Archive for September 2010

…As We Forgive Our Debtors?

September 20, 2010

A sermon from the 17th Sunday after Pentecost (9-19-10)

Children’s Time: bring a clock with a second hand… talk about a runner sliding into home, safe! …or about a girl oversleeping and missing her bus by a few seconds. In both cases the small things (just a few seconds) matter. Just a few seconds can make a big difference! God cares about the little things. And so do your SS teachers and youth leaders! The Bible teaches: “If you are faithful in the small things you will be faithful in the big things.” / INSTALLATION OF TEACHERS & GUIDES

Intro: Dear friends in Christ: grace to you and peace, from the One who is and who was and who is to come: our living Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.

When I first saw this lesson for today, I though to myself, “Oh great! I get to preach on the lesson where Jesus approves of a man lying to cover his own mistakes!” Since when is dishonesty a virtue?

Well, if you happened to be watching the Yankees game against Tampa Bay last week, you saw Derek Jeter up at bat fake getting hit by the ball. The instant replay clearly shows the ball glancing off the bat, but because of his good acting skills, the ump gave him first base. Later he admitted that he’d faked it because it’s the batter’s job to get on base whatever it takes. They even had the team physician on the field examining his wrist while the coach from the opposing team went to argue it with the ump. And he got thrown out of the game! Sometimes dishonesty is rewarded.

So why does Jesus commend the dishonest manager, praising him for his shrewdness, when we all know that he was doing it just to save himself? Here was a guy who knew he was in trouble. He had just gotten his walking papers from the boss for mismanaging the property for far too long. And he went out and did all he could to cover his own behind! Sure, he cut his clients a break, but only so that they would return the favor for him some day. In verse 9 Jesus said, “I tell you, make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into the eternal homes.”

The Jerusalem Bible translates this verse to read: “So I tell you this: use money, tainted as it is, to win you friends.” What a lowdown thing for Jesus to say! Is he telling us the ends justifies the means? I mean, if you’re only trying to help someone (in this case yourself) does that justify lying?

I should say right now that this parable has been explained in several different ways. Probably the biggest stretch I’ve heard comes from The Living Bible. In this translation, Jesus says in verse 9: “But shall I tell you to act that way, to buy friendship through cheating? No!” It’s clearly a twisting of the Greek text to get Jesus to say what we want him to say.

So, what’s really going on here? I’m tempted to just avoid this parable altogether. After all, the word parable comes from the Greek paraballow, which means literally “to throw down alongside.” Jesus rarely explained himself. He just threw little stories down alongside people and walked away without explanation or altar call. But the question remains: Is a lie ever the faithful thing to do?

Say, for example, your friend’s son just dropped out of school. You wouldn’t tell him about how your own son just go the A honor roll. Or if a friend just had a miscarriage, you wouldn’t tell her about going to see your new niece. Sometimes not saying anything is the best course of action. As Aristotle once said: “Honesty is speaking the right truth to the right person, at the right time, in the right way, for the right reason.”

People lie to build themselves up, and they lie to put others down. A lie can hide the truth even from oneself. One basic rule I’ve tried to live by is to simply ask myself: “Who am I?” and to judge no one. That’s not easy. I have been shamefully wrong about people at times – only to regret the judgment I made about them later. Noted author Maya Angelou once said “Reality has changed chameleon-like so many times before my eyes that I have come to trust anything but what appears to be.”

One final take on this parable comes from writer-theologian: Sarah Dylan Breuer. She suggests that Jesus isn’t condoning lying… but rather, commending the dishonest steward for the outcome of his underhanded dealings.

“Q: What, precisely, is it that the steward does, albeit without authorization and with deception?
A: The steward forgives debts.
The steward forgives. He forgives things that he had no right to forgive. He forgives for all the wrong reasons, for personal gain and to compensate for past misconduct… So what’s the moral of this story?
It’s a moral of great emphasis for Luke: FORGIVE. Forgive it all. Forgive it now. Forgive it for any reason you want, or for no reason at all.”

