God At Work
Ecclesiastes 1:1-2, 12-14; 2:18-26 // Colossians 3:1-11 // Luke 12:13-21
Dear Christian friends,
I haven’t been an old man yet, but I’m moving toward it. To everyone who says I look like I’m just out of high school, I say, first, Thank you, and then, I’m working on it, one day at a time. My mom asked me if I would be a grumpy old man or a cheerful old man, and I told her it’d depend on the day. Today, we find that our texts ask and answer the questions of those reaching the end of their life.
Do you ask any of those questions? Erik Erikson would have you believe that those in their twenties struggle with the question “Who am I? What will I do?” They hope to find their identity in their relationships and in their work. Those in their 40’s struggle with the question, “What am I doing? Am I just being busy, or am I doing something good?” Those in their 60’s and beyond are concerned with their legacy, the product of everything they labored so long to do. They ask the questions of our text for today, “What, if any, lasting legacy do I have?” They have a legacy problem.
You look back at the end of your life and you wonder what good you have done, what legacy you’ve built, what lasting impression you’ve made on the world. You might think about the many people you’ve met or the goals you accomplished. Some people long for the good old days, at the end of their life they look at their past with rose-tinted glasses. They only see the good times, only the easy nights, only the sunny days.
Others look at their legacy in the opposite way, whatever the opposite of rose-tinted is. They see their life as a sad series of failures culminating in the slow decline of death. They regret their parenting. They regret their children. They regret their choices. If they could do it all over again, they’d do it differently. But both look back and say that legacy is important.
Perhaps you’re wondering and worrying over the legacy of your years. Perhaps you’re only beginning on the work of a lifetime. Maybe you dream you can change the world. Some of you, no doubt, have left your mark. Others of you, no doubt will leave your mark. Some of us wish to have the very longest of life, only to find our sad fate is the bury everyone we’ve ever loved. Others, no doubt, wish for one more day, one more year to hang on.
But our passage from Luke and from Ecclesiastes would agree; our first truth for today is that the rich have the same (enduring) problem as the poor, that we have a legacy problem. Jesus takes us through a parable about the kind of man who’s living a blessed life. He had a farm that grew good crops, so that he could build barns so that he could grow more crops, so he could build bigger barns so that he could grow even more crops, and then life takes a turn for the even better. He has a bumper crop kind of a year and he needs even bigger barns, when in the prime of life his time is up. When life seemed to be going about as good as it could, it was all taken away. He found that in the end, in the face of death, all that made his life a good life became meaningless.
Ecclesiastes says the same thing. Solomon writes, Meaningless, meaningless, vanity, vanity. The word that he uses there is Hevel; it means the opposite of weighty, flimsy to the point of being just breath. “The wise person has his eyes in his head, but the fool walks in darkness. And yet I perceived that the same event happens to them all. Then I said in my heart, ‘What happens to the fool will happen to me also. Why then have I been so very wise?’”
He says, What good is it to build up my kingdom, when I have no control on whether the next guy will run it into the ground? If I have the same end as the fool, what point is there in being wise? If the salad eater has the same end as the bacon-eater, what point is there in eating leafy greens? If in this world, following Christ will get you punishment rather than reward, if it ends in the same struggle of death as the wicked, what is the point of living clean?
Legend has it that Persian kings would write their legacies on the mountainsides so that they could be read by all generations, but these thousand years later, they’ve turned back into weathered stone. Even in Egypt, the greatest of pharaohs who built the most enduring of monuments in their quest for eternal life are reduced to names in history books and bones in museums. They all end up in the grave, a fate they share with however many countless slaves of their household.
We might have a legacy problem, but thanks be to God that we’re given an inheritance that we didn’t (earn). In the parable, God tells the man, “You fool! Do you not know your soul will be required of you this night? Your barns, your crops, your life, your breath, even your very soul is a gift from God, and the first step of wisdom is to remember that again and again.”
Your life is not your own. You’ve been bought with a price. Though the Water and the Word, all who have been baptized are hidden in Christ. That means, you’ve experienced all that he experienced. You have all the benefits that he has won. You’ve been crucified on his cross and you’ve been raised to life from his tomb. You obtain his righteousness. You get to call God your Father. Your legacy, your story, your days, your toils, your successes, your failures, your life goals, and your detours, they all are subsumed into the great Grand Story of how our God made the world, loves a broken world, sent his son, and makes it right again.
My life is hidden with Christ on high. In the mystery of Baptism, we’re hidden in Christ. Or, As Psalm 46 says it, our God is a fortress and when he we stand in him, we will not be shaken. He’s like a rock, a refuge, a help in trouble; his forgiveness becomes a wall around us. Our inheritance has been granted to us through Christ. Our legacy does not end in death because our life has been swallowed up into his.
So, if this is true, and it is, if the promises of our God are strong, and they are, then, what part do we have to play in His Story? Three little thoughts from our text today.
Reaping what others (sowed). One of the greatest privileges I’ve had here at Trinity thus far is to see how the Spirit of God has blown in this town, how faithful church and pastors have done ministry, how the long word of grace has gone out among the people.
Ruth Jacobs sends a 400,000$ check because a ministry of the Word married her here 50 years ago. Recovering drug addicts walk through my door eager to share their stories because this church helped them to pay their rent one more time while they could live in Janesville. College students come back to do ministry for the summer here because of the influence of our youth Director and their teachers. These are not seeds that I’ve sown. These are plants that another had watered. These are stories in a God-sized story of this church being taught, corrected, rebuked, and trained to faithfully live out the Gospel, whether we see the results or not. You see, that is the point of Paul in Colossians --- the point of pulling off the sinful nature and clothing yourself in Christ isn’t so much because it’s nice to wear clean clothes, or how it feels good to love others, or even how it’s the right thing to do.
