Sunday, February 27, 2011

8th Sunday after Epiphany - February 27, 2011

One of the things that I’ve always loved to do with my wife is take walks.  In the early days of our friendship we took regular walks with her mom and sister.  A few years later, I proposed to her on a walk around Lake Como in St. Paul.  We went hiking up Mount Webster on our honeymoon in New Hampshire.  We love taking walks together.  Now one of the reasons for this, from my point of view, is her great enthusiasm, especially when walking in the woods.  It can be counted on, that at some point, without fail, she will exclaim, “Look, a trail!”  Oftentimes it’s more a joke than anything and we’ll pass on by the supposed “trail,” but there have been many times when we’ve gone exploring.  These little trails have often been interesting, sometimes a little muddy, occasionally infested by mosquitoes, but one thing that they have had in common is that they have always been dead ends; they have never brought us to our destination.  That doesn’t mean I regret taking any of them.  In fact, I’d like to go down a few dead end trails with you this morning.

In today's sermon, I am going to go down two dead ends in interpreting our gospel lesson from Matthew.  Each trail has some interest and ends up in the theological mud with a bunch of mosquitoes.  After taking the dead end trails, we’ll get to the heart of the matter, our destination, the good news of Jesus Christ for sinners.

So let’s go down the trail!  

Here is how the first dead end message gets preached:  In our gospel lesson for today, Jesus talks about how we make money into our god.  In our country today, money makes all kinds of promises.
  • Money promises to safeguard our health.  Having insurance holds out the promise that we won’t have to worry getting sick. 
  • Money promises to make us happy.  We don’t have to watch TV for long to hear this promise loud and clear.  If we buy product XYZ then we’ll finally be happy.
  • Money promises to make us more free.  “Wanna get away?” is what Southwestern Airlines asks.  Buy a ticket and we will give you freedom. 
  • Money promises to make us loved.  Diamonds are a girl’s best friend and diamonds don’t come cheap. 

Preachers will correctly point out that money can’t keep all those promises.  “Money can become an idol, a false god,” they say.  And they are right to say it.  And then they start to make the connection to you.  “We in this country need to examine ourselves because too often we have made money our god.  We need to stop thinking so much about profit and do more to help.  We have programs that will help us to do all these things.  We need to get to work.  God’s work.  Our hands.” 

Now I am not telling you that this dead end message doesn’t have some truth in it.  Money can and does become an idol.  We are called to serve our neighbor and we are called to give generously.  This is most certainly true.  We must take care of the last, the least and the lonely.  But this is not the gospel.  This whole line of thinking is a dead end because there is no good news in it.  It leaves sinners like us all alone to examine our own lives and our own finances, hoping that we are doing enough to help.  Hoping we are serving enough.  Hoping that we aren’t condemned because of our prosperity.  It can also leave us very self-satisfied if we figure that we are doing well enough, or at least better than the other guy.
Thus ends the first dead end.

Now for the second dead end. And this one is a very tricky one because there is so much truth here it can almost seem like good news, but something is just a little bit wrong and it turns the sweetness to ashes in our mouths.  Here is how this message gets preached: 

In the gospel lesson today, the heart of the matter is the promise, "seek ye first the kingdom of God and his righteousness and all these things shall be added unto you."  “This is beautiful and sweet good news,” they will say, “because God is willing to give us all of the things that we need if only we will follow him.”  Further they will say, “God does not demand perfection.  God knows that we are sinners and he is so full of grace that he will forgive you and bless you if only you will respond to his grace.”

This dead end appeals to our seriousness as Christians.  We know that our God is a holy God and we know that we should seek his ways in all that we do.  These are both true.  Further, we know that living a godly life will be better for us and for our family.  This is also true.