Just imagine the conundrum the landowner must’ve faced. He’d probably seen many of his farmers on the way in to demand an accounting of his crooked steward. “Thank you, master, for forgiving our debts!” they shouted. “You’re the best!” He was suddenly a hero. Could he really turn around and tell all those folks: “Ah, well you see, there’s been a mistake. You all really still owe me all those debts.”? He had a choice to make. And he chose to praise the steward for his shrewdness.

Beuer later concludes… “It boils down to the same thing: deluded or sane, selfish and/or unselfish, there is no bad reason to forgive. Extending the kind of grace God shows us in every possible arena — financial and moral — can only put us more deeply in touch with God’s grace.”

How we treat each other – our families – our clients – matter. Jesus says in v. 10: “Whoever is faithful in very little, is also faithful in much.” …and “You cannot serve both God and wealth.”

So, what will happen when the master pays you a visit? How will God find your management of what has been entrusted to you? And, more importantly, how will you take action to forgive? I mean, if this sniveling excuse for a steward can show forgiveness (for all the wrong reasons) and still come out smelling like a rose… why can’t we?

Let us pray: O God, you forgive us our debts when we least deserve it – even when we’re thinking only of ourselves. Help us to be faithful in the little things – to be generous in our forgiving – to serve you over money at all times… in Jesus name we pray: Amen.

When We Lose Our Way

September 13, 2010

A sermon from the 16th Sunday after Pentecost (9-12-10)
Children’s Time: I’d like to share with you some puppets for playtime. But where did my favorite one go? The tiger? Can you help me find it? There it is, under the pew, whew! Did you know that God cares about you? In our lesson today, Jesus tells a story about a shepherd who had 100 sheep and one went missing. Well, he left the 99 to look for the lost one. I want you to remember that whenever you feel lost or all alone, God is searching for you and will never give up, because you are very special to God!

Intro: Dear friends in Christ: grace to you and peace, from the One who is and who was and who is to come: our living Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.

Have you ever been lost? I mean hopelessly lost? What is the most effective way to get back on track? Ask for directions? Right. But most of us want to give it a try first. As long as I can see the sun angle and have my bearings I’m sure I can get us out of here. Just keep heading West!

But if you’re lost in the woods what do most wilderness experts agree is the best way to be found? “Sit down, make friends with a tree and tell it your life’s story.” There are times when a map and a compass just aren’t enough! If you’re lost in a snowstorm or have grinded to a halt in dense fog, you truly are a sitting duck. And the only option is to freeze to death or be found by someone who can see clearly.

We can lose hope when we lose the way. We can lose our temper because we’re losing valuable time, or we’re afraid of losing face. We can lose our perspective or feel lost at sea. We can fight a losing battle, or just plain lose our marbles. “Get lost!” someone might say to you… but not Jesus. Thanks be to God that there is someone who cares only about finding the lost! When we say, “What a loser!” God says, “I’m on my way.”

I admire the tenacity of the shepherd – for setting out in search of the lost one – and stopping at nothing until he’s found the little sheep. I admire the woman who, when she lost a silver coin, dropped everything she was doing and turned the house upside down to find it.

Me? I’m not as patient. I’m more likely to say, “Oh, it’ll turn up eventually. It’s gotta be around here somewhere. It’s just a coin. In the grand scheme of things I can do without it.” One of my lambs, however, is a living thing. But even that is considered a commodity, to be bought and sold. I can spare one.

But God can’t. I may choose to stay with the 99 to prevent any more from straying, but God doesn’t. That coin? It’ll turn up sooner or later. But to Jesus, it’s different when we talking about lost souls. Here’s someone no one would bother going after – the mess ups and the write-offs of society – the kind of folks I am tempted to look down my nose at: deadbeat dads, dropping the ball on child support; illegal immigrants getting free healthcare at the taxpayer’s expense; welfare queens playing the system while never raising a finger to help themselves. We have a lot of easy categories for people who are lost; but seldom do we think of ourselves as lost – let alone inviting such folk for dinner! So why does Jesus?

