indeed, we can quibble, as some do, about who should receive the title “Missionary”, but everyone of you is involved in God’s Mission, because first and foremost, every baptized believer is on the receiving end of God’s Mission.  For it is His mission, not ours.  Yes, He works through His Church, through forgiven sinners like Paul, and you, and me, but it is always Him.  As Paul wrote, no one can say, “Jesus is Lord, except by the Holy Spirit.”  Luther, being German, explains the same truth with more words:  I believe that I cannot by my own reason or strength believe in Jesus Christ, my Lord, or come to Him;  but the Holy Spirit has called me by the Gospel, enlightened me with His gifts, sanctified and kept me in the true faith.  In the same way He calls, gathers, enlightens, and sanctifies the whole Christian church on earth and keeps it with Jesus Christ in the one true faith. In this Christian church He daily and richly forgives all my sins and the sins of all believers.  On the Last Day He will raise me and all the dead, and give eternal life to me and to all believers in Christ. This is most certainly true.
     And so yes, being in God’s Mission does require searching, and taking big risks, and even humbling oneself, and these are the works Jesus did.  Jesus did far more than sweep up the house looking for a coin.  Your Savior took on a lot more trouble than heading out into the pastures to look for a lost sheep.  Your Redeemer’s humbling was far more humiliating than that of a father, looking the fool, standing on the edge of the road, waiting for a lousy son to come home.  Jesus is the Searcher, the real Missionary, who left His rightful place in glory, entering into this fallen world, entering into our flesh, in order to pay for our sins.  God’s Mission, to have a people of His own from the likes of us, requires first and foremost forgiveness, and so that is exactly what Jesus has done.  He has come and won forgiveness, by becoming the sinner, judged and punished by His Father, in our place. 

     This blood bought forgiveness is the background of the story of the loving father and the lousy sons.  In fact, this parable makes little sense apart from the work of Christ on the Cross, where He atoned for the sins of the whole world.  An earthly father with such sons, one who resents him and the other who takes half his property and runs away, such an earthly father would, it seems, hardly have a fattened calf left to sacrifice.  In normal human society there would be a backlash to the father’s excessive generosity, a lawsuit by the older brother, or perhaps a competency hearing pursued by the wife since the old man is clearly losing his mind. 

     If the younger son’s plan had unfolded, if he had finished his well rehearsed speech, and offered to become a hired man, ready to work for a place in the household, that would have made some sense.  Yes, make him a hired hand, put him to work.  And maybe, maybe someday we’ll consider him one of the family again, after he has proven himself and paid his debt.  But the father doesn’t allow that.  Before the younger son can get to his offer, as soon as the father hears him confess his sin and his sorrow, immediately all is forgiven, all is forgotten.  The time to rejoice and celebrate has come, as if someone had risen from the dead. 

     Someone has risen from the dead.  What else could possibly be the basis for such forgiveness, such generosity, and joy?  Only the eternal and infinite love of God, poured out in Jesus Christ, creating the way for sinners to be saved.  This has been God’s Mission Plan from the beginning, for only the work of Jesus on the Cross, only the Resurrection which revealed the once for all sacrifice is complete, only that one, horrible, beautiful, eternity changing event could justify such wanton forgiveness. 

   The lavish forgiveness the father had for his two lousy sons is also God’s forgiving love for you.  The saying is trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the foremost. Our merciful God is beyond comprehension.  As Micah the prophet asked:  Who is a God like you, pardoning iniquity, and passing over transgression, for the remnant of his inheritance?   He will again have compassion on us;  He will tread our iniquities under foot.  O Lord, You have cast all our sins into the depths of the sea.

     Jesus really does bring good news, doesn’t He?  Jesus brings good news, and yet, we are so prone to forget, so prone to see our pastor in the grocery store and feel guilty because we haven’t been in Church.  We are so prone to see a sinner coming home to God and think, like the older brother, “who does he think he is, seeking forgiveness?” We are so prone to see the sins we have fallen into and allow our shame to keep us away from God and His Church. 

     It is hard, being involved in God’s Mission, because each one of us is a sinner, and because the people to whom God sends us are sinners too, and the devil and the world are busy trying to make us believe anything but the truth about God and His great Missionary Love. 

     But do not worry, do not despair.  The mission of finding and forgiving sinners is God’s Mission, His great desire, the Holy One seeking unholy sinners, doing whatever it takes to find you and me and bring us back home. 

     You and I are involved in God’s Mission, both as recipients, and also as agents, members of the Body of Christ sent into our daily lives, to be used by Him to tell of His love.  You and I are involved in God’s Mission, and as we go, there are two things in particular for us to remember.  First, the Mission of God is all about forgiveness.  Not power, not popularity, not an appearance of holiness, but forgiveness.  Now, it takes truth to get to forgiveness, it takes Law to get to Gospel, but always remember that God desires to deliver mercy.    Remember God’s Mission is about forgiveness, and second, remember it is God’s Mission; we’re just blessed to be caught up in it.  God has delivered His Mission to us, so we can go with freedom and confidence, sticking closely to His plan, which is to simply tell, and invite, and pray, and then rejoice with the angels in heaven over sinners repenting,

In Jesus’ Name, Amen.