No, the real reason that Paul commands us to look like Christ, the real reason that gives lasting legacy to our work, the real reason why we can refute the cry of Ecclesiastes, meaningless meaningless, is because we get to look like Christ to someone, whether we know it or not. We get to be the hands and feet of Jesus so that Jesus can work his long story through our little time and small actions.
Better open your arms (wide!) I was in a kiddie pool playing catch with my cousin’s son, Owen and he’s about three years old. He’s right at that edge between actually being able to throw and catch. You know, sometimes he really whips it and other times it hits the ground right in front of him. But what I’m thinking about today is the way that he catches. Before they can follow the ball well, when you tell them to get ready to catch something, do you know what they do? They throw their arms out as wide as they can. They get ready for you to toss the ball by opening themselves up as wide as possible so they can get it wherever it might go. You see, the point is this: their arms are open wide. They’re ready in the best way they know how, and they’ve got their arms open to catch anything you send their way.
Today, I invite you to open your arms wide to catch whatever tour God sends your way. I invite you to keep your eyes open for whichever way the Spirit of God is leading you. I invite you keep your days free to see what good works your Father in haven has set aside for you to do.
It’s not the (What), it’s the (how). Legend has it that in the making of the Discipling Center, there were some that wanted to get it up quick, to see the walls and roof come on, and others that focused on the process, on how the foundation, on making sure the block was set straight, that the pouring was even, that the measurements were right. They focused on the process. That’s the point that Paul makes in Colossians. Put to death the way of doing things that’s angry. Throw away the way of doing things that’s filled with lust, that’s filled with gossip. Because that’s the truth of conflict. You can have conflict in a healthy way. It’s not the fight that’s the problem; it’s the way that you fight to win, to put the other down, to be right, to look good. Take off those dirty clothes. They don’t suit you. Put on instead humility, and kindness. Speak your truth with gentleness and love..
The kingdom of God is like a pastor in the 1950’s, faithfully ministering to a woman to be wedded to her fiancé, spending time, shepherding, leading, and guiding them as they approached marriage, never knowing that his efforts would reward a church flourishing long after he passed away.
The kingdom of God is like a large church in a small town that spends less time worrying about the effectiveness of its programs and more time asking God to be faithful to his promises to guide and care for their community. They care less and less for the internal politics, for the … and more and more for the preaching of the word that led to communion and fellowship that led to walking alongside all kinds of unexpected people.
The kingdom of God is like a slender young pastor who can’t believe how blessed he is to reap all kinds of stories that he did not sow. And so, he lifts up in prayer all kinds of people he may never see again, so that at the end of his service, all that he helped might not remember him but remember the Christ who worked through him.
The enduring problem of the rich and the poor is that our legacy disappears far too quickly. But, thanks be to God that we’re given the inheritance of eternal life that we didn’t earn. And in that inheritance, it is our privilege to reap what others sowed, to open our arms wide to whatever God sends our way, and to see the how as much as you see the what. Amen and amen.
The Gift of Prayer
(Second in a two part series on Abraham)
Tenth Sunday After Pentecost
Dear Friends in Christ,
Chutzpah? I’m going to begin with a story that’s political, but it’s not partisan. Political, but it’s not partisan. As I listened to one of our presidential candidates this past week, I heard him refer to a major and nationwide problem, and then instead of suggesting that we could fix this problem if we worked together, he simply said, “And I’m the man who can fix it.” It wasn’t an isolated case of one politician saying one time that he or she could fix some terrible situation we have going on in our country. It’s bothered me, and no doubt all of you, for a long time, and it will bother us this week as well, that candidates use the “I” language instead of the “we” language.
Everybody who knows anything about this great country of ours knows there are three branches of government, knows that there are all kinds of checks and balances in our Constitution and Bill of Right, knows that there’s virtually nothing that lone rangers can do at any level of government, knows that it is simply what I’m going to call misplaced chutzpah to talk about what one presidential candidate can do, if only the masses will vote for him or her.
At first glance at today’s Old Testament lesson, it might seem to be misplaced chutzpah on the part of Abraham as he intercedes with Almighty God to change his mind about destroying Sodom and Gomorrah. The idea that a mere mortal would approach the immortal and almost always invisible God and ask him to spare a metropolitan area for the sake of 50 righteous people, the chutzpah that it would take to suggest that it would be unfair for the righteous to be treated the same way as the unrighteous? And then when Yahweh says yes to his prayer that he dares to ask a second time, what about if you can only five 45 believers, and when God says yes, he says what about 40 believers, and when God says yes, he says what about 30, and when God says yes, he says what about 20, and when God says yes for a fifth time in a row, the chutzpah that it would take to ask one more time, for a man who admits that he is nothing but dust and ashes, for a man who knows he is a poor and miserable and wavering and frail and sinful creature, to ask one more time, what about 10? Would you spare this city, where my beloved nephew and family are living, would you spare them if you can find 10 believers?
Moses records these amazing words, words which teach us so very much today about The Gift of Prayer, “He answered, ‘For the sake of ten I will not destroy it.’ And the Lord went his way, when he had finished to Abraham, and Abraham returned to his place.” Three questions we want to ask today about the gift / the amazing privilege of prayer – 1) For whom shall we pray? 2) How shall we pray? 3) For what shall we pray?
(For whom) shall we pray? St. Paul answers that question in his letter to young pastor Timothy, “First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgiving be made for all people, for kings and all who are in high positions, that we may lead a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way.” Everybody knows we should pray for friends and family, but Jesus takes it a step further in His Sermon on the Mount, “Pray for those who persecute you.” Some would extend their prayers for those who have already died, and yet the writer to the Hebrews has this to say, “It is appointed for man to die once, and after that comes judgment.”
