Grace Requires No Persistence 10-16-16

In this sermon, based on Luke 18:1-8, I explore the parable of the persistent widow and the unrighteous judge. At first glance, it seems like its just about praying a lot. But there’s more going on here.

You can listen to the audio of the sermon here:

You can also follow along with the text of the sermon here:

Grace and peace to you in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen

Have you ever heard the expression…10,000 hours will make you an master at anything. (pause) I like that expression…because it implies the importance of hard work and perseverance…that if you are driven and persistent…sticking with anything long enough, then the practice will allow you to master it. I’ve heard it applied to all kinds of different things like drawing or learning to play an instrument just to name a couple.

I was thinking about this whole idea earlier this week, and I found myself wondering…just how long is 10,000 hours? So I did some math…and I did some research…If we started right now…on October 16th, 2016 at about 10:30 in the morning…10,000 hours would be up on Dec 7th, 2017 at about 2:30am.  416 days and 16 hours…of non…stop…work.

That’s a lot time…you can do a lot in that amount of time…and to give you some reference…in that amount of time, you could watch the entire Harry Potter movie saga…8 movies…508 times over.  You could also watch the Star Wars sage, currently at 7 movies…645 times.

Or, given our current activity…considering that my sermons are typically in the neighborhood of about 13 minutes, you could hear me preach 45,153 sermons…which if you’re wondering is about 868 years’ worth of sermons. (pause) I call that, persistence.

Now the notion of persistence is on display today as we hear the parable of the persistent widow and the unrighteous judge…which is a really long title for a really short parable…its only 4 verses long after all…and it can be summed up pretty easily.

There’s this widow in the city…and she comes into the judge’s courtroom day after day…making the same request time after time…looking for justice…looking for vindication over her opponent in what is some unknown grievance.

Now the judge ignores her pleas for a while…and interestingly enough, despite anything else that might be going on here…from a legal standpoint, he’s not actually doing anything wrong.  Keep in mind that in Jesus day, women had no legal baring…so she would have needed a man to come into the courtroom with her…not a lawyer per say, but someone to speak for her…different times, different customs. But this lady, being a widow…didn’t have anyone…and so the only things she’s got working for her is a stubborn streak that would rival any 2 year old who has just learned the word “no” and is faced with broccoli at dinner…and as we hear…she just keeps coming. (pause)

And then there’s the judge…and he’s a real winner isn’t he? Despite the legal precedent that I mentioned, it would seem that this guy is pretty much just a jerk. He’s in a position of power…and it seems likely that he abuses it…we don’t know that for sure, of course…but we do hear, more than once, that he has no fear of God and no respect for other people…we even hear him acknowledge this about himself…so there can be no doubt…he’s an A-1 creep…and as such he continues to ignore the widow, day after day, time after time…but after a good long while, her persistence pays off…and he says to himself…even though I don’t care…she won’t leave me alone…and as the old saying goes, the squeaky wheel gets the grease…and so finally he grants her justice…he finds in her favor. (pause)

That’s the parable…that’s the story that Jesus shares in order to illustrate a point…and interestingly enough…it seems as if Jesus is even telling us what the point of this parable is…something that I appreciate, as it makes interpretation of this parable that much easier.

Listen to the two statements which set up, and then wrap up the story.  “Jesus told them a parable about their need to pray always and not lose heart.”  Then we hear the parable, and then we hear Jesus say directly “Listen to what the unjust judge says. And will not God grant his chosen ones justice to his chosen ones who cry to him day and night.” (pause)
Seems like a no-brainer.  Pray more!  HALLELUJAH!!!! That answers the question…I guess I’ll say Amen and go sit down. (pause)

All too often, that’s the take away from this parable…that’s what people hear…that if you want something…all you have to do is pray really hard…over and over again…and eventually you’ll wear God down and he’ll give you what you want. (pause)
There’s a name for this sort of thing…its called Prosperity Gospel…and it’s a simple notion…if your faith is strong enough…if its, BIG enough…well then God will bless you…and God will bless you in ways beyond measure…AKA you’ll be rich and have a lot of stuff…but only if your faith is strong enough.

The theme song for this might as well be (sing) I BELIEVE I CAN FLY…the lyrics include “if I just believe it, then I can do it…there’s nothing to do it.” (pause) Needless to say, this notion doesn’t really sit well with me…and neither does the understanding of today’s parable that all I have to do is pray often enough and I’ll get what I want.

Because we’ve seen evidence to the contrary haven’t we? Haven’t we all?  Think about it…in this life, you will have trouble…Christ himself tells us that…and its true…faith doesn’t excuse us from troubles…often times it almost seems to be the opposite.

But I’ve seen it time and time again with countless individuals who encounter a situation that is totally beyond them, and they pray, and they pray and they pray…and it doesn’t work. I’ve seen families praying for their loved battling disease, and they don’t get better.  I’ve seen people praying that the company they work for will stay open but it doesn’t and they lose their job. I’ve seen couples pray for healing in their marriage and they end up divorced….and I’ve heard the question many times…where was my miracle…where was God on that one? (pause)

It’s a fair question…if all it takes is persistence in prayer then why didn’t I get an answer to my prayer…if the widow received justice then why didn’t I? Isn’t God the judge in that parable? Can’t we wear him down like the widow did? And the answer…even though we might not want to hear it…is No…you can’t wear God down. (pause)
But what if that’s not what this parable is really about? What if the thing that we’re really supposed to be hearing in this parable about prayer is the other thing that Jesus opens with…not losing heart. (pause) Well if that’s the case, then what’s he talking about in this parable that is still about prayer? (pause)
Maybe we need to be asking ourselves what it is that we’re praying for.  I heard someone say this week that when it comes to prayer, venturing too far away from the Lord’s prayer has the tendency to get us in trouble…and as I thought about that, I thought about the teaching that our great reformer Martin Luther wrote in the small catechism on the Lord’s Prayer, something which we study together in confirmation class…something that many of you sitting out there have likely read at one time or another.

Our father, who are in heaven, hallowed be thy name. None of this becomes true by us saying it, but it is true…Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done. And as Luther says “God’s kingdom comes indeed without our praying for it, but we ask in this prayer that it may also come to us…and the good and gracious will of God is surely done without our prayer, but we ask in this prayer that it may be done also among us.”

In moments like this, I think its important to remember who taught us that prayer in the first place…Christ, who rest assured, knows what he’s talking about. (pause) Is it our prayer to give praise to the Lord for who he is…and then to pray for the coming of his kingdom and will here in our lives?

Because Jesus tells us, here in today’s story, that when we pray for this God does it. Will not God grant justice to his chosen ones who cry to him day and night? Will he delay long in helping them? I tell you, He will quickly grant justice to them.”

Now this is not to say that God grants us whatever we claim as justice…God does not bow to our judgment in any situation…but rather, we need to remember what justice is…and so allow me to reword it. He will grant justification to those that cry out to him.

The presence of the kingdom, which we pray for in the Lord’s Prayer does not equal God giving us whatever our fickle heart desires. Rather, it is the presence of God’s grace justifying us. The kingdom comes to us through God’s actions, and words, and promises to us…all on the basis of his love for us…God’s grace, which justifies us through the saving act of Christ’s death and resurrection, is not dependent on us praying enough, or doing anything else for that matter. God’s grace requires no persistence on our part. God’s grace simply is…and it is already given to you. (pause)
Now all that being said…is there anything that we can learn from the parable today? And I think the answer is yes…and ironically, we learn it from the bad guy…the unrighteous judge…You’ve likely heard me say that when something is repeated in the scripture, its usually important…and the thing that’s repeated today is the judges attitude. He does not fear God, and he doesn’t respect other people…and he’s unrighteous…which might as well be called unjustified…aka, he hasn’t received God’s grace.

