Sunday, July 31, 2011

7th Sunday after Pentecost - July 31, 2011

I don’t want to beat around the bush too much this morning.  The way I see it, the gospel lesson about the Feeding of the 5,000 is fundamentally about two related ideas.  Jesus gives.  And we receive.  And I’ll say it again.  Jesus gives.  And we receive.

So here is how it plays out.  Jesus has just learned that his cousin, John the Baptist, has been murdered in particularly gruesome fashion by Herod.  Jesus had been teaching the crowds, but he gets in a boat and leaves to go to a deserted place in order to spend some time alone.  I think we can all understand this very human impulse.  We call it grief.  It doesn’t work out that way, though. 

When he lands at the deserted place, the crowd of people are there, having followed along the shoreline.  You might expect Jesus to be a little peeved about the situation, “Leave me be.  I need some time alone.”  But he says no such thing.  Instead we hear that “Jesus had compassion on them and healed their sick.”

Jesus, the one who was mourning, the one who himself needed compassion, is the one who has compassion on the crowd.  He has compassion on them and he heals them.  He gives.  And they receive. 

This goes on for quite some time, apparently.  There are more than 5,000 of them, after all.  And Jesus gives and gives and gives.  And the crowd receives and receives and receives.  And finally, evening time is coming along; supper time is coming along.

His disciples speak up and tell Jesus that it’s time for all these folks to go back to town so that they can rustle up something to eat before it gets too late.  And then Jesus says something that really makes no sense at all.  “They need not go away; YOU give them something to eat.”  You give.

Now this would seem to run contrary to one of the two main points with which I started the sermon: Jesus gives.  And we receive.  It seems that in this instance, Jesus is telling the disciples to give.  So what gives?

Well, what happens after this command?  The disciples are able to cobble together all of 5 loaves of bread and 2 fish before they come to the end of their abilities.  That is all of the food that they are able to produce.  It turns out that their resources are very small.   This is a problem.  It seems that they cannot do what they have been told to do.  They cannot give the crowd enough to eat, because they do not have it.

But the question I have is this: What is the actual problem?  Is it that the disciples weren’t able to produce enough food to feed everyone?  No, I do not think that this is the problem.  

The problem is that the disciples have failed to understand the nature of giving.  When they look inside themselves for something to give, they find very little.  When they look only towards their own resources, they have next to nothing to give, and the nothing that they have quickly runs out.  The disciples do not understand giving.  They do not understand the truth: that it is Jesus who gives and we who receive.  Because he commanded it, the disciples assumed that they must become the givers, that they must produce something or find something in order to give it.  It does not work this way.  For it is Jesus who gives.  And we receive.

So how then, are they going to be able feed the crowd?  Is Jesus mocking his disciples when he tells them to do something that they cannot do?  No, he is not mocking them.  He is teaching them.  He is teaching them that it is He who gives and they who receive.  And in order for the disciples to give, they must receive; for it is not they who give, but Jesus who gives. 

So Jesus takes the disciples’ nothing (the 5 loaves of bread and the 2 fish) and he gives them an abundance.  And he gives the crowd this abundance THROUGH the disciples.  Five thousand and more are fed that evening not because the disciples dig deep and give what they can, not because the disciples have inspired people to share, but because Jesus Christ, miraculously and powerfully, gives through them.  Jesus gives.  They receive. 

And what of us?  How do these things work today?  It is still our God who gives richly and abundantly.  And it is we who receive.  But aren’t we supposed to give?  Aren’t we commanded to give?  Why am I avoiding saying that?  Because I wish to proclaim something to you this morning.  And I’m going to use something that the Apostle Paul once wrote in order to say it.  This is what he said, “It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me.”  He was saying that the life that was in him, the righteousness that was in him, was not his own; but it was Jesus Christ. 

In just the same way I say to you, “It is no longer I who give, but Jesus Christ who gives through me.”  For this is the lesson from our gospel this morning.  Though the disciples were the ones who handed out the bread; it was Jesus Christ himself who was giving.  He was giving through them.  And so it is that he gives through us too.

So receive this blessing in his name:
May you receive until your cup overflows.  And may God – Father, Son and Holy Spirit - bless your neighbors through you.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

6th Sunday after Pentecost - July 24, 2011

Our reading this morning from Paul's Letter to the Romans is a magnificent portion of scripture.  It is full of the gospel, like the sun is full of light or like the sea is full of water.  There is a cascade of promises that come one after the other, all building in a magnificent crescendo.