Our catechism answers the question for whom should we pray, “We should pray for ourselves and for all other people, even for our enemies, but not for the souls of the dead.”
The story of Abraham interceding for an metropolitan area which included Sodom and Gomorrah reveals the heart of a man who cared deeply about others, including those who did not follow God. His prayers were For those who “deserve” it and those who (“don’t). The reality of our sinful nature, of course, is that not a one of us deserves the mercy of God, there’s not a one of us that doeth good and sinneth not, as the King James version would say it. But when the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ are included in the equation, well then a few believers are deemed worthy while the many unbelievers are considered unworthy. The pleading of Abraham was not only for the few who might have been believing in the one true God but also for those who obviously were not.
We would learn again today that we have every reason to pray both For people we know and people we (don’t). You see, God was in Christ reconciling the world unto himself, and so we pray not only for those who are inside of the church but for those who are outside in the world. Christ died for all, and so we pray for those who think and talk and look and act like us and those who think and talk and look and act different than us. Jesus loves all the little children and so we would care deeply not only about the little children in little Janesville, MN but the little children in Zlehtown, Liberia, not only about the salvation of children in Mankato, but also the salvation of children in Minneapolis and Monrovia and Moscow and you fill in the blank. That’s for whom should we pray.
Question #2 (How) shall we pray? The catechism answer is this – we should pray in the Name of Jesus, we should pray with confidence, and we should pray according to God’s revealed will. In our text for today, we find that it’s God who initiates the conversation, not Abraham. It’s God who comes down in person to tell Abraham and Sarah face to face that they’re going to have a baby in less than a year. It’s God who asks himself whether he should hide from Abraham what he is about to do to Sodom and Gomorrah, it is God who reminds himself that he has chosen Abraham to be the father of a great and a mighty nation, it’s God who talks to himself and reminds himself that he is molding and shaping Abraham so he can command his household in such a way that all nations on earth would be blessed with the Messiah.
We learn from this Bible story that we may pray to our Father in heaven first of all as dear children would ask their dear (father) This past week, Debi and I did a fair amount of child care with their mom gone on a youth trip to New Orleans. My time with them went pretty well, and mainly for this reason. This grandpa pretty much gives them what they want. When they ask for ice cream, they’re almost always going to get it. When they ask to go swimming, they’re almost always going to go swimming. When they wonder if they can have screen time, they’re probably going to get screen time. If children were going to vote for grandpa of the year, I might be in the running!
Our Father in heaven, of course, is the perfect father. If even good earthly fathers know how to give good gifts to their children, how much more will our father in heaven give good gifts to his children? Dear friends in Christ, I don’t know what exactly is on your hearts and minds today, but we do know that you may pray with absolute confidence in every one of your days to your father in heaven. Answer #1 to the question, how shall we pray, is with absolute confidence that our God will answer every one of our prayers in a perfect way, with perfect motives, and with perfect timing. The reason we have absolute confidence in our God, of course, is that Jesus Christ has taken our place by living the perfect life we could never begin to live, he has taken our place by suffering all that we should have suffered, he has died the death we should have died. He has paid the price demanded by a righteous God, therefore our sins are forgiven, therefore our souls have been redeemed, therefore our prayers ascend in direct fashion to the throne of our God. Abraham pleaded on behalf of Sodom and Gomorrah mainly for the sake of his beloved nephew Lot and family, as it turned out there were only three or four believers, and not ten, and yet the end of this sorry story is that God spared a small town called Zoar for the sake of Lot and his two daughters.
We pray first of all with confidence and boldness, and secondly with persistence. As deeply troubled neighbors would seek out their best (friend). In our Old Testament story, Abraham asked not once, not twice, not three times, not four times, not five times, but six times in a row, and as often as he asked, he received. He kept on seeking and he kept on finding. He kept on knocking and the door kept on being opened. Also in our Gospel lesson for today, Jesus tells a story about a friend who went knocking at midnight and kept on asking until the irritated neighbor gave him the three loaves of bread. He gave him the bread not out of the goodness of his heart, but just to get him to quit bothering him. If even an irritated friend will do us a favor to get us to be quiet, how much more so will our best friend Jesus give us what we need, and many times, what we don’t really need, but we want it?
Final question of the day, (For what) shall we pray?
Answer #1- Anything and everything that has to do with the (body) Our first inclination in life is to pray for our physical needs. A look at our today’s bulletin prayer requests includes thanksgiving and petitions for marriage, for the birth of a baby, for health concerns, for our nations political and racial wounds, and for our military folks. Prayer requests come flooding into our church office almost every day, usually having something to do with sickness and safety. Which is absolutely fine and God pleasing, Scriptures are absolutely full of invitations to pray and examples of God’s people crying out for healing and safety, crying out for protection and peace, crying out for daily bread and deliverance.
Answer #2 to the question for what shall we pray - Especially that which has to do with the (soul). The kingdom of God is like a large church in a small town that regularly cries out for their God to bless the teaching and the preaching of God’s Word near and far, it’s like an army of grandmas and grandpas praying for the salvation of their children and grandchildren and greatgrandchildren’s souls, it’s like all kinds of parents getting down by their children’s bedsides at night time praying that the faith of their children would grow and never die, it’s like Abraham praying for God to have mercy on Sodom and Gomorrah, it’s like redeemed believers in every generation praying for God to have mercy on people they know and people they don’t know, praying for God to have mercy on folks who seem to deserve God’s mercy and on those who seem not to deserve it, praying for God to have mercy on the Democrats and the Republicans and every body in between, praying for God to have mercy on the liberals and the conservatives and on those who don’t know what they are anymore, praying for God to have mercy on their friends and family and especially on their enemies and those who are bothering them world without end, praying for God to have mercy not with a misplaced chutzpah, but with chutzpah rising up out of Easter Sunday dust and ashes in the Person and Work of Jesus Christ.