I bring this up to remind us of the importance of Jesus’ teachings in another part of the gospel, for when asked what is the most important commandment, Jesus says “love God and love your neighbor.” Not in order to earn anything, but out of gratitude for the free gift already given to you…allow your life, flawed though it may be, to reflect gratitude for the amazing gift of salvation through Jesus Christ.

And so, if we are going to be persistent in anything, let it be this…reflecting the love of God for us as individuals back to him, and outwards to those that we encounter. And if we can persist in that…who knows that the world might look like.  Amen.



Did Anyone See That 10-9-16

This sermon is based on Luke 17:11-19. Jesus encounters 10 lepers and heals them, but only 1 shows any gratitude. That’s worth exploring.

You can listen to the audio of the sermon here:

You can also follow along with the text of the sermon here:

Grace and peace to you in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen

I think its safe to say that we as a society have a little bit of a fascination with seeing people crash and burn…not literally of course…but there’s something utterly fascinating about seeing someone fail, resulting in some sort of wipe out. A quick search on youtube will reveal videos beyond measure of someone trying to do something big, only to have it fail miserably.

And I know I’m as guilty of it as the next person…and there have been many times when I’ve seen a video like this, and I instantly share it with my buddies, usually with the tagline “You’ve got to see this.” (pause) Now again, its not that I want to see someone get hurt…far from it, but yet it almost mesmerizing to see some sort of trick go wrong.

But before you judge my strange fascination with epic wipe outs…rest assured that I’ve had a few of my own as well…and the biggest one happened back when we were still living in Minnesota, and it involves a bike. Though I don’t do much biking these days, there was a time when I would hop on my bike and ride through town to the gym that we belonged to, I’d check in there and then hop back on my bike to ride home. I’d get a few miles of exercise along with checking off a notch on my monthly gym tally, which was a requirement to get an insurance discount there.

But anyway, this one day I was riding, actually on my way home…and was going through an area full of businesses…at it was commuter time, so there were people driving around, heading to work…Now as I was riding, there were a few moments when I had to go from the street up onto the sidewalk, and rather than simply riding up at a crosswalk, I was trying to be fancy and pop a wheelie to get my front tire up over the curb. I’d done it a couple times already…but this time, I didn’t time it right…and my tire smacked into the curb, and the next thing I knew I was laying on the sidewalk…now I was ok, and so was my bike…but I figured I better let everyone around me know I was okay…so I looked and looked, trying to make eye contact with anyone that was concerned about this whole accident…and even though there were a lot of people around…no one noticed anything….they were all so busy with their normal day to day routine that they had completed missed this epic wipe out…they were too engrossed in their normal lives to notice something amazing happening in their midst. (pause)
Now, what’s this got to the do with the gospel? Good question…so let’s set the stage. Now if you’ve been paying attention, we’ve been moving Jesus towards Jerusalem for quite a while now. His face has been turned towards the end goal of the cross since chapter 9, but now it seems that he’s finally making some progress as he’s heading south. A good chunk of Jesus time and ministry happens up north in Galilee, so in order to finally make it into Jerusalem in chapter 19, he’s got to head south, which means encountering the region of Samaria…as we hear today, his in the borderlands between the two areas.

Now you’ve likely heard me talk about the relations between Jewish people and Samaritans before…they don’t get along…and even though they are distantly related to one another and share many cultural similarities…the Samaritans status as half-breed descendants from the Assyrians several centuries prior still causes issues. And so they are consider foreigners, uncouth…but ironically, being from Galilee, isn’t a whole better, as its considered pretty back water as well.

But here’s Jesus walking in the countryside between the two area…coming up on some unidentified village, when he encounters a group of 10 lepers…Now these 10 guys have it pretty rough…leprosy is a horrible disease…but back in Jesus day, leprosy actually meant a whole lot of different things…it wasn’t any single disease, but was pretty much assigned to any sort of skin ailment.

Now if you had some sort of unexplained issue…you were declared ceremonially unclean…and you got kicked out of town. You had to remain outside of town for a period of time…basically until the problem cleared up, or until you died…kind of an either or situation…but if the problem cleared up, well then there was a procedure to follow…periodically go present yourself to a priest, who would inspect your skin to make sure you were, in fact, okay…and if he gave you the thumbs up, well then you’d do a ceremonial washing, and you’d make a thanksgiving sacrifice…and then you were clean again, and you could rejoin the community.

But until that time, well you were out in the wilderness…required to cover your face and announce from a distance “UNCLEAN!” so that anyone who wanted to avoid contamination could stay away from you…but as misery does love company…fellow lepers could band together. This is why Jesus encounters a group of 10…10 guys…all kicked out of their local communities…hanging out together…and all of them seeking mercy…seeking healing…and apparently…aware of who this Jesus guy is.

For when they recognize him, even though they are following the rules and staying at a distance, they cry out “JESUS…MASTER…have mercy on us.” (pause)  And Jesus, being Jesus…does.  But…here’s the weird part about this story.  We don’t really hear about the healing itself do we?

Rather, Jesus just tells them…go show yourself to the priest. And…that’s it. We don’t actually hear about the healing itself do we? Only a passing comment that as they’re going, they are cleansed…Jesus doesn’t offer any fancy words…he doesn’t do any oddball actions as we hear in other instances…he doesn’t even touch them…he just tells them to go the priest…to basically do exactly what they would already do.  And its on the way that the action happens…the action of being cleansed. (pause)
Now I’m drawn to the notion of action here…because there are actually 3 different actions described within the story…while the 10 men are heading towards the priests…all 10 are cleansed…We also hear that they are healed…now one could argue that these are sort of the same thing…and they are certainly related…but there is a distinction…for their ailment is healed…but to be healed of something, that requires the action of nature…whatever it is that’s causing the sickness clears up, whether by itself or with the help of medicine or in this case with the help of God…but it is…a biological action.

Now on the other hand, to be “cleansed,” while referring to the healing of their leprosy, well according to the rules that we’ve already discussed, well this involves the judgement and action of a priest to say that “yes, you are clean.” And so this action is up to another person. (pause)

Now both of these actions happen to all 10 guys…essentially, even though it originates in a miraculous way…its still very much a part of the normal status quo…for this type of thing happened…someone would be called a leper…but after time they could be called clean and return to normal life.

And here’s where things get tricky…9 of the guys…we don’t really know what happens to them do we?  They believe Jesus enough to follow his instructions…and along the way they are healed…but after that, we don’t know. In all likelihood these 9 guys, who we can assume are Jewish, go to the priest, get the thumbs up, make the required sacrifice and head back to their community…

But 1 guy…the one who happens to be the foreigner…the outsider among outsider, he does something different doesn’t he? As we hear, he returns…praising God in a loud voice, falling at Jesus feet to thank him for the gift of mercy that Jesus had shown him…and we hear from Jesus that this man’s faith has made him well…it has made him whole…and in fact the Greek even says it has “SAVED” him.