There are eight promises that I count: 1) The Spirit helps us in our weakness. 2) The Spirit himself intercedes for us with groans to deep for words. 3) For those who love God all things work together for good. 4) For those whom he foreknew, he also predestined, called, justified, and glorified.  That is to say, he finishes what he starts. 5) If God is for us, no one can be against us. So no one can be against us! 6) The Father gave us Jesus, and will therefore also give us all things. 7) No one can put us on trial because it is God himself who has justified us. Nor can we be condemned by anyone because God is the only one who could condemn. 8) Nothing can separate us from the love of God.

Any one of these promises all by itself would be great and wonderful good news.  All of them together is extravagant.  And yet that is exactly what Paul is writing.  

And here I would like to take a step back because it's easy enough to miss out on something important.  Paul is writing to small house churches in Rome.  It's about twenty years after the death of Jesus.  The Christian faith has been spreading, but it's a very small fish in a very large Pagan ocean.  These small Roman churches to which he is writing have undergone persecution.  And they are so vulnerable.  They are so vulnerable since they live right by the lion's mouth, right at the heart of the Pagan Empire, Rome.  

And the promises,...... the promises seem vulnerable in a place like Rome.  Paul promises that there will be no one to condemn.  Really?  Jesus himself was condemned to die by a Roman government official.  How can Paul say that there is no one to condemn?  

"If God is for us, who can be against us?"  How about the entire weight of the Roman world, the largest empire the world had ever seen?  

"God will give us all things?"  All things?  What about protection?  What about safety?  

It might seem like Paul is ignoring some rather obvious difficulties.  But he's not.  The persecution and the danger is right before his eyes.  He writes, "For your sake we are being killed all day long; we are accounted as sheep to be slaughtered."  So how can he declare these promises in such a situation? 

In his Letter to the Romans, Paul is laying out a long theological argument.  At the heart of it is this: In baptism, you are joined to Jesus Christ in his death.  Then the Holy Spirit raises you up and makes you a new creation.  So, Paul teaches, you are the Old Sinner AND you are the New Creation: two distinct persons.  We tend to get caught up in loads of old sinner stuff, but God is concerned with the new creation, the new person that is creating.

Here is how this applies.  Paul is declaring these promises of God not to the old sinner, but to the new creation. 

The old sinner would hear these promises and laugh out loud.  The old sinner is going to look at the situation that the little Roman churches are in and say, "Wait just a cotton pickin' second.  There's danger all around!  There’s tons of condemnation.  These promises are too good to be true."  The world often looks at the promises of God in the Bible and says, “Show us the proof.”  There is no proof.  And these promises are not for you who have no faith.

The new creation, on the other hand, lives by faith.  The new creation isn’t interested in the supposed evidence, but clings to the promise.  And so what happens is this, "for those who love God (that is, for those who have faith) all things work together for good."  There will be persecution and hardship and so on.  
  • But the one who lives by faith will know that the Spirit is interceding for them.
  • The one who lives by faith will experience that God is giving them everything they need.  
  • The one who lives by faith will be certain that God will bring them through it all, that they will never be separated from Him, no matter how bad things might seem.
They don't believe this because the evidence points that way.  That’s not the way faith works.  They believe it because they have heard the promise.  And then a great and glorious thing happens.  Even in the midst of hardship, these faithful ones are sustained by their Lord.  They are given more than they need to overcome great tragedy and heartache.

In the case of these Roman churches, here is what happened.  The Emperor Nero came to power in the decade following Paul’s letter.  There was a terrible fire that consumed much of Rome.  There is an old tale that may or may not be true, that Nero himself lit the fire to clear land for his own construction projects and that as he looked out over the blaze he played his fiddle (hence the expression “to fiddle while Rome burns”).  To defuse public anger, he blamed the Christians for having set the fire. 

In the ensuing persecution many Christians were killed, including, we think, the Apostles Paul and Peter.  Christians were burned to death as human torches.  They were let loose in the Coliseum to be eaten by lions.  And yet, the Roman Christians continued to believe the promises.  And they continued to endure.  They kept sharing the good news.  They kept serving their neighbors.  And the amount of people coming to know Jesus Christ and his promises continued to grow in spite of great hardship.