So where is the problem?  The problem is that this is only good news if we are able to do it.  For you see, “seek ye first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things shall be added unto you” is not fundamentally a promise.  It is a command.  It is not the good news of Jesus Christ.  It is God’s law.  We should, we must try to keep this command, because it is the good and right thing to do!  But the day will come, maybe very quickly, when we realize that we have not kept it.  And then where will we be?  When we follow this dead end, Jesus Christ is not a savior. He is a law-giver and an encourager.  Being a serious and sincere Christian is not the gospel. 
Thus ends the second dead end.

Now for the heart of the matter. Here is the good news.  Jesus tells us that his Father cares for the birds of the air.  He cares for them enough to feed them.  God loves you more than that.  Jesus tells us that his Father cares for the lilies of the field.  He cares for them enough to clothe them beautifully, watering them so that they exceed the splendor of King Solomon.  God loves you more than that.  In fact, God loves you so much that he sent his only son to die for you, so that all your struggling and striving and failing could come to an end in him.  I have good news for you today.  Your God loves you.  Amen.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

7th Sunday after Epiphany - February 20

Lord God, let the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be pleasing in your sight.  Amen.

Today, Jesus gives us a very simple command; he tells us to be perfect like God. 
He tells us to be perfect like God.
He tells us to be perfect like God.
Now that is quite a command!  When Moses came down from Mt. Sinai with the Ten Commandments, at least they seemed realistic.  The people of Israel still weren’t able to keep them, mind you, but at least it seemed like they had a fighting chance.  What are we supposed to do with this new commandment from Jesus? 
This sermon is going to be about how three different people understand God’s commands, particularly this big one from Jesus. And at the end, it will be a sermon on what we as Lutherans know about such things.

Now there is a certain kind of person who hears God’s command to be perfect and gets excited.  Lets call this person Tom.  Tom gets excited because he is an observant man.  He pays attention to the news.  He is involved in his community.  He has noticed what happens when God’s law is broken or ignored.  All kinds of trouble!  Abortion, drug abuse, violence, divorce.  Tom is a kind-hearted man and he wants good things for people.  “If only we would take God’s commands more seriously then we wouldn’t have so many of these problems,” he says.  Tom gets excited when he hears God’s command to be perfect because he has faith that if we just tried harder, God would work through the law to make us into better people.

There is another kind of person and we will call her Jane.  Jane hears God’s command to be perfect and she cringes.  She takes God’s law seriously too, but she’s well aware that she hasn’t kept it very well.  Jane made some bad decisions when she was younger, got pregnant when she was still in high school, married the father.  Divorced the father because he had a drinking problem.  She’s always trying to do the right thing.  But it’s always seemed out of reach for her.  And so when she hears God’s command to be perfect she just feels guilty.  “God, why does it have to be so difficult,” is what she says.  “Oh well, I guess I’ll just keep trying.”

Bob is another kind of fellow altogether.  He runs his own business and places high value on getting things done.  He hears God’s command to be perfect and it strikes him as unrealistic.  Bob is a practical man, after all.  “Clearly,” he thinks, “Jesus was just exaggerating to make a point.”  For Bob, God’s commands are more or less good moral suggestions that sometimes are relevant and sometimes aren’t, depending on how well they work.  What’s important is “living right.”  That is what God is really interested in, after all.  Each person needs to use a little common sense to live right and that should be fine.

So there you go.  Three different kinds of people who hear God’s command in three different ways.

As you might imagine, there are problems with all three.  Or rather, there is a particular problem with all three.  When Tom, Jane and Bob hear the gospel lesson for today and when they hear Jesus say, “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly father is perfect” their minds are trapped.  They immediately start thinking about whether or not they have kept the command.  “How well have I done?” is what they are thinking.

  • Tom thinks that he’s done pretty well, by the grace of God.
  • Jane knows that she’s messed it up and wishes she could go back and do a better job of it.
  • Bob congratulates himself for being reasonable enough to live right without getting hung up on being too literal.
All are thinking about how well they have done.  And I don’t blame them one bit.  That’s just how people think.  It’s perfectly rationale.  In their own ways Tom, Jane and Bob are each responding rationally to the command of Jesus.  But so long as they remain stuck there on the command, they are missing the part that really matters.    