Now we talk a lot about salvation don’t we…and we talk a lot about faith…last week’s sermon was all about that…but I find myself wondering what it is that was different about this guy…because out of 10 men who all experienced the same thing…this one guy experiences more…and Jesus commends him for it…pointing out his faith…his faith which apparently is on display through his action of returning with incredible gratitude for that which God has done in his life. (pause)
So what’s different about this guy? What is it that makes him respond as he does? What is it that makes him recognize the presence of something amazing in the midst of the regular day to day? (pause)
As we hear, it’s the presence of faith within him…the belief that God has done something…and that God is the source of this miraculous healing. (pause)
Say what you will about the other 9 guys…there must have been something going on there, because they were healed as well…but it would seem that they are so caught up in the regular…in the status quo…in the way things normally are that they have missed the presence of something more.

Just like all those people in Minnesota who were so busy with their morning routine that they missed me crashing into curb and wiping out…these 9 guys just go about their business…getting back to normal…but because of the presence of faith within this random Samaritan leper…this man who is not only an outcast, but is an outcast among outcasts…he is able to recognize just how enormous this gift of God is.

There’s a moment in Luke’s gospel when Jesus says that he who has been forgiven much loves much, and I think that’s on display here…One could argue that the Samaritan, even though the healing was the same, the blessing was a double measure…so perhaps he’s got insight that the other 9 guys lacked…and we see the same sort of thing on display with believers who’s faith came about in the midst of hitting rock bottom…and the turnaround in their lives is so blatant, because they recognize the enormity of God’s free gift of Grace.

Now, in our lives of faith, we all have moments when we’re one of the 9…and the incredible gift that we’ve been given, simply because God has chosen to out his monumentous love for us…gets missed in our ordinary day to day lives…but at the same time, faith gives us the ability to also be the 1…faith gives us the ability to recognize the presence of something amazing in the midst of the status quo…because through Christ, the kingdom has come near…through Christ, the miracle has already been done…through Christ God’s grace is already given to us, and because of what God has said about us…and what God has done for us…its already here…and it is through the presence of faith in the midst of our humdrum lives, that we recognize the enormity of this gift…and we respond with gratitude. (pause)

Interestingly enough I got into a discussion on social media this week on this very subject…and the question of how do we respond to this gift of grace…and how does faith manifest itself?  Do we respond by cheapening God’s gift and continuing to act like a jerk, holding onto our get out of jail free card…expecting to repent at the last possible second?

Or are we changed? Do we recognize the incredible gift that we have been given…not by anything we have done, but simply because Jesus does have mercy on us.  And in recognizing this, does our life reflect true gratitude…and do we praise God for this gift?

That’s what faith does…it allows us to see just how big of a gift we have already received in the midst of the normal…and our gratitude is reflected as we praise the one who has given us this gift. (pause)

All 10 men were healed…all 10 were cleansed…but only one was made whole…may our eyes be opened to witness the amazing gift that God has given us…and may our lives reflect that back as praise. Amen.

Add Faith To Us 10-2-16

In this sermon, based on Luke 17:5-10, I explore an interesting request from the Apostles to “increase our faith.” Yet a translation hiccup reminds us that faith is not something that we can quantify.

You can listen to the audio of the sermon here:

You can also follow along with the text of the sermon here:

Grace and peace to you in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen

When I was in high school, I was very active in a lot of the fine arts. One of the things that I enjoyed was large group speech, and in particular, group improv. It is so much fun to work together with a group of people to come up with a story right there on the fly…unscripted…unplanned.

And because of my love for improv, it will probably come as no great shock to hear that back in the late 90’s, that one of my favorite things was the improve tv show Who’s Line is it Anyway…a half hour long batch of games that were completely improvised…and the catch phrase of the show was always great…the show where everything is made up and the points don’t matter. (pause)

I think that last phrase…the points don’t matter…that was what always caught my attention…because that tends to be how I approach pretty much everything. In all likelihood that’s probably why I’m not the biggest fan of sports…because I don’t really pay much attention to the scoreboard.  One of my favorite things to say when someone asks me about the score of some random game or another, I usually end up saying “It ended up too much to not enough.”

But honestly…that’s not how things really work is it? We love to keep score…we love to quantify things…and not just the outcome of sporting events…but pretty much everything…we, as human beings, have the tendency to attempt to quantify…absolutely everything. (pause)

And we see evidence of this in our story today…as the apostles look for a boost in on the faith score board.  (pause) Here’s the deal…in the midst of traveling around…following Jesus from place to place…the apostles have seen a lot…they’ve heard a lot…they’ve even experienced a lot of amazing things first hand.  They’ve seen Jesus perform miracles.  They’ve seen him cast out demons. They’ve seen him raise people from the dead…they’ve watched the guy walk on water. (pause) And we can’t forget that the apostles have even been empowered by Jesus, and sent out two by two to do some of these very same things themselves.

But now, as they are finally nearing Jerusalem…getting pretty close to the place where Jesus has told them repeatedly that he’s going to be betrayed and tortured and killed…maybe its finally starting to sink in that at some point…they’re going to be on their own…without their master…seemingly left to their own devises. (pause)
But they also know that they’ve got a mission hanging out there too…to proclaim a gospel of repentance…and then to announce the forgiveness of sins…and not only to proclaim this, but to actually do it…to actually put it into practice.

Right before our passage for today, Jesus has told his followers that when someone sins against them and repents of it…they must forgive…even if they have to forgive that person seven times a day, every day…over and over again.  (pause) Now I don’t know about you…but if I was faced with ALL of this stuff…everything that they’ve seen and heard and experienced…along with everything that Jesus has tasked them with…well I think my response would be the very same. (pause) LORD…INCREASE OUR FAITH.

That phrase…that request…the more I think about it…the more monumentous that request actually seems…and there seems to be a lot of fear and a lot of doubt and a lot of uncertainty all wrapped up in that simple request. Lord…I don’t think I can do this…I know you’ve said to simply believe in you…but come on man…I don’t know about this…You’ve got to help me out here. (pause)
There’s a lot wrapped up in our first verse today isn’t there?  There’s a lot behind that request…and I think if we’re honest with ourselves…we probably make that same exact plea more often than we want to admit.

Lord…I’m facing some big stuff…and I don’t think I can handle it…increase my faith. (pause) Lord, work is overwhelming and I don’t feel equipped…increase my faith. (pause) Lord, what you’re asking me to do it impossible, I can’t do that…increase my faith….and so on and so on.

But when we are saying this…just like when the apostles make the same request within the gospel…just what are we really saying? What are we really asking for?  Are we looking at the heavenly faith scoreboard and finding our tally lacking? Or is there something else going on here?

I think this is an important question to ask…or maybe, just maybe we need to flip it around just a bit to ask…can our faith be increased? And to answer that…we need to look to the words of Jesus today. (pause)
Now his words are a little strange…offering up a couple different topics that seems, at first glance anyway…unrelated…but the first statement does seem to apply to this notion of increasing faith.

If you had faith the size of a mustard seed, you could tell this tree to yank itself up by the roots and plant itself in the ocean…and it…would…happen. (pause)  My first response to that is…what? Why on earth would I want to send a tree to into the ocean…wouldn’t make a lot of sense…and maybe, just maybe, Jesus isn’t trying to make sense here…because if all it takes to make this ludicrous thing true is the tiniest amount of faith…well then it seems like faith can truly accomplish amazing things…things that seem foolish…things that seem stupid even…things that humanity would laugh at…like even the notion that God would become human…and that God would die. (Pause)

Scripture reminds us that the cross…the very place where we put our hope…is folly…a stumbling block…foolish even…but hey, if faith can do something as foolish as sending a tree into the ocean, well then maybe faith can do this too. (pause)
But all that being said…just what is this whole faith thing anyway? It’s a word that we love to throw around in the church don’t we…especially here in the Lutheran Church…but just what is it anyway? (pause) The answer to that question…put very simply…faith is believing that something will happen…and it can look like a lot of things.  Like believing that the sun is going to come up in the morning…or that if I plug in my wife’s number into my phone that she’s gonna answer…or if I put my key in the ignition of my car and turn it…its gonna start. Believing that what is expected to happen, will happen…but none of that is really earth shattering or life altering…but what about being saved from our sins…what about God loving us so much that He claims us as heirs of the promise…and that not only did he talk about dying for each of us…that he actually did it…and believing him when he says that he has gone on beyond death to prepare a place for us and that he will come back for us…simply because he said he would…can we believe that?