Why?  Because for the new creation, the one who lives by faith, these promises are very real.  And God faithfully keeps them.

In our own day and age, in northwest Iowa, there isn’t anything like the persecution that the Roman Christians endured.  But that does not mean that these promises aren’t for us.  They are!  For we too have been baptized into Christ’s death and raised up as new creations, as people who live by faith.  And these promises from God will bring us through every hardship and God will bring us safely home.  I mentioned at the beginning, that these promises formed a kind of magnificent crescendo.  This crescendo arrives at that last promise and it is with that word that I want to close today,

“For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”  Amen.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Funeral for Alvin Edwin Heeren

Today we gather to remember Alvin Edwin Heeren and to grieve his loss. Today we gather to hear a great mystery. Today we gather to hear the good news of Jesus Christ.

Alvin and I arrived at Plymouth Manor on the same day this past February. I had just arrived in town and Alvin had just suffered a stroke. It's fair to say that I was more glad to be there than he was. I think it was really tough on him. But he was always willing to join the group of us who gathered to sing hymns, confess our sins, pray, read scripture and receive Holy Communion. There were days when I had to wake him during the service so that he could receive the bread and wine, but he was there.

And then a while back, I was told that the prognosis for Alvin wasn't good, that he didn't have too much longer to live. Upon hearing that, I fully expected that he would be downcast when I saw him next. Gladys, Ida and I met in the room with Alvin and, lo and behold, he was as happy as a lark. I had never seen such a sparkle in his eye. He continued come for worship and communion and each time he had that sparkle in his eye and a grin. I was happy to see so much more life in him. But it seemed a mystery to me. The coming of death seemed to bring life into Alvin.

On Thursday morning, I received a call from Plymouth Manor informing me that Alvin had taken a turn for the worse. Gladys and Ida were in the room with Alvin when I arrived. Before coming, a scripture had flashed across my mind and as I saw Alvin in bed, having trouble breathing, it seemed that this was the very word that needed to be spoken. "May I share something with you?" I asked. Opening the Bible to Galatians I read, "It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me." Alvin was letting go of life, and yet by faith, we knew that before us on that bed, was Jesus Christ himself, living in Alvin. Here was a great mystery. How can it be that Christ lives in us? How does this happen and what does it mean? There is an answer to this mystery, though it remains a mystery.

Many, many years ago, as a very young child, Alvin Heeren died. In this very church, Christ Lutheran, he was baptized in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. And in those words he was joined to the death of Jesus Christ. And this was very good news and the people rejoiced. Now how can this be, that the death of young Alvin might bring joy? Here is the answer, according to St. Paul in his letter to the Romans, "Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life. For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his." The people that day rightly rejoiced because Alvin had been given a promise, the promise of life eternal and they rejoiced that day because through death Jesus Christ came to live in Alvin.

On a day like today, it seems far too much to rejoice while we still grieve. How can we rejoice when one we loved so dearly has died? Even so, even so, we rejoice. And surely this is a mystery too. Let us pray,

Heavenly Father, you gave your Son to this world that he might suffer and die and through his death, kill death. He became sin and was crucified so that sin itself would be crucified. He was given over to the power of the Devil and so broke the Devil's power. And you raised him up victorious over sin, death and the Devil. Father, it is a mystery to us how victory can be gained through defeat. It is a mystery how life can come through death. It is a mystery how the righteousness of Christ is reckoned to us. And yet this is so. This is the very thing that you reveal to us in scripture. It is the very promise that you give to us in baptism. For all the baptized who have gathered here today, strengthen in us faith in your promises. Assure us that it is not us who live, but Christ who lives in us. Amen.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

5th Sunday after Pentecost - July 17, 2011

Back in May, Wayne came over to the parsonage with his roto-tiller and dug up a patch in back of the parsonage so that I could plant a garden.  I put in some zucchini, tomatoes, basil and a few other things.  And then things got busy.  I went up to MN for a class on pre-marital counseling; we had Vacation Bible School; I presided over my first wedding.  All this time, in the back of my mind I was thinking, “I’ve got to get back to that garden.”  But we were getting plenty of rain and I was tired and it just didn’t happen.  Finally, I went back there to take a look.  It wasn’t pretty.  All the things that I planted were still there, surrounded by a robust crop of weeds.  I’ve been weeding for a month and I still haven’t gotten them all out. 