Oratio, Meditatio, and Tentatio (Prayer, Meditation, and Testing)! Luther taught that the life of a theologian would be one of 1)praying for the gift of the Holy Spirit, 2) meditating on the written Word, and 3)being tempted by Satan. That the cycle of life would be praying in the name of and for the sake of Jesus Christ, reading and thinking through the Word of God, and then doing battle with all that the enemies of this world and our own sinful flesh and the devil himself can throw our way. The kingdom of God is like a large church in a small town full of people going on their merry way, spending their days storming the gates of heaven for favors small and large, spending their days fixing their eyes on their Savior with absolute confidence that He loves them and knows what He is doing, spending their days getting breathed on by the Spirit of God through Scriptures that are profitable for teaching and reproof, for correction, and for training, spending their days as a friend of mine likes to say, climbing every hill with the knowledge that it’s getting you ready for the next hill.
Abraham by the Oaks of Mamre
First in a Two Part Series on Abraham
Genesis 18:1-10a And the LORD appeared to him by the oaks[a] of Mamre, as he sat at the door of his tent in the heat of the day. 2 He lifted up his eyes and looked, and behold, three men were standing in front of him. When he saw them, he ran from the tent door to meet them and bowed himself to the earth 3 and said, “O Lord,[b] if I have found favor in your sight, do not pass by your servant. 4 Let a little water be brought, and wash your feet, and rest yourselves under the tree, 5 while I bring a morsel of bread, that you may refresh yourselves, and after that you may pass on—since you have come to your servant.” So they said, “Do as you have said.” 6 And Abraham went quickly into the tent to Sarah and said, “Quick! Three seahs[c] of fine flour! Knead it, and make cakes.” 7 And Abraham ran to the herd and took a calf, tender and good, and gave it to a young man, who prepared it quickly. 8 Then he took curds and milk and the calf that he had prepared, and set it before them. And he stood by them under the tree while they ate.
9 They said to him, “Where is Sarah your wife?” And he said, “She is in the tent.” 10 The LORD said, “I will surely return to you about this time next year, and Sarah your wife shall have a son.”
Dear Friends in Christ,
Who’s serving? That was the question of the month back in Peace Lutheran Church in little Barney, North Dakota years ago. First of all it was the question asked about the monthly Ladies’ Aid meeting. Secondly, it was the question asked about the monthly Walther League meeting.
Who’s serving? It was a big deal. The answer was in the weekly bulletin, and the answer was right on the monthly church calendar. And the answer of who served and what exactly they served could be found in Ladies Aid minutes and perhaps even in the Walther League minutes. To this very day, in little and big churches all over the country, including here at Trinity, if you want to know who’s serving at the monthly meetings coming up, we can get that answer for you. In fact, if you want to know what the ladies will be serving, and let me tell you, it’s always really good, we can get that answer as well. (Story of Mom and her sister Linny getting ready to serve at Ladies Aid just ten years ago, when they were both into their 80’s. A big deal!)
Who’s serving? That’s a question we want to ask both about our Old Testament and Gospel lessons for today. Who’s serving whom? And what are they serving? Three answers to those questions today, three parts to our sermon. 1) Abraham and Sarah give us a glimpse of (Old Testament hospitality) 2) Martha gives us a glimpse of (New Testament hospitality) 3) Christ came first of all not to be served, but to deliver (Divine hospitality)
First, Abraham and Sarah give us a glimpse of (Old Testament hospitality). Hebrew 13:2 urges New Testament Christians to show hospitality to stranger for this reason – some have entertained angels without being aware of it. This may well be a reference to this Bible story, where Abraham rolls out the red carpet for three strange men before he realizes that they were Yahweh himself and two of his angels. Abraham made them feel welcome, and he did so in a hurry. He ran to where they were standing, and he prostrated himself before them. He makes it clear to them that it would be his privilege to serve them and he pleaded with them to stay. He insists that their feet be washed, which was step #1 of desert hospitality. He offers a little bit of bread and then orders Sarah to prepare three measures, four and a half pecks, approximately a bushel of flour into bread, way more than three men could eat. He personally ran out to his herd, selected the finest of heifers, and made sure it was slaughtered, butchered, and roasted. He personally saw to it that they could drink the best of drinks, and he stood by while they ate.
(Story of the first Christmas meal Debi ate with my family, where ladies served and stood by while the rest of us ate, and then sat down at a card table later to eat. Debi not impressed with that custom and saw to it that it never happened again!)
One wonders why Abraham was so very hospitable. Was it because he wanted something in return? In fact, in the very next chapters of Genesis, he does ask God for a huge favor. He pleads for the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah in general and for his nephew Lot in particular to be saved. In next Sunday’s sermon, we will focus on Abraham interceding and God hearing the prayers of his saints.
But today, we would take a look in the mirror and see whether we are ever guilty of doing the right things for the wrong reasons. The times we have found ourselves in all kinds of trouble and promised God if he would just get us out of this mess, we would come to church every Sunday. The times we have imagine our going to church and volunteering in the church should count for something in the courtroom of God? Have we ever wined and dined others with less than pure motives? Along with the Psalmist, we pray and we pray often, “Search me, O God, and know my heart: try me, and know my thoughts:
In today’s Gospel lesson, we know what Martha’s thoughts are about her sister Mary. It’s Martha who is fussing and stewing and preparing and cleaning and baking and serving and it’s Mary who is just sitting there and listening to Jesus. It’s Martha who is getting more annoyed and irritated by the moment until she just can’t keep it in any more. “Jesus, don’t you even care that Mary is just sitting on her duff while I do all the work? Can’t you just tell her to start pulling her weight around here? Don’t you think everybody should do their fair share?