Because that’s what faith is…believing what God says about you…believing that God sees you with great worth…worth dying for….that’s the beauty of the gospel…that’s its not about what we do or what we say or what we think…but its about believing what God says about you. (pause)

Now here’s where things get a little hazy…because we’re not good at simply things are we?  Especially not something as big as this…because its in our nature to think that we have to do something for it…that somehow we have to earn it….or that we have to say it, or we have to believe it…big enough….because we like to keep score don’t we.

Call it whatever you want…self justification…or giving ourselves assurance…but when it comes to the here after…I think we all want to look at the checklist to make sure we’ve actually gotten our get out of jail free card.

But that’s not how the gospel works…and we see this within Jesus’ rather cryptic second statement today…what master, having slaves that have been out working all day invites them in to sit down?  No…they’ll do what’s expected of them…which is to feed the master first. (pause)
I went round and round with this part…trying to figure out what it was that Jesus was saying…but I think we find it in the final statement. So you, when you have done all that you were order to do will say “we are worthless, having done only what we ought to have done.” (pause)

Now this is odd…but I think what Jesus is reminded us here is that as followers of Christ…as people who put our belief in him…our faith in him…there isn’t any sort of “minimum activity” that we have to pull off in order to check our cosmic scoreboard to see if we’re winning or not…now matter how much we might want to keep score…no matter how much we might hope for an increased level of faith…that’s not how any of this goes.

The righteous shall live by faith…period.  We don’t need MORE of it…we simply need it…and we don’t earn it…any more than we work to pay it off…and the one thing that the apostles actually do correctly here, is looking to the source of faith…Lord increase our faith….its not from us…its not self generated…it comes from the Lord…the ability to believe this utter nonsense about a God who loves us enough to die for us…can only come through the power of the spirit working within us.

And as per usual…we’ve got a lost in translation moment…and the request from the apostles is skewed because of it…our modern translations pretty much all say the same thing. Increase our faith…as if it could be quantified…but it can’t…and the better way to look at this request is “Add…faith…to us.”  Its not a question of asking for more…it’s simply a question of asking God for it. (pause)

Our Lord is the source of faith…the source of that which justifies us…and God grants it to us because he choses to, not because we have earned it…our salvation is not God’s way of thanking us for anything…but our response…what we do with it…that is our way of saying thank you back to God…and make no mistake, we are called to do something with this faith…with this amazing news that sets us free…and that calling is to share it…to share the message of repentance and forgiveness…made possible because of the presence of the Holy Spirit within us. (pause)
Now hearing that charge…perhaps it’s a little intimidating…because it falls under that really scary word of Evangelism that none of us really like very much…but the amazing thing about God’s invitation to us to join in the work of reconciling the world is simply realizing that through Christ’s work, our story becomes part of God’s story…and all we are called to do is extend the invitation to come and see.

Some will accept and some won’t…but you know what…that’s not up to you…that’s up to the spirit…so take the pressure off yourself…and look to the source of faith…our father in heaven, who has already made you this promise…and because of what Christ has already done…it is already given to you freely.  Amen


You Can’t Get There From Here 9-25-16

In this sermon, based on Luke 16:19-31, I explore the parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus, and what it means to be known by God.

You can listen the audio of the sermon here:

You can also follow along with the text of the sermon here:

Grace and peace to you in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen

Ever heard the expression “You can’t get there from here?”  When I was younger, admittedly, I could never wrap my head around it. It just didn’t make any sense…but keep in mind that I grew up in the northern part of the state…far enough away from the rivers that border both sides of Iowa that things are pretty open and flat…and for the most part…every road is straight, and there’s an intersection pretty much every mile…so if you are trying to get somewhere…more often than not…there’s a direct route…You can get there from here.

But as I’ve gotten older, I’ve driven in some different places where this…IS NOT…the case. Having lived in the city…you deal with all sorts of stuff that gets in the way…Vacationing in the mountains of Colorado…its even more prominent as the roads follows the contours…and you can’t drive straight to anything.

And finally, living here now…down close to the river…and the ways that pretty much all of our roads within 50 miles curve and bend all over the place…I’ve certainly learned the truth of the statement…particularly when I’m trying to drive over to Crescent…which is only about 10 or 11 miles as the crow flies…but somehow it still takes almost half an hour to drive there.

You can’t get there from here…we all know what that really means don’t we? Its not just the lack of a straight road between where we are and where we are trying to get to.  Rather, it implies some sort of barrier in the way. It can mean rolling hills or rivers…it could mean bridges out or road construction…it can mean a lot of things…but unlike those physical barriers to travel that the phrase implies…those things that the human race has found ways to overcome…making travel to literally anywhere in the world possible…in today’s gospel story, there’s a barrier that we hear is unbeatable…not just difficult…but impossible.

Now today’s gospel is an interesting parable…the rich man and Lazarus…one unique here in Luke’s gospel…but perhaps if think about the other stories we’ve encountered in recent weeks, one that kinda fits in. There’s a rich guy and a poor guy…and the little details that Jesus shares sheds light on just how opposite these two guys are.  The rich guy wears purple, nearly impossible to get in those days…saved for the ultimate elite in society…and he feasts every day…living every day in celebration of all that he has.

And on the flip side, there’s a poor guy laying at his gate…physically kept out…and he’s stricken with some disease that leaves sores all over his body…which would make him ritually unclean…and not only that but his only companions seem to be dogs who come to lick his sores…which sounds bad enough…but add to it the fact that dogs were unclean animals…and we see that he’s ostracized completely.  (pause)
These two guys in the parable lives their lives as polar opposites…utterly separated both physically and culturally…even though Lazarus literally lays at the gate of the rich man…they exist mere feet from each other…but they might as well be on opposite sides of the planet.

But…as we hear…regardless of their differences…regardless of the separation…the great equalizer shows up, seemingly at the same time…and they both die. (pause) Now this is where the parable often times gets hazy…because we see that the rich guy ends up in Hades…tormented in flame…and Lazarus is hanging out in paradise with Abraham…and though apparently they can see one another…there’s a great chasm placed between them…some sort of separation…and though the rich guy cries out for mercy and help…Abraham says well, you can’t get there from here.

Now there’s the odd little statement made about their respective lot in life…and how that’s been reversed here in the afterlife…and because of this…often times this parable gets lumped into the notion that wealth is bad…and to limit this parable to that understanding is a bit of a mistake.

Rather…I think we need to focus in on attitude of the rich guy…who, upon finding himself in the midst of torture here in Hades…which if you’re wondering is simply “the place where dead people are.” We see that his attitude of self-importance that must have defined his life as he ignored Lazarus languishing just outside his door…this attitude continues.