In our gospel lesson today, Jesus tells us that we don’t have to weed.  (And that’s plenty of reason to love Jesus, right there.)  But it’s a curious thing.  It isn’t quite what one would expect.  The motto of our church organization, the ELCA, is “God’s work, our hands.”  That sounds an awful lot like we’re supposed to get out there and get to work.  And yet, that’s not at all what Jesus says.  So let’s take a look at the Parable of the Weeds.

A recurring concern in the New Testament is how it can be that evil exists alongside the good.  If God is good and if God is powerful, why does evil continue?  That is the concern that is addressed in our gospel lesson today: “why are there weeds alongside the wheat?”  A further concern is this: What do we do about it?  Do we get in there and start pulling weeds?  Or do we do something else?  Jesus has two answers for us today, one which he delivers to the crowd, who is the audience for the parable, and the other which he delivers afterwards to his disciples, in private.

The parable is this: the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who sows good seed in his field.  But an enemy comes along and puts in a whole bunch of weeds that resemble the wheat.  When they come up, they look the same.  It isn’t until the wheat starts to show its grain that anyone can tell that the field is full of weeds, because the weeds don’t have any grain.  The servants want to yank the weeds out, but the landowner says, “No, you’ll only destroy everything.  Just let them grow and I’ll sort it out later.”

So then, in the parable itself, the primary reaction to the discovery of the weeds is “Leave the weeds alone.”  Trying to yank them out will only cause damage to everyone. 

Now this is not the kind of answer that a religiously committed person would expect.  It seems too passive.  Maybe even a bit lax or lazy.  Shouldn’t we be at work trying to make this world holy?  Shouldn’t we be getting all tough with evil?  Shouldn’t we be showing how much we love God by making the world good, instead of evil?  One might expect the landowner to say something more like this, “Get out there on your hands and knees and get to work!  Do not allow the good to be overcome by the evil.  Fight the Evil One so that you and the field in which you grow is pure and undefiled by weeds.”  And certainly this way of thinking has been very prominent in our history.  For instance, this way of thinking was the driving force behind the abolition of slavery and the prohibition of alcohol, to name two examples.  When we think this way, we are trying to make the world conform to what God has said is good.

And yet Jesus says, “leave the weeds to grow beside the wheat.  Someone will take care of it later.  You’ll only damage people if you try to fix the problem now.”  Why would Jesus say that?  I’m tempted to say that he knows just how clumsy we would be in trying to do good.  That all of our goodness and enthusiasm would lead to more harm than good.  And this may be true.  It certainly has been the case that good intentions in the supposed service of God have gotten loads of people killed over the centuries.  And in our own time when we often funnel our good intentions through our government, we’ve made loads of people dependant on various programs...... because we were trying to help. 

I think that’s all true, we can certainly make a mess of it when we get going with our do-gooding, but that’s not the main point, I don’t think.  Instead, consider this.  We are not the owner of the field.  We are not the landowner.  We aren’t even the servants.  In this parable, people are either wheat or weeds.  The field belongs to the landowner.  And he owns the wheat and he owns the weeds.  If there’s a problem, he’s the one who is going to take care of it.  And in fact, that is exactly what the parable says.  The landowner says, “At the harvest time, I will tell the reapers......”  That is the first message that Jesus conveys with the parable, “The world is mine, not yours, mine.  And I will do as I please.  I will take care of it.”

Now, just like last week, the gospel lesson skips over some verses to get to the explanation that Jesus gives of this parable.  You should be curious about what we are skipping and you should look it up when you go home.  I’ll skip them without comment.

After those verses, Jesus is alone again with his disciples and they ask him to explain the parable.  He explains the various elements in the story: the owner is Jesus himself, the enemy is the devil, the harvest is the end of the age and so on.  But then, instead of focusing on the present, like the parable does, Jesus concentrates exclusively on the future.  He does not comment on the need for patience; he doesn’t explain further about how the wheat and the weeds will exist side by side in the world.  Instead, he focuses on the end of time, the harvest. 

He does this for a very particular reason.  He is saying one thing.  But he is saying it in two different ways.