Martha gives us a glimpse of (New Testament hospitality)At first glance, Martha was doing the one thing needful. The New Testament makes it very clear that when your neighbor is hungry, you should feed him. When she’s thirsty, you should give her something to drink. When your friends are in the hospital, you should visit them. When your acquaintance in is jail, you should visit. Peter writes, “Show hospitality to one another without grumbling.”
Jesus takes New Testament hospitality a step further when he says to go beyond normal duties of being a decent and kind person. If some nasty neighbor is suing you for your tunic, go ahead give him your cloak as well. If some detail oriented friend insists that you walk with her one mile, go ahead and go with her the second mile. If you get slapped on the right cheek for the sake of the Gospel, go ahead and turn the other cheek as well.
Again, at first glance, Martha is doing what is right and God pleasing. She is going the extra mile, and she is covering for her princess of a sister Mary. And when she just can’t hold it inside for one more minute, she lets the fur fly. No doubt with tears in her eyes and a lump in her throat, she wonders out loud why her Lord doesn’t seem to be appreciating her as she deserves to be appreciated.
Which is exactly the moment where Jesus had to gently rebuke dear Martha. Martha, you’re doing a really good work there, but in this moment Mary is getting it right. I really do appreciate you fussing and bustling about and I know you love me, Martha, but your first assignment each day is to receive, not give. That’s another way of saying this, Christ came first of all not to be served, but to deliver (Divine hospitality)
First of all, it was true that the preincarnate Christ came first of all To Abraham and Sarah not to be served, but to deliver divine hospitality. This visit wasn’t about getting something to eat and drink, it was about God telling Sarah in person what he had already told Abraham – that she was going to have a baby. Keep in mind that Sarah and Abraham had heard this promise before- twenty five years ago they had heard they were going to have a baby, when Sarah was 65 and Abraham was 75 they were told that their descendents would be like the sand on the seashore and as many as the stars in the sky. And they were still waiting and hoping and doubting, and no doubt there were many days when they wondered if the Lord was really going to come through on his word. Perhaps they prayed as did the Psalmist, Search me, O God, and know my heart: try me, and know my thoughts:
The good news has always been that God is a covenant God, that He keeps every promise without exception, and that it has always been about Jesus Christ coming first of all not to be served, but to serve. So also in our Gospel lesson was Jesus coming To Mary. The front cover of your bulletin today gives you a picture of Jesus serving Mary. Serving her with the one thing needful, which is that her God had loved her with an everlasting love. Which is that when Jesus was born as a baby in the little town of Bethlehem, he would be born for her. When he would live the perfect life, he would be living it for her. When he would suffer under Pontius Pilate, he would be suffering for her. When Jesus would be crucified and dead and buried, he would be crucified, dead, and buried for her. When Jesus would rise up again, he would be rising up again for her.
So also to us. We made the case in last Sunday’s sermon, and we make it again today. In Divine Service, our God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are serving us. In the words of absolution, God is serving us with the forgiveness of our sins. In the reading and preaching of His Word, God’s Spirit is coming into our hearts calling, gathering, enlightening, and sanctifying us with His truth. God’s Word is truth. In the Holy Supper, Jesus is present. He’s really present, and as often as we eat this bread and drink this cup, we taste the very goodness of God. Make no mistake about it, our first assignment in Divine Worship is to receive.
There’s an old saying that has to do with traveling salesmen, “you can’t sell from an empty wagon.” Also in the Church, you can’t give away what you haven’t received. While it may well be more blessed to give than receive, it’s also true that if you keep on giving and giving without receiving and receiving, you’re going to have those days when you come up empty. Your cup is going to feel like it’s empty instead of overflowing.
The kingdom of God is like a large church in a small town full of people who are learning one more time this week that the Son of Man came first of all not to be served, but to serve. Not to be wined and dined, but to seek and to save the lost. With that lesson in mind, they are learning one more time that it is more blessed to listen than it is to talk. More blessed to console than it is to be consoled. More blessed to understand other people’s opinions than to be understood. And with that in mind they go looking for people to love. They go look for people to forgive. They go looking for people to give them another perspective on this world’s troubles. They go looking for folks who are hurting and broken and messed up and full of rage. And in their quiet moments, they hear Jesus whispering into their ears, When I needed somebody to listen, you (listened)
Like a Good Neighbor
Ninth Sunday After Pentecost
Dear Friends in Christ,
If you need help, just let me (know). Those are the words I often spoke years ago to an elderly woman, a woman with all kinds of troubles, a woman with almost no support network at all, a woman I’ll call Eleanor. If you need help, Eleanor, just let me know. One day she took me up on it. I received a frantic call in the middle of the day pleading with me to come over right now.
When I asked her what was wrong, she couldn’t even speak of it, she just pleaded with me to come. Which I did. In a hurry. With all kinds of thoughts and worries racing through my head. When I got there, the problem was that her toilet was plugged. It was threatening to overflow. She needed someone, anyone, to be a good neighbor.
If you need help, just let me know. That’s what our fire and rescue squads say, that’s what our police departments and paramedics say, that’s what our doctors and nurse lines say, that’s what emergency rooms and urgent care facilities say in a regular kind of way. They say if you need help, just let us know. Just dial 911 and we’ll be there. Just dial this number and we’ll help you. In little Janesville, MN, you can almost holler out your front door that you need help, and help will be there.