Here is a God who will stop at nothing to track you down. And when we are found – a party is thrown. After the woman found the coin she was searching so diligently for, she invited all her friends over to celebrate! (which probably cost more than the coin she’d been looking for!)

This is a common theme in Luke’s gospel. God searches for the lost and brings them home, often with no scolding or rebuke. In the lesson to follow, Luke tells of a certain prodigal who was lost… and upon his return, a great feast is held in his honor.

I don’t think I’ll ever quite understand Jesus’ way of going after the tax collectors and sinners. What was it that drew them to him? The text says they were coming to him. Why? Greg Carey, Prof. at Lancaster Theological Seminary / Lancaster, PA summed it up this way: “Eating with sinners means taking sides.”

When Jesus opened the door to sinners he took sides with the likes of these we often write off. And it offends the rest of us who are living according to the law, nary to stray from the fold of God’s sheep.

So, on the one hand, it’s good news that God doesn’t give up on us! And yet, are we ready to welcome the other sinners Jesus is looking for when they end up back in his house?

Who have you given up the search for lately? In many parts of the world, children are sold by their own mothers as sex slaves. They will earn income for the family through forced prostitution. And for the rest of her life she will be looked down on by passers-by as “damaged goods.” Every day we write people off: The gay pastor looking for a call. The Tea Party activist protesting excessive government spending. The oil tycoon obsessed with greed and making a profit. Kids these days! They got no respect for authority! Men! Women! “You can’t live with ‘em and you can’t shoot ‘em!”

We give up on all kinds of people believing that “they’ll never change.”

Even God (in our first lesson for today) was about to give up on the sheep he had freed from Egypt and led out of slavery. When they made the golden calf and bowed down to worship it, God told Moses: “Step aside and let my wrath burn hot against them!”

Moses talked God out of calamity he had planned against his people. “Don’t let the Egyptians have the last laugh. After all, they are your people.”

And God changed his mind and welcomed the sinners back.

Let’s be people who do the same. On any given day, I too, know what it is like to be lost. Each one of us knows we do not deserve this amazing grace God lavishes upon us! And so, filled with gratitude that we are loved in spite of our sins – that God will stop at nothing to find us – let us welcome the others God is bringing into our midst – with celebration and rejoicing! Amen.

Puttin’ Down Roots

September 7, 2010

A sermon from the 15th Sunday after Pentecost (9-5-10).

Children’s Sermon: want to learn to play make believe. Make believe you’re a tree! What do trees need to survive? Yes, water and light… and soil to hold the roots steady. Did you know that the Bible says we are like trees, too? That God plants us by streams of water (to feed our roots) and helps us grow in faith? There are a lot of things that don’t help trees (or even hurt them). Let’s remember to pray that God will give us all that we need to grow each day in faith toward him.

Intro: Dear friends in Christ: grace to you and peace, from the One who is and who was and who is to come: our living Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.

When I first read this lesson I though to myself, “Oh, great. Lucky me! I get to preach on this?!” “Take up your cross and follow me.” “Um… Jesus, the cross means death, a really slow and painful death, execution style.” “Hate your family and give away everything you own.”

Lucky me. Yes, lucky for me that Jesus doesn’t hold back on the hard stuff in order to get my attention and bring me back to God.

This is no triumphal parade he calls us to – it’s a cross of discipleship. What does your cross look like these days? We all have one. It’s big and cumbersome, and really heavy. But not so heavy that we can’t shoulder it for awhile. Our cross can be embarrassing. Others may not understand why we carry it. And it’s never convenient.

It’s not a cross of punishment for something we did or did not do. It’s the place of pain that we go to on purpose, as followers of Jesus.