Here is the first thing he says: Evildoers will be gathered up and punished.  Evil will not continue to exist in the kingdom of God, but will be entirely removed.  Jesus says this very clearly.  That is the first thing.

The second thing is this: he tells his disciples that, “the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their father.” 

The two things, taken together, amount to this: “This world is mine, not yours, mine.  And I will do as I please.  Is there evil in my kingdom?  Yes, and I will take care of it.  Not only that, I will bring my righteous ones to me.  I will make that decision and I will do that.”

So the point of the sermon so far is that it is God’s field.  And as much as we might think differently, it is not ours.  We are not the ones in and amongst the plants; we are the plants. 

Now I can imagine some of you saying, “Well this is all fine and dandy.  We appreciate a nice story about your vegetable garden.  And it’s good to hear a little about a parable.  But none of that matters if I’m a weed.  I want to be the wheat!  But quite honestly, I feel a bit weedy.”  Maybe I shouldn’t put those words in your minds.  Instead I should say these are my thoughts.  I look at myself and I think, “not good.”  And I’m not talking about years ago when I didn’t do a very good job of living.  I’m talking about these days.  I look at myself and I look a bit weedy.  How can this parable possibly be good news?

It’s good news because Jesus isn’t asking you to examine yourself and make a decision.  He’s the landowner.  He’s the sovereign Lord of the Universe.  It is him who makes the decisions, not you, not me.  And he looks at you and he says, “You are a righteous wheat plant because I say so.  I have given you this promise in baptism and there is nothing more to be said.  At the end of time I shall gather you up to be with me in the kingdom of my father.  And you shall shine like the sun!”

Sunday, July 10, 2011

4th Sunday after Pentecost - July 10, 2011

You may have noticed that I only read the first part of the gospel lesson.  I wanted you to hear the parable first, before hearing Jesus’ explanation of it.  And I want us to be thinking in terms of Law and Gospel: how is the scripture functioning?  Is it asking something of us or condemning us like the law?  Is it promising something to us like the gospel?  What is the scripture doing to us?

This parable tells us about a farmer, a sower of seeds; this farmer is the main character, the only character, in the parable.  As such, we would expect the point of the parable to be about him.  He goes out into his field or his garden plot and he starts tossing seed around.  He tosses the seed indiscriminately it seems: on the pathway and rocky soil, on thorn infested soil and good soil.  He tosses it everywhere.  The parable tells us that that his yield will be good from those seeds tossed on the good soil, but from the rest of his field?  The soil that’s obstructed by the pathway and the thorns and the rocks won’t produce much of anything.  No matter.  He tosses the seed there anyway. 

Let’s put ourselves in the place of Jesus’ disciples.  What is the meaning of the parable? 
  • Well, it might mean that God is not stingy.  He gives to everyone! 
  • The parable could mean that God doesn’t particularly care.  He just tosses out the seed and says, “Whatever.”
  • The parable might be an encouragement to preachers, “Don’t try to figure out if someone is good soil or not; that is not for you to know.  Just sow the seed and trust God to bring forth the harvest.”
  • The parable might be a warning to guard against those who are out to do harm: birds, thorns and rocks!

When it comes right down to it, the parable is pretty hard to understand all by itself.  We could come up with lots of different explanations.  But what does it really mean?  At this point, let’s stop and take stock.  What is the scripture doing to us?  Is it giving us a promise?  No, it’s not doing that.  Is it demanding something from us?  Sure it is.  It’s demanding that we try to figure out the parable.  It’s not just us that have trouble figuring this out.  The disciples and the people in the crowd certainly had to try to figure it out too.  And it’s confusing and uncertain.

Our gospel lesson continues at verse 18.  [read vs 18-23]

Here we have our explanation.  It turns out that the parable isn’t really about the farmer.  It’s really about the different kind of soil.  And people are different kinds of soil.  So, depending upon what kind you are, you can either receive the word of God and have it produce fruit in you or not. 
  • First, there is the pathway: this kind of person hears the word, but doesn’t understand it, so the word is snatched from them by the Evil One.  Are you this kind of person? 
  • Second, there is the rocky soil: this kind of person hears the word, but has no roots, no perseverance.  He hears the word with joy, but it dies as soon as trouble comes.  Are you this kind of person?
  • Third, there is the thorn infested soil: this kind of person receives the word, but is so concerned about practical matters and money that the word gets choked and yields nothing.  Are you this kind of person?
  • Last, there is the good soil: this kind of person receives the word and understands it.  This kind of person produces an abundant harvest.  Are you this kind of person?
 At this point, let’s stop and take stock again.  What is the scripture doing to us?  Is it giving us a promise?  No.  Is it demanding something from us?  Yes.  I would suggest to you, that the scripture as I have given it to you is demanding that you look inward, to examine yourself.  Do you have what it takes?  Are you the good soil?  What if you’re not very good soil?  Can you improve yourself somehow?  No, you can’t. 