If you need help, just let me know. That’s what the Good Samaritan would have said to his neighbors in his day. In fact, he went one better than that. He didn’t wait to be asked. He saw a Jewish man, a man who would have considered all Samaritans unclean and unworthy and unfriendly, he saw him in need of immediate assistance, and he assisted. He zipped right out of his comfort zone, he healed what he could heal, he paid all that needed to be paid, he carried what needed to be carried, he didn’t just pray, he didn’t just feel sorry, he didn’t just say nice words, the compassion he felt in his heart turned into action, and it did so in a hurry. As State Farm Insurance would say it, Like a Good Neighbor, we’ll be there!
In today’s sermon, I’m going to agree with all kinds of ancient and modern scholars and say that the Good Samaritan in this story is first and foremost Jesus Christ. The Bible teaches that Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever. Three parts to our sermon today, Like a Good Neighbor, Jesus was there, He is here, and will always be nearby. Like the perfectly good neighbor, 1)Jesus was there at the cross. 2)Jesus is here in Divine Service, and 3)Jesus will always be nearby.
First of all, like a good neighbor, Jesus was there (at the cross). Already in the Garden of Eden, the promise to Adam and Eve was that a divine rescue mission would take place. A day would come when the offspring of Adam and Eve would get bruised and beaten and left to die, but the devil himself would have his head crushed. It’s at the cross that we learn that we have a God who doesn’t show up to help only when asked and properly thanked. While we were yet in our sins, Christ died for us.
There at the cross, we find that our Savior was (Healing) us with His wounds. As the Good Samaritan had compassion and backed up his feelings with actions, so did God so love the world that He sent His only and beloved Son into a world so full of hostility and danger. As the Good Samaritan came to where his neighbor was and did what needed to be done, so also did our Savior come down from heaven to earth, so also did Jesus keep the law in perfect fashion on our behalf, so was Jesus wounded for our transgressions, and crushed for our iniquities.
There at the cross, we find the very Son of God (Paying) our bill in full. As the Good Samaritan bandaged and soothed and carried this beaten up and left for dead stranger, so as Christ carried our sorrows and bore our griefs. As the Good Samaritan took care of all expenses with no expectation of repayment, so has our Savior redeemed us, not with gold or silver, but with holy precious blood, not with diamonds and pension plans, but with innocent suffering and death. He leaves us with no debt to pay, only the imperative to love as we have been loved, the exhortation to show mercy as we have been shown mercy, the plea to serve as we have been served.
There at the cross, we find Jesus Christ (Giving) life to those already dead. As this Jewish traveler was beaten up and close to death, so are we dead in trespasses and sins. As rescue squads regularly revive near dead and already dead people, so has our Savior done what he said he came to do. He came to suffer and He suffered. He came to die and He died. He came to give life and he gave it. Lesson #1 today, dear friends, your God has always been there for you, He was there for you before you ever existed, and He was there for you in a fixed and focus fashion for you on a little hill outside of Jerusalem. As often as you see the cross, as often as you make the sign of the cross, see there your Savior healing, paying, and giving.
Lesson #2 - Like a good neighbor, Jesus is here (in Divine Service.) While it is true that Jesus ascended into heaven and is sitting at the right hand of God, it is also true that wherever two or three are gathered in His Name, there He is in the midst of them. While it is true that He is in the presence of his Father ruling all of heaven and earth in a majestic and magnificent and mysterious fashion, it is also true that He is present in that place where His Name is invoked, in that place where absolution is pronounced, in that place where the Word is preached and the water is splashed and the Supper is offered. Three truths we learn again about how God is present here in the house of God. He is here forgiving, caring, and promising.
First of all, He is here in Divine Service (Forgiving) us early and often. In this place, we believe and we teach and we confess that already in Holy Baptism, our sins are forgiven. That as often as we eat and drink at the Holy Supper, our sins are forgiven. As the Samaritan forgave this Jewish man for being who he was, so did Jesus plead for his Father to forgive those who didn’t even know what they were doing. As the Samaritan was color blind and ethnicity blind and language blind, so also at our communion rail, there is neither male nor female, neither Jew nor Gentile, neither black nor white, only messed up sinners looking for their sins to be forgiven, their faith to be strengthened, their unity to be celebrated.
Secondly, Jesus is here in Divine Service (Caring) for us in the preaching and teaching of His Word, Germans have a word for their pastors who care for the souls of their people, the word is seelsorge. To be a seelsorge is to be a shepherd who watches over his sheep, it is to be calling, gathering, enlightening, and sanctifying with the means of grace. It is to be caring for souls before, during, and after official ministerial acts. As the Good Samaritan brought his new friend to the inn and cared for him, so does the Spirit of God bring us into the Church and care for us.
As the Good Samaritan left town for a time and left the injured man in good care, so has Jesus left us for a time and yet cares for our souls in the safety of local congregations, hundreds and thousands and even millions of little churches, little flocks, where shepherds know their sheep by name, they do what Mary does in next Sunday’s Gospel, they choose the one thing needful, they use their ears to hear, and their hearts and their minds and their souls are taken care of.
Third, Jesus is here in Divine Service (Promising) to return. As the Good Samaritan paid the innkeeper, asked him to take care until he came back, and promised to pay even more, so has Jesus promised that one day soon the angel will be shouting, the trumpet will be sounding, the dead will be rising, Christ will be returning, the Judge will be judging. As often as we eat and drink, we get a foretaste of the feast that is to come. Even more than that we proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes back again.
Our third and final lesson, Like a good neighbor, Jesus will always be (nearby). One of the main principles of Greg Finke’s book, “Joining Jesus on His Mission,” is that Jesus is already out and about in your neighborhood, in your work place, in your extended family, in your circle of acquaintances, and He’s not just there observing, He’s out there messing with people. By that he means that to say that the Spirit of God is always working through the circumstances of life to get people’s attention, he’s always working through the ups and downs of life to drive folks to their knees, it’s when folks are down on their knees / down on their “luck” that they just might be open to the grace of God, they just might be open to receiving a bit of mercy, they just might be open to the truths that could set them free. With that in mind, Jesus is always nearby inviting, teaching, and urging.