You heard me right: as people of faith, lifting up the cross, and shouldering its weight, is our calling. We choose to stand with those who are hurting. We hoist that heavy burden (slivers and all) not in some masochistic show of self-hatred; but because our roots go deep into the earth of our faith and we know we will not break under its weight.

I think some in the crowd that day were put off by Jesus, thinking he was asking too much. But others were drawn closer to him by these same harsh words. Like trees gently, but firmly, swaying in the shadow of the cross – they got it – that Jesus was calling them back to choose life – a life rooted in Almighty God.

I love the image of the tree we encounter in Psalm 1 today. Trees have deep roots, holding them firm in the earth, yet making them flexible enough to bend and sway in the midst of storms. We don’t bear fruit all the time… but when it’s in season that fruit is a sweet surprise. Patience and care must be taken to tend to the tree. But it is God who provides the growth. Anything else we add to the mix (our possessions, our families, our great ideas) will only hinder that spiritual growth.

In our Deuteronomy lesson for today we are told to “choose life.” It sounds so simple. Who on earth would choose death? Well, some deaths come disguised as life. But they’re not the rain and the sun that you need.

No, you may as well pour gasoline on your begonias because no matter how much it may ignite your car’s engine – sending shivers up & down your spine – it’s still gasoline – not H20 – and if you’re a plant it’ll kill you.

“Oh,” you may say, “who pours gas on a plant, silly? I would never do that. All I’ve got here is this high fructose corn syrup. That shouldn’t hurt it. Or a few bottles of Miller Genuine Draft – or this five-dollar bill for my lottery ticket: harmless, fun money. That won’t hurt the plant.”

And there are plenty of folks who aren’t into drinkin’ & gamblin’ that are just as deluded: by their sanctimonious cup of teetotaler’s delight! Drugs and addictions are easy targets – but what we often don’t suspect is our own pride, or even placing a loved one before God.

To be clear, if it’s not the light of Jesus shining down on our tree – if it’s not the living water rising up through our roots – it will, at best, get in the way of the growth and at worst, destroy that tree.

When Jesus went off on the crowd, he knew what was at stake. And he was following a long-standing tradition of the prophets – those who shocked the people back to reality in order to convict them to return to the Lord in their hearts. I mean, who did people say Jesus was? When Jesus asked Peter this, he said, “Some say your John the Baptist – and others, Elijah, or one of the prophets.”

Biblical prophets woke people up! They offended their audiences, often threatening of God’s wrath – in order to turn them back to the God who so loves them.

Amos called his listeners “Fat cows of Bashan!” calling for justice to roll down like mighty waters and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream!

Jeremiah said: “If I say I won’t talk about my Lord, it’s as if there is a fire shut up in my bones and I am weary holding it in. I cannot.”

Even Jesus’ mother, Mary, prophesied in the Magnifcat: “You, O God, have cast the mighty down from their thrones and uplifted the humble in heart. You have fed the hungry with wondrous things and left the wealthy no part.”

Jesus’ concern for the poor, and for victims of oppression were born out of this prophetic tradition, and out of his experience as a Jew, living in the minority, under Roman occupation.

So, when Jesus says something so outlandish to us it’s not because he truly wants us to hate our mother and father (thus breaking the 4th commandment) – but to show how much God desires a relationship with us.

What did God tell Moses after he gave the Ten Commandments to him? “I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God, punishing children for the iniquity of parents, to the third and the fourth generation of those who reject me, but showing steadfast love to the thousandth generation of those who love me and keep my commandments.”

In the Small Catechism, Luther said, “God threatens to punish all who break these commandments. Therefore we are to fear his wrath and not disobey these commandments. However, God promises grace and every good thing to all those who keep these commandments. Therefore we also are to love and trust him and gladly act according to his commands.”