So, the question I have for you is this: so far, what is the scripture doing to you?  Is this the Law at work or the Gospel?  This is the Law.  The parable is showing us clearly that we must be good soil.  But we have no way of accomplishing this.  Soil can’t do anything.  It can’t choose what it is.  It can’t choose what it receives.  Soil is absolutely powerless to control what kind of yield it produces.  There is no promise here.  No good news at all.

Now the interesting part is this.  For some reason, the people who make the lectionary have decided to skip over some verses in the middle.  Do you ever wonder why they do this?  It always makes me very curious.  What is in the verses 10-17 that they don’t want me to know?

As it happens, and I’m not sure whether to laugh or cry, the gospel is in the part that they cut out.  The good news is in the part that ended up on the cutting room floor.  But there is also something else in there that doesn’t make for comfortable reading and I assume that that is the reason it’s been cut out.  Listen for yourselves.

[read vs 10-17]

Can you see why people aren’t necessarily too keen on reading that?  Jesus says as bluntly as can be that he speaks in parables so that some people won’t understand!  He speaks in parables to HIDE the meaning.  Now I assure you that this part is Law all the way.  This is just plain bad news that people don’t want to hear!  And I assume that’s why they cut this part out, so that we won’t hear it.  I don’t know that I like that strategy too much, though, because then we miss out on the truth. 

And we also miss out on the word that he gives straight to the disciples.  This is what he tells those disciples, “To you it has been given to know the secrets of the kingdom of heaven.”  So here is Jesus revealing himself to his disciples, giving the disciples a promise.  He is saying, “You are chosen.”  And for the disciples, this is great news.  For them, this is pure gospel. 

But what about for us?  We’ve just heard terrible news, “God hides himself” and we’ve heard great news, “You disciples have been chosen to understand.”  Where do we fit in?  Another way to put this is, “So are we good soil like the disciples or are we rocky and thorn infested like those other folks?”  How do we go about getting chosen?  How do we get on the right team?

The most natural thing in the world is to try to play some part in our own salvation, to try to do something to make ourselves good soil.  Whether that means living good, clean lives (I don’t smoke or chew or spend time with those who do) or loving others like Jesus told us to or just trying to take faith seriously.  It’s the most natural thing in the world to connect our behavior with our salvation.  At the very least, we’ll say, “You’ve got to at least cooperate with God.”    We desperately want to do something, to be a part of salvation, but it all amounts to the same damnable thing.  We try to be the good soil.

It doesn’t work that way.  As a matter of fact, we’re rocky soil and we’re thorn-infested soil and God says, “No more.  I pronounce you good soil.  Here is my Word.  Here is my promise to you.  I choose you.  That’s what Jesus told his disciples.  It’s not because they understood the parable any better than anyone else.  He just pronounced them good soil, just like that.  And that’s what he told you in baptism and that what he tells you today.

At this point, let’s stop and take stock again.  What is the scripture doing to us now?  Is it demanding something from us?  No, it is demanding nothing at all.  It is giving you a promise, pure and simple.  It is the gospel with no strings attached.

Now you might say to yourself, “But I still feel a little thorny.”  .......  Do you know what the word Satan means?  The word Satan means, “Accuser.”  He is the one who will get out the Book of the Law and point his finger at you and accuse you.  This is what he says, “Sure, God promises that you are the good soil, but have you seen yourself?  Good Lord, you’ve got thorns coming out of your ears.  You can’t possibly be good soil.  And where’s that abundant harvest?  Hah!  You must have misunderstood; God wasn’t really talking to you.”