Father Abraham…Send Lazarus to attend to my needs…send him with water to cool my tongue…Now we already know that this doesn’t happen…and can’t because of the great chasm…so then, he changes his tune.  Well then Father Abraham…send him to my home…for I have brothers and I don’t want them to end up here as well. (pause)

Its almost funny, how this guy seems to think that he can order others around…and how much he’s clinging to his status…even in the way that he addresses Abraham…Father Abraham…By doing this…he is claiming the status as a Jewish person…as a descendent of Abraham…and an heir of the promise God made so many generations before…and ironically, Abraham doesn’t dispute it…going so far as to call him “Child” at one point…confirming that YES…he is a child of Abraham…but where does that get him? (pause) Absolutely nowhere.

Now we might think that its commendable that the rich guy changes his tune and hopes to warn his brothers so they will avoid his fate…but Abraham’s response here is telling…for as Children of Abraham…as members of the Jewish culture…they have Moses and the Prophets…they have calls to repentance…invitations to turn away from sin and look back to God…to turn away from selfishness and follow God’s command to care for all people….the invitation is already there…offered to them freely in life…before the great barrier of death places them on the opposite side of the chasm…before the separation occurs.  (pause)

Now perhaps as you hear all this, you are thinking that this is a call to repentance…and that’s all the message that Jesus is making today…you wouldn’t be wrong in thinking this…and yes I think that Jesus is reminding us of the need to repent from our selfishness and to open our hearts to meet the needs of those around us. (pause)
But…its also important to look at the flip side…to look at Lazarus…now as per usual…we lose a little bit of meaning in translation…because the way many of our current translation read…we hear that Lazarus seems to just be standing there next to Abraham…just standing there on the good side of the chasm of death…seemingly in heaven, which admittedly is where we would expect to find Abraham in the afterlife…he was counted as righteous by God after all.

I think we can all agree…that where ever it is that Lazarus is found…it represents paradise…heaven…and Abraham, being the father of the covenant…the original recipient of the promise…the one who seems to be the embodiment of God’s promise…well, it doesn’t seem like much a stretch to think that Abraham is the stand-in for God within this parable…and we also need to recognize that Lazarus isn’t just standing next to him…in the original language…Lazarus is found in his bosom…pressed up against his chest…within the very heart of God…and all we have to do is consider how close a mother is when nursing her child to see that Lazarus is experiencing the ultimate connection with the Lord. (pause)

And we need to remember…that this has not happened simply because Lazarus was some poor guy…but rather because Lazarus is known. (pause) Remember that this is a parable…a story told by Jesus to make a point…and Lazarus is the only character within any parable…the only one ever…to have a name.  Lazarus is identified…he is known by God…known intimately just as God knows each of us intimately…calling us by name, Lazarus is named…and interestingly enough his name is a clue into this as well…for Lazarus means “helped by God.” (pause)

If this parable teaches us anything…it is that to enter into paradise, whatever that’s going to look like in the age to come…to be on the “good” side of that great chasm caused by death…we must be helped by God…we must be known by God…its not about our status here in this life.

And how wonderful is it to receive the promise that truly God does know us…that he knows our names…he knows our every thought…he sees every tear that falls from our eyes and hears every laugh that comes from our mouths…for we are claimed by God and we are named by God…through our Baptism, we join with Christ, and through his life death and resurrection it is made possible for us to be known as heirs to the promise…and we are claimed as beloved children of God. (pause)

This is good news for all people…but as recipients of that good news…as heirs of the promise…we are given a task…and so we must also look back to the rich man in the parable…for once he recognizes his fate…he hopes to save his brothers from the same and asks that Lazarus return from the dead to testify…but as we hear, it is not enough for someone to return from the dead…and as we know, that’s already happened…Jesus has already returned…but there are those in this life who have not come to believe…and so we pray for those people…that in this life they would come to faith…that the holy spirit would work within them.

But before the Spirit can work in them…before they can believe the gospel…they need to hear it…and so in this life…before we cross that great barrier of death…we are called to share the good news…Lazarus doesn’t come back from death…but we who are still in this life are invited into the important work of God…who is bringing reconciliation between himself and the world…and we who have been claimed as God’s children are sent out to share this good news with all that we encounter so that one day…one glorious day…every knee shall bow and every tongue shall confess that Jesus is Lord…and on that glorious day, when God brings about the new heaven and the new earth…whatever that’s going to look like…then may we all be held in the bosom of the Lord…to be held by the one who knows our name.

We know that we cannot get there from here by our own power…but thanks be to God, that through Jesus Christ…through his death and resurrection, God has helped each of us…and we are all known as Lazarus…as the one that God helps. Amen


The Blows Keep Coming 9-18-16

In this sermon, based on Luke 16:1-13, I explore a troublesome parable of the Dishonest Steward. The parable is tricky because the man is commended for acting in an underhanded way. Yet we remember that what the world commends is not what God desires for us.

You can listen to the audio of the sermon here:

You can also follow along with the text of the sermon here:

Grace and Peace in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen

Does anyone else ever fall in the trap of seeing something in a movie or on tv and think to yourself…I could do that. (pause) This can happen in any sort of thing, but in my case, it probably happens the most when I see something physical…Now if I’m watching some fictional story, I embrace the fiction and the thought in my head is usually “Yah, I could do that.” But on the flipside, when I’m watching something that’s actually real…things like the popular show American Ninja Warrior…or televised boxing matches…and in this case, the thought is usually more of a question “I wonder if I could do that.”

If I am honest with myself, I know the answer to that question…no, I can’t do that…and my history does include one bit of actual evidence to support this conclusion. When I was a student at Iowa State, homecoming week was always exciting…and the college provided various types of entertainment for the students…one of which was a blowup boxing challenge.

Perhaps you’ve seen this…the ring is a big inflatable that you can bounce around in…and the boxing gloves are enormous…you stick your hands in them and grab a handle…but they are giant and bulky and sort of heavy…so you really can’t swing them very hard…and of course they are padded too…so if you happen to catch one in the face, it doesn’t really hurt you.

But…it will knock you down…which I learned the hard way.  A friend and I were walking past and saw this thing…and we since neither one of us had ever been in a fight before we thought this was the perfect way to give it a shot…and I thought I’d be really good at it…but I was fooling myself and reality was a little different.

Let’s just say my friend was a much better inflatable boxer than me…he was bigger and taller and he used this to full advantage…and for me, the blows just kept coming…it amazed me at how quickly I found myself flat on my back, not quite sure how I got there…and then I’d get up…and pretty quick…he’d knock me right back down again.

Now here’s the weird part about it…getting cracked in the head with a big padded boxing glove doesn’t hurt…but it does stun you…and likewise, getting knocked down onto a big bouncy surface doesn’t hurt either…but it does sort of knock the wind out of you. (pause) And so I learned that day, even if you soften the blows…you still take the blows.

Now we take a lot of blows in our lives don’t we…and they take a lot of different forms and come from a lot of different directions. We get knocked down emotionally…we get knocked down spiritually…we get knocked down financially…sometimes we even get knocked down physically…and each of these have a wide variety of examples that we can apply.

But sometimes…perhaps most surprisingly today…we can even get knocked down theologically…and it stuns us. (pause) In a moment of full disclosure…today’s gospel lesson is one of those things that stuns me…because I have no idea what to make of this parable…and I have a hunch that I’m not the only one. (pause) Now I’ve never been secretive about the fact that preaching about parables is pretty low on my list…but of all the parables that we encounter throughout the course of the lectionary…this one is my least favorite…To be perfectly blunt…I hate this parable…and I hate it because it is impossible to make heads or tails out of it. (pause) And maybe, just maybe, if you hear this parable and find yourself scratching your head about what Jesus is talking about…then rest assured you…are not…alone. (pause)

A rich man employs a manager, or a steward…and I honestly wonder just how this guy got the job in the first place…because apparently he’s REALLY lousy at his job…but while he has it…he takes full advantage…living it up in his master’s household…every need is met and he’s comfortable.