That’s what “choosing life” is all about. I mean you can lie and cheat and steal and kill to get your way in this world… but it all leads to death and destruction. This is not how we were intended to live. How can we possibly know peace and harmony apart from God’s Law?

Now, I didn’t say we were able to follow that Law to the “T.” No one is able to keep the law in its entirety. That’s why Jesus came – to cover the rest of the bases – not to do away with the law… but to fulfill it!

The good news is God’s still trying to get your attention. God is a jealous God and will stop at nothing to wake you up to who you truly are: God’s tree, firmly rooted in the soil of Jesus. You are strong and able, fed with the waters of baptism you are green and fruit-bearing. Flexible to the winds you know how to bend as you must without breaking. And you belong to the Lord.

Let us pray: Lord God, only you can make these words come alive – only you can take our thoughts and make them holy. Give us the strength to choose life this day, to shoulder our cross in loving obedience, and to be rooted in your saving grace. Amen.

Me First! …and other ways we forget to give way to others.

September 3, 2010

Luke 14:1-14
On one occasion when Jesus was going to the house of a leader of the Pharisees to eat a meal on the sabbath, they were watching him closely. 7When he noticed how the guests chose the places of honor, he told them a parable. 8“When you are invited by someone to a wedding banquet, do not sit down at the place of honor, in case someone more distinguished than you has been invited by your host; 9and the host who invited both of you may come and say to you, ‘Give this person your place,’ and then in disgrace you would start to take the lowest place. 10But when you are invited, go and sit down at the lowest place, so that when your host comes, he may say to you, ‘Friend, move up higher’; then you will be honored in the presence of all who sit at the table with you. 11For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.” 12He said also to the one who had invited him, “When you give a luncheon or a dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors, in case they may invite you in return, and you would be repaid. 13But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. 14And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you, for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.”

Children’s Time: Me first! Hey, no budging! How does it feel to have someone cut in front of you when you’re standing in line? Or, when your sister or brother takes the last pop tart at breakfast? Do you ever wonder why the last box of cereal on the shelf is never the one with the most sugar? And when that box is down to the last bowl, you need to share or there’ll be some other unhappy campers at the breakfast table. Jesus, in our lesson for today calls us to put others first – to give up the seat of honor – to let others go first. Lets remember that the next time we dig in to our Lucky Charms.

Dear friends in Christ: grace to you and peace, from the One who is and who was and who is to come: our living Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.

There are a couple of themes going on here today: one revolves around honor and disgrace (that Jesus describes at the dinner table). And the other revolves around the question: who will I associate with or invite into my home? Jesus says, “Invite those who could never repay you.” Then, finally, we get a glimpse at how to do that from the 13th chapter of Hebrews that challenges us to love each other as families do. Let’s start there.

The Greeks have a word for this kind of love: Philadelphia. (which is the city of… brotherly love). Just as the Eskimos have several words in their language for “snow” so too the writers of the Bible had several words for “love.” There was philios (what we often refer to as brotherly love), eros (erotic, romantic love full of passion for a lover) and agape (that sacrificial love, that puts others first at the expense of our own desires).

In our lesson from Hebrews today, we have philios, the kind of love between family members. Now, I don’t know about you, but my brothers and I fought quite a bit growing up. On any given day if you were to peek in on us, you might be hard pressed to find an example of brotherly love. Snide remarks, bullying to get the last pop tart or bowl of Lucky Charms, and a few atomic wedgies thrown in for good measure. Of course, I never started it. It was usually one of my brothers who started it. To which my mother would be quick to remind me, “Yes, John, but you finished it!”

And yet, for all the fighting siblings do, there is still a bond that is forged in the family – a bond of family love and loyalty (Philadelphia). Oh, it’s not there in all families. Some have deep divisions over painful memories and incidents that will require much love, prayer and truth-telling before healing can begin. But the writer to the Hebrews gives us a glimpse of what this love is like.