Do you see how this works?  God gives a promise to you.  And then Satan comes along and says, “God’s a liar.  You can’t believe the promise; it’s too good to be true.  Maybe if we worked a little harder, though.  Maybe if you tried to cooperate with him?  Maybe if you take your Christianity seriously enough....  Maybe then that promise will be for you.”

Well what a load of rot!  The Father of Lies, Satan, is trying to tell you that God is a liar?  Don’t believe it.  This is what God says to you, “You are the good soil.  That is my decision.  I have chosen you, my baptized.  And that’s just the way it’s going to be.  Amen.

Sunday, July 3, 2011

3rd Sunday after Pentecost - July 3, 2011

This past year, the Vikings drafted Christian Ponder, a quarterback out of Florida State University.  Given the state of their quarterbacking situation, it seems quite likely that he’ll be starting straight out of the gate, from game one.  It’s predictable that he’s going to have a rough time of it.  He’ll throw terrible interceptions, take foolish sacks and lose games left and right (at least I hope so.)  At a certain point, Vikings fans are going to complain and they are going to say, “Why not give Joe Webb a shot?”  And that will probably happen.  And he’ll have problems.  Games will be lost and people will turn on him too.  When they don’t see the results they want, fans will find something to criticize.  It’s just the way things work; it’s like a law of nature.

Now, in our gospel lesson today, Jesus isn’t actually talking about the Vikings’ quarterback situation, but he is talking about something kind of similar.  He’s saying that John the Baptist came and John was out there in the wilderness in rough clothes and he was preaching rough news, “Repent!  You brood of vipers!” was the kind of thing John would say.  And so a lot of people didn’t like him, “He’s too rough around the edges, too legalistic, too cranky,” they said. 

Fine, let’s try a different quarterback then.  “Put that Jesus fellow in.  See what he can do.”  Well Jesus was totally different!  He would sit down and have dinners with sinners!  He broke the Sabbath.  His disciples broke rules and ate well too.  And what did the people say, “Get that bum out of there!  He’s a glutton and a drunkard.”

People are never satisfied.  When things aren’t going the way they want, they are going to complain.  They didn’t like John the Baptist and they didn’t like Jesus either.

So why is this so?  (And I’m not going to try to use football to explain this.)  Why do people miss the truth of the matter and get hung up on the little stuff?  Why couldn’t people understand that John the Baptist was a prophet?  Why couldn’t people see that Jesus was the Messiah?  Jesus had been healing people left, right, and center, but people still didn’t understand.  Why not?

And here is where we get to the heart of theology, the central part, the part that has given people fits for centuries.  Why do some people have faith and others not? 

What does Jesus say?  “I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and the intelligent and have revealed them to infants.” 

God hides.  And God reveals. 

Those of you who were here last week heard the reading of a very hard scripture, the command of God to Abraham to give his son as a burnt offering.  We talked about how appalling this is, and how difficult to understand.  I presented to you Martin Luther’s explanation.  He wrote that God relates to us in two very different ways, which Luther called “The Hidden God” and “The Revealed God.”  The Hidden God is beyond our comprehension and often seems terrible to us.  The Revealed God comes to us in Jesus Christ and speaks to us with promises.  There is only ONE God, but we experience him in these two very different ways.

In today’s gospel we are seeing this again.  God hides.  And God reveals.  Why?  What does Jesus say?  “For such was your gracious will.”  That doesn’t seem to answer the question, does it?  Why does God hide and reveal?  Because he does.  That’s not a very satisfying answer, but it’s answer that Jesus gives.

And then he stops explaining and he starts preaching; he starts giving promises, he starts revealing himself to his chosen ones.  So listen up, this means you.  "Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.   29  Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.   30  For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light."  That is Jesus’ promise for you this morning, the promise that he gives to his baptized, to his chosen ones.  He knows that you are carrying burdens and that they can be heavy indeed.  He will give you rest.  Maybe some days it can seem like it’s all too much to bear.  He will give you rest.  

Now, likely as not, there is the old sinner in some of us who is trying to stop us from hearing this promise, this word of comfort.  My old sinner tried to feed me a line this week as I was writing the sermon.  This is what he said, “Aha!  It’s not really a promise, because Jesus is requiring that I come to him in order to find rest.  It’s actually a command!”  My old sinner is very sly and he tries to speak to me in a classic Lutheran, Law/Gospel dialectic.  Nevertheless, I say to him, “Harrumph and Balderdash.”  It’s simply a matter of convenience that you all come here in order to hear the promise; it’s not responding to a command.  If necessary, I could come and knock on all of your doors and give the promise to at your breakfast table......  The promise is for you. 