But then the boss man catches wind of this guy’s issues…and as expected…he fires him…and now all of the sudden the rug is being pulled out from under the steward…and his comfortable life that he had perhaps taken for granted…is being taken away…to go back to our boxing story, he’s taken a solid cross face and he’s on his way to the mat.

Now here’s where the story gets weird…the steward, knowing that he has zero life skills to fall back on, gets creative…and he starts calling in his master’s debtors…and tries to win himself some favor with them by cutting their bills way down…thinking that if he does them this favor with the little bit of power he still holds for the moment, then when the rug is finally pulled out from under him that maybe they’ll repay the favor and take care of him….but if we think about it…what’s the steward really doing?

It would seem that he’s short changing his soon-to-be former master…squandering even more of his property in order to improve his own situation…and now here’s the part that confuses me to no end…the master…commends him for it. Basically telling him…hey good job…way to be shrewd…you’ve cheated me…and I applaud you for it. (pause)

And I have to ask…just what the heck is Jesus trying to teach us here? What’s the lesson? Is he simply being snarky? Is he being ironic? I just don’t get it…because at face value it seems like Jesus is telling us to be shrewd…to be crafty…and to do whatever it takes to improve our own situation. (pause)

Now if this is confusing for you, don’t feel bad…I get the sense that its confusing for everyone…and as per usual, Jesus does offer some teaching…though I fail to see much in the way of connection…because Jesus’ words on the subject, pretty much boil down to his statement that we cannot serve two masters…because we will always place one above the other…and in his final words we hear that we cannot serve both God and wealth. (pause)
Does anyone else have a hard time connecting Jesus’ teaching with the parable?  The teaching seems pretty straight forward…but there’s not really much to connect it with the lousy steward trying his best to improve a bad situation at the expense of his master. (pause) Unless we consider the motive behind the steward’s actions.

He knows the blow is about to fall…he’s about to be fired…he’s about to be cast out of the household and his entire life of privilege is about to come crashing down…and having nothing else to fall back on…he does his best to soften the blow…to give himself a bouncy pad to land on…and to place a big soft pad on the boxing glove that’s catching him with a solid shot.

And in the end…that’s all he really accomplishes…to soften the blow…it might not hurt so much…but it still happens. (pause) And maybe, just maybe, that’s the best that we can ever hope for in this life…because the blows catch us don’t they? Whether we are looking for them or not…they still rain down on us…and if we see it coming, whatever it might be…we might be able to soften it, but we can’t stop it…and that’s the best that we can hope for in this life…in this reality…to maybe see it coming and try to soften the landing when we come crashing down.

And the funny thing is that we create an illusion of control…and we think that if we build up all the barriers…then we can stop the blows from hitting us…and we all do it…so what are your barriers? What are the things that you build up in order to keep the shots from hitting you? (pause)  You know what they call that? When you place your faith in something?  They call that idol…and that’s the connection back to Jesus’ teachings.

We lose a little something in our modern translations…and often times we hear the statement that you can’t serve God and wealth, or maybe money…and that’s not really accurate…but perhaps you’ve heard the old word…especially some of you a little farther along in years…you cannot serve God and mammon.

Mammon is an odd word…one that could be described as dishonest wealth…but when we boil it all the way down…mammon is actually the name given to the idol of wealth…the Jewish culture named it…just like any of the other false gods like Ba’al or Asharah…Mammon, is the name of a god…little g. (pause)
Now we all have our idols…whether we want to admit it or not…and maybe, just maybe the reason that this parable is so troublesome for us…is simply because it hits pretty close to home, especially considering our culture and our economy…and the fact that we live in a dog eat dog world…and we disguise it…we soften it, by calling it the American dream…that we do whatever it takes to get the dollar out of your pocket and into mine.

And the parable is troublesome because the way Jesus tells it…this behavior…is commended. (pause) But maybe what Jesus is telling us…is that to put all our eggs in this basket…and to live our lives as if this is the most important thing…well then the very best we can hope for is to soften the blows when they come…and that if we try to improve our situation by aligning with others in this way…then when the rug gets pulled out from under us we will be welcomed into eternal homes…but now notice that Jesus said eternal…not heavenly. (pause)

This is where the rubber meets the road…what do we serve? And this is an important question to ask…because often we look at scripture and we ask what is the eternal aspect…and at the same time, if the kingdom has come near, then what is the here and now aspect? And maybe, just maybe, this particular one only has an eternal aspect…because in life the blows keep coming…and sooner or later the big one lands…and there’s no getting up from that one.

So maybe Jesus is getting pretty blunt here…and telling us in no certain terms that we darn well better look to the one who is capable of overcoming that final blow for us…as opposed to seeking out what the world would commend and placing our faith in that. (pause)

But that being said…we do still need to think about what it means for us now…and maybe think back to the role that the guy in the parable held in the first place…a steward…and in doing so we remember that we are all stewards of something…we are all called to manage something…but just like the steward managed that which was not his own…we need to remember that its not ours either…because if it was then we could take it with us…but we all know that we can’t.

So what does this mean for our wealth? What does this mean for us as we consider money…and property…and bills and paychecks…and our savings account and the charities that we give to? Well, in the end, we need to remember that all of that stuff exists as a tool in the lives that we live with our God…who is the one that gives it to us in the first place…its not the other way around…We use wealth in our lives…we do not live our lives to serve wealth. (pause)

All that being said, I’m not going to stand up here and tell you what to do with your money.  I’m not going stand up here and tell you that you need to get your priorities straight and serve God by putting some extra in the offering plate today so that we can meet our budget…but I will pose the question one more time…what are we going to trust in?

Our congregation is blessed in many ways, including financially…but we are also looking at the possibility of some things in the future that will stretch us…and as we look towards those things we must ask ourselves of just what we are trying to accomplish…and what direction are we following…is the work of the Spirit guiding us into the world to engage and seek the lost? Or are we just trying to survive?  These are the questions that we are wrestling with…and I invite you to wrestle with them too…and if you feel in your heart that what we as the church are doing is serving the will of our Lord, then support that in any way that you can…with your time and talents and treasures…with those gifts that you have been entrusted with.

That is what we do in this life…here in the tension between the now and the not yet…within our day to day lives and the life that is yet to come.  And in the midst of it, we stand together…and we do our best to support one another when the blows come…and yes the blows keep on coming, whether we work to soften them or not…but thanks be to God that He has chosen to live this life along side us, even as we struggle…we know that we are not alone. Amen.

What Does Lost Really Mean 9-11-16

In this sermon, based on Luke 15:1-10, I explore the notion of being lost. This is aimed both at when we are lost, and when things are lost to us.

You can listen to the audio of the sermon here:

You can also follow along with the text of the sermon here:

Grace and peace to you in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen

A couple weeks back I traveled up to the Twin Cities for a couple days of continuing education at Luther Seminary. I arrived in the Cities the evening before the class began, and so I had a little time to drive through some of the old neighborhoods that I frequented during the 2.5 years that I lived there.

Of all the different spots that I drove past, none was quite so weird as when I went by our old townhouse. It was just a little surreal to roll past our old front door, knowing full well that I couldn’t walk up the sidewalk and stroll in.  Like many other places in my history, its lost to me. Still there, but no longer accessible.