The gospel is not rationale.  God’s choosing you to be his child is not rationale.  Quite to the contrary, the gospel comes out of left field.  It’s about the most irrational thing that you can think of.  Trying to explain it can rob of it of its beauty and its power so here it is.   

When God looks at you, he isn’t trying to figure out whether or not you’ve been perfect.  God does not say, “Well, you’ve really shown some improvement.”   God does not say, “If only you’d just try a little harder!”  He looks at you and he sees his son, Jesus Christ, absolutely perfect and without fault.  And then he says to you, his voice swelling with pride, “I am pleased with you.”

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Funeral for Norman Varenhorst

Back in April of 1947 the country roads around Brunsville weren’t in the best of shape.  Now these days the roads are nice and smooth, except for those spots that warn you a stop sign is coming.  But back in those days, in the springtime, the roads were all mud and potholes.  If you got stuck in the wrong pothole, there wasn’t any guarantee that you were getting out any time soon.  Even if you avoided the worst of the holes, you were still in for a bumpy ride.  It was roads such as these that put Norman and Lois in a dilemma almost sixty-four years ago.  You see, they were getting married.  And a good wedding deserves a good cake.  But in between that cake and the church....... were those roads.  Were they going to be able to get the cake to the wedding in once piece?  On the cusp of something new and unknown, there was uncertainty.  What was going to happen?

Now, you might say that the survival of that wedding cake wasn’t the most important thing in the world.  And that’s probably true.  But for all of you who have been married, you know that the basic point remains the same.  What will married life be like?  Will there be children?  How many?  Will we scrape by or live comfortably?  Will we be happy?  On the cusp of something new and unknown, there is uncertainty. 

In our reading from the Gospel of John, the disciples are caught in uncertainty.  For three years they have gone around with Jesus.  They have listened to him preach; they have seen him heal the sick; they have even witnessed him raising Lazarus from the dead.  And now, he has brought them together for one last meal together, the Last Supper.  And he has told them that the time has come for him to leave.  He will be killed the next day.   They did not expect this.  They were not prepared for it.  They did not know what to do.  Thomas cries out to Jesus, “Lord, we do not know where you are going.  How can we know the way?”  He may as well have said, “Lord, what are we going to do without you?  What’s going to happen to us?”  On the cusp of something new and unknown, there is uncertainty. 

On a day like today, many of us who are gathered here might be feeling some of that uncertainty.  We have questions.  What will life be like without my husband, my father, my grandpa, my friend?  What happens when someone I love dies?  What happens when I die? 

Some of these questions will just have to be lived into.  In sorrow and pain you will discover what life is like without Norman.  It seems so very cruel, but there is no other way.  But some of those questions have definite answers and especially on a day like today, they need to be boldly declared. 

When Thomas cries out, “Lord, we do not know where you are going.  How can we know the way?”  Jesus answers him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life.”  Thomas cries out in uncertainty.  Jesus Christ responds with certainty.  Jesus Christ, when he died on the cross and descended into hell, and when he rose again on the third day, Jesus Christ did what no one else could do, he conquered death.  He put death to death.  He killed death.  In baptism, Norman was joined to the death of Christ.  Norman died many, many years ago in the waters of baptism.  In baptism, Norman was joined to the resurrection of Christ.  And he was raised up from death to new life that very same day.  That was the promise he was given.  That old promise remains the same today.  And that old promise is certain.

And what of us?  Here there is certainty too.  Jesus is the way, and the truth, and the life.  No one comes to the father but by him.  In the water of baptism we die.  And we are raised up to new life by his promise.  He forgives us in Holy Communion.  He creates faith in us by the hearing of his preached word.  And so I declare unto you, in baptism God has joined you to his son Jesus Christ.  You have died.  By the word of his promise he has raised you to new life.  Amen.