God has chosen all of you to hear his promise this morning, this promise of rest from our burdens.  We are not the wise and the intelligent who have somehow earned this privilege.  We are the infants, the little ones.  And because we have heard this promise of God; we will believe it.  We will trust it.  Amen.

Saturday, July 2, 2011

Lammers Wedding - July 2, 2011

Greg and Dena, in the preparation for your marriage we have had the chance to talk together a number of times.  And certainly the focus has been on what you can do to help make your relationship stronger.  We’ve talked about communication and conflict resolution, finances and parenting.  We’ve tried to be realistic and practical.  And I think you are both well aware that marriage is going to take a lot of work.  It is good to know that.  It will make marriage easier to know that marriage isn’t going to be easy.

But that isn’t what I want to talk about today.  Because your own efforts are only going to get you so far.  The question for today is, how is God going to be at work in your marriage? 

When we sat down to choose a scripture lesson, we went through a few: “Build your house on the rock, not on the sandy land......”  Good advice, but it’s more about what you should be doing; it’s about your own efforts. 

There were some scriptures about Love, of course.  “Love is gentle, love is kind” and so on.  And love is surely a good thing.  But again, that’s about what you are doing.  And no matter the quality or the quantity of the love that you’ve got for one another, and the love that you show to each other, there are going to be days when it just isn’t going to be enough.  You’re both human, after all.  And you are going to sin and do stupid stuff that you will regret. 

Gregory, instead of actively listening, there will be days when you just nod and go along with Dena without trying to understand her.  Dena, instead of being assertive, there will be days when you expect Greg to know what you need without telling him.  Neither of you is going to be perfect.  So your love for one another is a wonderful thing, but it only goes so far. 

So we kept reading through some scriptures.  And then I read Ephesians 3:14-19.  Greg, you heard me read it and said, “I like that one.”  And Dena, you agreed.  And I think there is great wisdom in your choice.  Here is why.

You chose to hear a blessing on your wedding day.  Ephesians 3:14-19 is a blessing that Paul prayed for churches that he had planted, but today we bless you with it.  Now this blessing is in very eloquent and poetic language.  So much so, that we might easily miss what exactly you are being blessed with!  Paul mentions strength and power and knowledge and love.  And these are all fine things.  And no doubt we could talk about them at great length.  But I would hate to talk for too long about something that wasn’t the heart of the matter.  And these things (strength and power and knowledge and love) aren’t the heart of the matter. 

The heart of the matter is amazingly simple.  And the best way that I can think of to show it too you is this.  Take the first half of verse sixteen and the last half of verse nineteen, put them together and this is what you get, “I pray that, according to the riches of his glory, he may grant.......  so that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.” 

Let’s simplify just a little bit more so that we can’t miss the point, “I pray that he may grant...... so that you may be filled.”

What Paul is telling these Ephesians is that what they really need isn’t something that they can get for themselves.  It isn’t something they have.  What they really need, what they need to be filled with, is what God can give them.  What ONLY God can give them.  And so Paul is blessing them with that.  He is praying that God will give them all that they need, until they are full up with it.  But the important part, the heart of the matter, is who is giving to whom.  God is the one giving and the Ephesians are the ones who are receiving.

Here’s the deal.  God chose both of you in baptism.  He made a decision about you Greg; he made a decision about you Dena.  He decided to grant you something, to give you something: the forgiveness of sins and the promise of eternal life.  You didn’t choose; he did.  You didn’t give; he did. 

So what I’m saying is that the blessing of Paul is already a done deal. God has granted.  And you have been filled.  You have been filled with Christ himself.  And in Christ, you have absolutely everything that you will ever need: the breadth and the length, the height and depth, the whole shmeer, the whole kit and caboodle.  It is yours by faith.  What does this mean?  It means that you aren’t relying on yourself Greg.  You are relying on Jesus Christ.  It means that you aren’t relying on yourself Dena; you are relying on Jesus Christ.  Individually and together you are both relying on what God has already abundantly given to you.  Or rather, you are both relying on WHO God has given you.  He has given you Jesus Christ, and he is more than enough.  Amen.