Now of course, I have a lot of different places that fall under this category. Homes where my family and I have lived…back rooms in my former places of employment…and while I have some feelings of nostalgia about all of these places…perhaps none have ever struck me as significantly as when I think about my grandparents old farm.

They had lived there as long as I could remember…and one of my favorite places on the farm was Grandpa’s shed. Every corner of that shed was filled with something. The workbench running all the way along one wall was covered with tools of every kind.  The walls were covered with rakes and hoes and brooms and all kinds of other stuff. There were piles of old equipment stacked up all over the place…and of course Grandpa’s tractors were always in there as well.

It is a place of significant memory for me…and not only the building itself, but the times standing next to grandpa as he was working on something…memories from as far back as I can remember. (pause) But as we all learn at some point in our lives, time marches on…and things change. After several years of declining health as well as complications from Alzheimers, my grandpa died in 2006…My grandma remained on the farm for a couple more years, and so it was still a place where I could visit…entering back into those cherished memories from time to time. But shortly after grandma died in 2011, the farm was sold. All the equipment was sold and carted away…although I wasn’t present when that all occurred.

But interestingly enough, the night before the farm changed hands, my brother spent some time in Grandpa’s shed…now completely cleaned out…barren and empty…and he sent me a picture, which I still look at from time to time. Every time I look at it, I find it strange…because that’s not Grandpa’s shed. Grandpa’s shed was full of stuff…that picture…well, it just a building. (pause) That picture serves as reminder for me that Grandpa’s shed is lost to me. (pause)
Now I share all this for what I suspect is fairly clear….the notion of loss…that there are things, or places, or people…that are lost…and as we think about the gospel lesson for today…and these two parables that Jesus shares about the lost, I find myself asking a couple of related questions.  First off, what does the word “Lost” really mean?  And secondly, a question for each of you…What have you lost? (pause)

The parable of the lost sheep, followed up by the parable of the lost coin.  Two brief snippets shared by Jesus in response to another batch of grumbling on the part of the religious elite. (pause) THIS MAN WELCOMES SINNERS AND EATS WITH THEM!  How dare he?

Certainly this is nothing new…we see this type of thing happening with a fair bit of regularity in the gospel narratives…when the big wigs…the “righteous ones” who OF COURSE…have it all together, criticize Jesus and labeling him guilty by association…for he willingly spends time alongside side these sinful people. He should know better. (pause)
And in response…the parables…what man having 100 sheep and losing one will not leave the 99 and go in search…rejoicing when he finds it…and what woman having 10 coins and losing one will not light a lamp and search diligently until she finds it…rejoicing when she does. (pause)
2 parables, both quite alike in the message that they reveal…that yes…things get lost…and yet the one that values that which is lost, will go to any length in order to find it…and because they value it so much, they will rejoice when it is found.

Now of course…the sheep and the coin…well they pretty clearly seem to represent those lost sinners that have come looking for something…and the rejoicing that goes on? Its happening in Heaven when the one lost to sin, repents…and comes back into the fold.

If we think along these lines, then it stands to reason that the one searching…the one so willing to set everything else aside, the one to bring light into the world to seek the lost in the darkness…pretty obvious that this is Jesus right? (pause)

Perhaps this gospel lesson comes across as a no-brainer…as obvious…as pretty cut and dry.  Sinners are lost to the one that values them above all others…and God will search beyond measure…and rejoice when that sinner is found.  (pause)
But to be lost in sin, is only one example of how we, the sheep…the coin…how we are lost…and now that word…lost…its sorta funny…because it carries a lot of different possibilities. Because something can be misplaced…only to be located and picked up again…no harm no foul…or on the flip side…something might be destroyed…or living things can die…and we would still call them lost.

And so thinking along these lines, I’ve pondered at great length about just what it means to be lost…both to us…when we lose something or someone…as well as when we ourselves are lost. (pause)

Perhaps one of the most pertinent examples of this happens to each us as we age…we slow down…our bodies don’t quite work like they used to…and things that once we took for granted…abilities, strengths…all the sudden we realize that we can’t do them anymore…and perhaps that’s something to grieve…and perhaps we realize that even our own self-image of who we are…has been lost to us. (pause)
But what about on the flipside…what are some of the ways that things of value…and more specifically, people that we value…that we cherish and love….how can they be lost?

I’ve already mentioned the theological aspect of being lost in sin…something that’s a reality for each of us…but what about the more tangible?  Loved ones are lost through the reality of distance…the separation that can result from broken relationships…we’ve seen first hand here in our community the reality of loss through death…when our loved ones cross that boundary where we are completely unable to find them.

But there are other ways as well…ways that are perhaps even more difficult to deal with…when someone we love is effected by mental decline…and the person that we remember…the person that we should encounter as we sit there face to face with them…just…isn’t…there.

Several families right here in our congregation are dealing with this reality…and with our extended life expectancy, I think its safe to say that most families have dealt with it at one time or another…and its devastating…to lose the person that we know, even while they are still physically with us. (pause)

So I ask again…what have you lost? (pause) Who have you lost? (pause) And finally…how are you…lost? (pause)  I can’t answer these questions for you…but I can remind you that this is the human reality…flawed and broken…and perhaps in each of these situations, we could say that there is the presence of death.

But…remember that we have a God who can…and does…create new life out of death…this is the promise of the gospel…this is the hope of the resurrection…that somehow…someway…that which is lost…whether metaphorically…or literally…WILL…BE…FOUND.

In the waters of our baptism, we are made heirs of the promise of the resurrection, joining with Christ, one day, in a resurrection like his…and though we lack the knowledge of just what this is going to look like…the promise remains. That the one that values each and every one of us more than any other can or will…God…will search…and God will find you…and on that glorious day described by the Apostle Paul when the trumpet sounds and we are all changed…somehow, those who are lost to us in the here and now will be found…whole once more. (pause)
This is the promise of the gospel…and the promise of Christ today…that we who are lost…will NOT stay that way…for God will continue to search in ways that go far beyond our human abilities to comprehend or achieve…and when we are found…then God will rejoice…and he invites us…to do the same. Amen.

So What Does The Cross Really Mean 9-4-16

In this sermon, based on Luke 14:25-33, I explore some rather harsh statements from Jesus regarding the cost of discipleship. Different audiences can and likely do hear his words differently.

You can listen to the audio of the sermon here:

You can also follow along with the text of the sermon here:

Grace and peace to you in the name of the father and of the son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen

If there is a single type of movie that society would consider to be the “most popular” right now…my vote would be the comic book movie. They are everywhere…you can barely turn on the tv anymore without seeing a commercial for someone flying around in a cape.

Now I’m not complaining about this in the least possible way…because I love them…and I’m a big fan about how each of the major organizations that are making these movies are working to create a shared universe…namely, that all of the different movies and characters and stories that fall under their particular brand occur within the same universe.

Now if you’re familiar with the universe, if you’ve seen the different movies…then you can typically pick up on the different little details…but on the flip side…if you aren’t familiar, then it can get really confusing.  (pause) This was on full display at my house the other night. My son Jack and I had been channel surfing and we happened to find Iron Man 3…and so we were sitting there watching it.  If you’re unfamiliar, Iron Man falls under the Marvel brand, alongside other names like Captain America, or the Hulk, and Thor…and one that I’m guessing you’ve at least heard of before…the Avengers.

There are all kinds of movies mixed in with tv shows…in short…there’s A LOT in the Marvel universe…and Iron Man 3, the particular movie we were watching, came out about 3 years ago…so there’s been a lot more story that’s developed in the mean time.