(Inviting) us to join Him in “across the fence” conversations. We’ve been saying it in the bulletin all spring and summer. In Minnesota at least, spring and summer offer way more chances to be neighborly than does winter. As the Good Samaritan no doubt engaged in conversation with his injured neighbor, so Jesus was famous for engaging in conversation with tax collectors and prostitutes, engaging with gluttons and drunkards. One question for you this morning, how would life be different around here this week if instead of stating our opinions first and foremost we would focus on understanding those with the opposite opinions?
(Teaching) us the values of asking good questions and listening well. As the Good Samaritan no doubt asked a few questions and spent some time listening on their way to the inn, so also was Jesus famous for answering one question with a better one. That’s the rhythm of our text for today, the lawyer asking one question, Jesus asking two of his own. When the lawyer answered with the two great commandments, Jesus said, you’re correct, do this and you will live. When the lawyer asked another question, (And who is my neighbor?)seeking to justify himself, Jesus responded with a story, followed by a question, “Which of these three, do you think, proved to be a neighbor to the man who fell among the robbers?” The lawyer answered correctly, and Jesus said “You go and do likewise.” A second question for you all this morning, how would life be different around here this week if every one of us went looking every day for one hurting person with only one agenda item- to look them in the eyes and to listen carefully to what’s going on inside of them?
(Urging) us to step outside of our comfort zones. (Story of Three Bears Resort water park, my love for fast and furious water slides, Debi not so much. Often I invited her to try out the slides, once she almost did, but then she didn’t. Oh, how she missed out on so much adventure, just as surely as she missed out at Valley Fair by not going on the Wild Thing, nor Steel Venom, nor the High Roller, not the Renegade, nor the Looping Starship….One last question – how would this place be different, if the Spirit of God could nudge us just one time this next week to step outside of our comfort zone for the sake of the Gospel? Just one time to stop at the side of life’s road to see if we can be helpful in a situation where we’re not really sure how it’s going to turn out.
Smelling roses and checking the ditches! The kingdom of God is like a large in a small town learning more and more how blessed they are on the one hand and how full of broken and hurting people this world is on the other hand. How beautiful God’s creation is on the one hand and how ugly is so much of life on the other hand. How simple it is to be a good neighbor on the one hand, and how complicated it can get on the other hand. With that in mind, they spend their days smelling roses on the one hand, and checking the ditches on the other. In Jesus’ name. Amen.
Sent Out Rejoicing
Luke 10:1-20 / Galatians 6 / Isaiah 66
Grace, mercy, and peace to you from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Before this sermon, please pray with me. Lord, may the words of my mouth and the meditation of our hearts be pleasing in your sight, O Lord, our rock and our redeemer. Amen.
Last week Luke confronted us with the cost of following Jesus. Jesus said, foxes have holes and birds of the air have nests but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head and then he asks the same of his followers. He said, to follow me, you’ve got to leave everything else in second place, and in our verse for today he does just that.
Today, I want you to think about the moment right after you commit. In the summers of 2003 and 2004, I went down to Great Oaks Ropes Course near Palatine, Illinois. It’s the same place where I ran around the lake and decided to pursue pastoral ministry. But today, I want you to know about the Ropes course. We would get trained in on how to wear a harness, how to clip two carabineers from the harness to the support lines, and they’d send us on up, climbing our ways through the trees, up up up now twenty, now thirty, now forty feet into the air, climbing up trees, balancing on logs, inching along wire, we climbed our way all the way up to a two-foot by two-foot little board that you’d connect yourself to the zipline, a 300 yard-long wire where you’d drop about 10 feet, the slack in the rope would tighten and you’d ride your way down.
And, inevitably, there’s an eighth grader up at the ledge, his first time, let’s call him Dan. Dan climbed the whole way up, but when he got there, has this ever happened to you? He got a hitch in his throat. Dan saw his feet dangling over the edge, and he couldn’t do it. Do you know how this feels? Things start to go in slow motion. That fear rises in your heart. You can hear your heartbeat in your ears. You get to the point of decision and then you stop. And I’m sure, in his head, it feels like it goes on for hours, until something clicks and he jumps.
And here’s the moment I want you to remember: The moment when your heart’s in your throat, when you think, “Am I really doing this?” You made the decision. You took the plunge… but there’s that split second of free fall when you aren’t sure you made the right decision, before you feel the harness catch…
We see Jesus sending out his disciples, 72 of them, two by two, 36 pairs. What’s the significance of that? You have someone to watch your back. You have someone to pray with, someone for comfort. It’s the same reason we tend to send out evangelists two by two, or why we start churches with a core group already selected rather than just sending out a lone preacher type. We’re following the promises of Jesus, that where two or even three are gathered in my name, there I shall be…
And he says to them, there’s a whole lot of harvest, but there isn’t enough manpower. So pray. Pray that Lord sends out you and sends out more, and makes disciples through you so that his harvest can be reaped. He says, Go on your way, I am sending you out as lambs in the midst of wolves. What does that mean?
It means that’s he’s asking them to believe when they jump off the ledge. He’s asking them to believe in the promises of the beatitudes. These show up in Matthew chapter 5, in the sermon on the mount, and they show up again in Luke 6 – it’s Luke’s version of a similar sermon, he calls it, the sermon on the plain. He says, Blessed be the poor – those who don’t have two tunics, don’t have two staffs, don’t have money bags, because there is the kingdom of God. Blessed are those who are hungry – those who depend on others for their food – for they will be filled. Blessed are you when people hate you and exclude you and revile you and spurn you… rejoice and leap for joy for your reward is great in heaven.