It is described as showing hospitality to strangers, visiting the prisoner as if you yourself were in prison, tending the tortured as if you yourself were being victimized. There are instructions for keeping the marriage bed holy, for guarding against the love of money and for imitating the faith of one’s religious leaders.

But the kicker comes in that last line: “You will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.” What?! Do you mean tell me, Jesus, that if I bust my butt to put others first today, I have to wait till I’m dead and raised again to get what’s coming to me? Why should I give up that last bowl of CapNCrunch to my little sister today when I won’t get my bowl till I go to heaven?!

And, of course, the whole point is not to be motived by “what’s in it for me.” The point is to show love – simply for love’s sake. There is honor in putting others first. And disgrace in thinking only of oneself.

In his Newberry Award winning novel, The High King, Lloyd Alexander recounts the story of young Taran, an assistant pig-keeper who has dreams of becoming a valiant knight someday. His advice from his farmer-mentor, Coll, was this: “There is more honor in a field well planted than in a field steeped in blood.” The bald-headed Coll ought to know, for only later in the story does Taran realize that his farmer friend was once a mighty warrior.

Honor and disgrace have been around a long time. Jesus knew the pecking order was firmly in place. He even encourages his followers to play the system: “If you want the seat of higher honor, start at the bottom – you can only go up from there! But if you immediately take the best seat in the house, you can be sure that someone else more distinguished than you will come along and you will be escorted to a lower seat in disgrace.”

Maybe this is why we joke about Lutherans always sitting in the back row. But there’s a problem with self-deprecation, too. God didn’t create you to crawl under a rock in humiliation. You were made in the image of God for good works! You have been invited to the banquet at his heavenly feast. Your name is on the guest list! And that’s good news!

Just as budging in line to get to the front is a sin, so too is crawling to the back of the line and hiding your light under a basket.

When we were in Africa we met Josephat at the Neema Craft store. Josephat is deaf. He speaks in sign language; but he’s also got a hunched back. And so the sign he was given as his name was a hand motion for a hump. In essence, he was defined by his defect. Once he came to work at the craft store, they found out his gift: making paper out of elephant dung! No one could make paper like Josephat. He soon became the best at it. So his friends re-named him in sign language with two fists coming together, which means “he is able.”

What a beautiful way to honor someone – to define them not based on they’re disability, but rather based on what they’re good at. You see, Jesus didn’t just tell us to play the system… he redefined it for his host sitting there that day: “When you throw a party, invite the poor, the lame, the blind and the crippled. All those poor schmucks who could never ever pay you back by inviting you to their shindig, because they got no shins to dig!”

When we lift others up we give them the opportunity to join us at the table. Because if we’ve been paying attention at all… we know in our heart of hearts, that none of us deserve to be there in the first place. None of us could ever repay the host, Jesus Christ, for his sacrificial love on the cross.

Karl Barth, that renowned Lutheran theologian from WWII Germany, once said that the gospel only has its full effect when it comes into the hands of sinners. “It is only now that the gospel, having been put in our sinful, unclean hands, really works itself out, fully shows itself for what it is, the actual joyful news for actual sinners.”

You know that old familiar jingle: “It don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that swing?” Well, our faith don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that sting. There’s a sting involved in taking the lower seat – in realizing that we neither deserve God’s love, nor this invitation to Jesus’ table.

So, how will that affect the way we treat our brothers and sisters? How will that affect our attitudes at work among newcomers and trainees? How will that affect the way we craft immigration policies in our country – knowing full well that none of us deserve citizenship, but that it is a privilege granted by those who have gone before us?

So, the next time you have the urge to say “Me first” remember the one who put the needs of the whole world ahead of himself. Then listen to what God is calling you to do. Receive your place with humility – then invite others generously to the table of the Lord. Let us pray:

O God, we give you thanks that you have invited us to your table. It is an honor we did not seek. Help us in humility to invite others into that holy fellowship by your Spirit. In Jesus name we pray. Amen.