That being said, Jack and I were watching…making comments about things in this movie that set up stuff that came later on…comments about characters and settings…all kinds of stuff…and my wife…well…she was completely lost…to her credit…she was asking questions…trying to understand…but we might as well have been speaking another language…and I think that all she was really getting out the movie was a bunch of flashy explosions. (pause)

This whole deal points towards an important point.  Audience is important…different audiences will understand things differently…they’ll interpret things differently…and this is true whether we are speaking about individuals, as well as when we get a little more generic and talk about groups…in short…our experience changes how we understand something…and this is important because today’s gospel lesson puts this truth on display. (pause)

I’ve often talked before about the differences in how people in Jesus’ time would understand a particular situation…and how that can often be different from the way we do…and it’s the result of many different things…but mainly boiling down to the differences in context…and to offer even a tiny glimpse at this…within today’s story Jesus talks about a king going out to war. At that time, the notion of 10,000 men fighting 20,000 hand to hand made perfect sense…but they would have zero notion of what to make of airstrikes or nuclear submarines, something that we take almost for granted. (pause) Context determines understanding for different audiences.

And today’s story…perhaps more than any other that I’ve really come across highlights this…typically when this comes up there are two possible audiences…but today, there are 3…Those of us hearing it today, bringing with us all of our experiences and ideas…then there would have been Luke’s audience…individuals living approximately 75 years after the death and resurrection of Jesus…individuals who would be 2 or 3 generations down the line from the events described in the story….and then there would have been the audience of Jesus…standing there in the crowds actually listening to him that day…and I’m guessing that all three audiences…21st century upper Midwest Lutherans…early 2nd century believers…and early 1st Century Jews…all three probably pick up things a little differently. (pause)

Now this particular passage is often referred to as the cost of discipleship…sparked off when large crowds are following Jesus…likely for a very wide variety of reasons…and Jesus lays out some truth for them to make sure they actually understand what it means to be his disciple…now Jesus lays this out in the first portion of the reading…with these shocking words about hating parents, spouses, children, siblings…even our very lives…and then picking up our cross to follow him…the rest of the reading about building the tower and the king going to war are just illustrations intended to highlight this notion. (pause)
But for everyone who hears these words…I’m guessing something specific…and likely different…jumps out. Now admittedly, this is a hard passage…to hear Jesus, the one we are so used to hearing talk about love and acceptance…say that we are supposed to hate our family…that’s a hard pill for us to swallow…because we are so used to the big picture…we’re used to hearing those other teachings from Jesus…and because of that…this comes across really harsh.

But let’s back it up…what about the audience of Jesus that day? Most of them would have been Jewish…and I’m guessing that this was even more shocking…hate your parents? Well that breaks one of the commandments…hate your family? By no means!!! These individuals was culturally engrained to think about their family, their heritage…it was central to them.

But then what about Luke’s audience…those 2nd century believers who had very likely experienced this sort of thing first hand…Remember just how divisive the gospel was at THAT time…these would have been individuals that were cast out of community…out of their synagogues…they would have been disowned by family members that could NOT tolerate this new belief…and so for those people…hearing these words of Jesus, while painful, would have served as more of a reminder of the life they were living…the choices that they had made to follow Christ. (pause)
And there’s another statement that Jesus makes that really falls under this whole situation as well…Anyone who does not carry the cross ad follow me cannot be my disciple. (pause)

Now how do we hear that? I fear that the first thought that enters our head is the very common statement “that’s my cross to bear” which if you’re family is typically used to describe some uncomfortable situation…but we think of it as our personal cost…the thing that we have to endure simply because we are believers in Christ…but perhaps at the same time…our Lutheran theology always makes us think about the cross as a symbol of hope…and the notion of what God accomplished through the death of Jesus on the Cross and his subsequent resurrection…2000 years of history and interpretation lead us to that…that’s what we think of.
But let’s back up…and what would the other audiences hear? For Luke’s audience…those 2nd century Christians…those people who lived under the threat of being martyred…those individuals who had likely watched friends or family be tortured and killed, perhaps even crucified…because of their faith?  Well that’s going to mean something dramatically different than it does for us won’t it? (pause) And finally, what about Jesus’ audience that day…those people in the crowds who hear “carry the cross.” What would they think?

Because keep in mind…at that point…the Cross as we think of it…it hadn’t happened yet…The crucifixion of Jesus…hadn’t happened yet…His death and resurrection was not yet a reality…and so for those people there THAT day…all they could possibly think of is who they’ve seen carrying a cross.

And that…is the one who has been condemned…remember that crucifixion in general was VERY common…it was the Roman’s favorite form of public execution…intended to send a message…and the worst part of it…when you were condemned to die by crucifixion, you had to carry your own cross. How horrible is that? (pause) And so, for Jesus’ audience…they would hear “those who do not willingly recognize that they are condemned cannot be my disciple.” (pause)

Let me say that one more time…those who do not recognize that they are condemned cannot be my disciple. (pause) Think about that for a moment…Harsh? Utterly devoid of hope or promise?  Shocking…you better believe it.

But that…that right there…that is precisely how we need to hear these words today…Now there are times when we look for the gospel in the midst of Jesus’ words…and there are times when we look towards the greater overarching story…but then again…sometimes the Holy Spirit smacks us directly with his…exact…words. To be a disciple of Christ is to see ourselves as the one who is already condemned. (pause)
Now I’ve been thinking a lot about this recently…likely because of the fact that our congregation has experienced 2 deaths…2 funerals in the past 2 weeks…and one of the themes that emerge in and around funerals is the truth of death within our reality…and additionally that death is the result of sin.

This is the reality for each and every one of us…each of us experiences 1 death…it is inevitable and it is the result of the presence of sin within our individuals lives…the apostle Paul reminds us that the wages of sin is death…and there are no exception…we are each subject to it…you might say that we are each condemned. (pause)

That’s the reality that Jesus’ audience would have heard that day…that to be his follower is to recognize that you are condemned…and there was no joy to be found in the cross yet…and so that raises the question of what does it mean to be people of the cross in the here and now…while we are in the midst of this life…and that’s a great question…perhaps one that we cannot truly answer…because that is not our reality.

We live in a reality where the cross…the crucifixion…the death AND the resurrection of Jesus HAS already happened…and we are shaped by the history that has occurred…and we cling to the hope that the cross represents for us…and we call things what they are. YES…we are condemned by the presence of sin in our lives…but through the cross…through the life death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, the power of sin and death has been overcome…and so when Jesus reminds us to carry our cross as his disciples, we are simply acknowledging that alone, I am as good as dead…but thanks be to God that God didn’t leave it there.  (pause)

So what does the cross really mean? Well…it means something different to everyone…but the hope that we cling to…the hope and the faith that we express each and every week here in worship…is that through the cross…through the death of Jesus followed by his resurrection, our lives today are lived in the promise of life everlasting…and we live in that freedom right here, right now. (pause)

Now that being said, this does not mean that our lives as disciples of Christ are going to be easy…often times far from it…and that’s where the rest of Jesus’ words today are still important for us to hear…there is cost to discipleship…and its different for every single individual…for some it might be the loss of family connections…it might even be the loss of our very lives…and yes there are parts of the world, even today, where this is still a very real thing.

Our faith in Christ is both unbelievable easy…because we don’t have to do anything to get it…but at the same time it comes with extraordinary cost…because through it, your life will never be the same…so keep that in mind as you follow where Christ leads. Amen.