And then guess what! Four chapters later, he makes his disciples poor, hungry, and reviled. He says, live by the grace of God. Be sheep in the midst of wolves. Eat whatever’s set before you. Go wherever people will have you. What kind of a life he asking them to live?
Meditation number 1. Well, he’s asking them to live an apostolic life. The Christian life is apostolic. What does that mean? The word apostle comes from the verb apostello, which means to send. For example, my wife could send you a card, or my wife could send me to deliver a card to you. God is a sending God. The Father sends the Son to the world. The Son sends the Spirit to his people. When we talk about the 12 apostles, we’re talking about the twelve ones that Jesus sent in the great commissioning, and we see wherever they go, they start sending even more people to more places. They’re entrusted with a purpose, and that purpose influences where they go and what they do.
What is that purpose? To tell anyone who cares to listen that the kingdom of God is near. To first suffer the affliction of the afflicted with them, and then to pray and act that their wrongs get righted.
Alan Hirsch, in his book The Forgotten Ways, talks about this – the office of apostle – as the catalyst, or energizing factor, of the church. He writes, “There is something essential and irreplaceable in the ministry of the apostle [someone sent for a specific purpose] that is critical to the emergence of … movements like that of the biblical and postbiblical periods and of the underground phenomenon of the Chinese church.” That’s a church that’s grown who knows how large in a very unfriendly state, so much so that they send missionaries to evangelize the United States. “Apostolic influence awakens the church to its true calling and identity and as such is irreplaceable.”
You see, it’s not so much a place you’re sent to, and it’s not a thing you’re sent to do – it’s an overriding purpose. Love your neighbor as yourself – there is no law against such a thing. The Gospel the “Why” for everything you do. It’s not so much church vision statements, or official constitution purpose statements; it's the way the daily life of the body of Christ witnesses in all our vocations. It’s not so much about how much or how little you have, how great or how poor your abilities, how blessed or cursed your life seems to be; it’s about declaring that the grip of God will hold even when – and especially when - everything else is slipping away. Your mission becomes the mission of Jesus Christ – that’s the entire middle section – your message in Christ’s message. When it is received, Christ is received. You have the same purpose and cling to the same promises. It’s the truth that all the baptized know: whether you’re in freefall or you’re hanging fast, you’re in the palm of your father’s hand, because you’ve never been anywhere else.
Meditation number 2. There is resistance. There are points at which your experience will tell you the opposite of the promises of God. It wouldn’t be an act of faith if there weren’t. You see, it wouldn’t be an act of faith if they didn’t have need, if there weren’t wolves. If their poverty was met with abundance every time. If they didn’t go hungry. If they weren’t reviled. In this world you will have troubles. I’m not here to tell you what those troubles are. You know them for yourselves.
What I am here to proclaim is that it is precisely against the unrelenting pressure of the sinful world, a pressure that seems to hit you with blow after blow, no mercy no quarter, that we see God as our rock and refuge. It is precisely the nasty dealings of the devil, dealings that turn the culture against Christianity, dealings that turn ministry partners into foes, that promise easy paths and wide roads, that we remember God cut no corners when he set his face to Jerusalem and death he’ll die for you and me. It is precisely the stubborn refusal of our sinful nature, a refusal that demands winners and losers, a refusal that assumes it knows everything it needs to know, a refusal to try, to fail, and to try again that allows us to see in stark relief how the weakness of God is stronger than the strength of men, how the foolishness of God is wiser than the wisdom of men. It is the truth that those who gather in communion know: the strength that our God gives in his body and blood is other-worldly in every way.
Meditation number 3. The disciples come back breathless. Here’s the end of my opening illustration: the guy who was up there in the tree, agonizing and aching and waiting finally jumped and came down the zipline screaming as the line caught and took him to the end. He got down, breathless… and as soon as they undid his harness, he was sprinting back to the start yelling, “Let’s do that again!”
By the grace of God, the disciples come back breathless. Like my bouncing Benjamin, they look at him with eyes that say, “More!” Like Dan, they say, “Let’s do that again.” They swap stories, like vicars back from vicarage (I know the stories you’ve told, but do you ever think what stories your vicars told about you?). Jesus says, “I saw Satan fall like lightning – I saw a great defeat, and the kingdom of God breaking into people’s lives,” and then the disciples say, “Again!”
Greg Finke in Joining Jesus on His Mission, says it like this: “You’re only afraid to pray once.” After that, you realize that it’s just talking with God about your neighbor. After that, you realize that it puts your head in an entirely new place about that person – because it’s really a lot more difficult to be petty and small with a person that you’re praying God would follow around with the goodness and mercy they need. After that, you realize daily prayer, with others, in any and every situation is the bread and butter of your life.
But heed Jesus’ last words well: He says to happy and breathless disciples, Do not rejoice that the spirits are subject to you. No, Rejoice instead that your names are written in heaven. Do not rejoice that your work is fruitful. Rejoice that God used your hands to provide for your family. Do not rejoice that your ventures are successful. Rejoice that whether they succeed or fail, God would use them to change lives. Do not rejoice that you prayed and survived. Rejoice that your Father in heaven hears your prayers however well or poorly they are spoken. Don’t rejoice that you went down the zipline. Rejoice that your friends and family love you whether or not you did but that they’re really happy you did.
The Christian life is apostolic – it’s sent for a specific purpose, and that purpose is to declare the kingdom of God to be near. There is resistance, points at which your experience will tell you the opposite of the promises of God. And, we rejoice first and best in that our names are written in heaven.
Amen and Amen.
Worship Sermons & Letters