Saturday, October 3, 2015

Man Must Separate What God Has Joined Together

Mark 10:2-16 When we still lived in Ft. Worth, Caroline taught at Trinity Lutheran School.  I remember one year after the school’s Christmas program all of the parents and children in her class gathered in her room for pictures.  Everyone was dressed in their Christmas finery and Caroline was taking their pictures around the class Christmas tree.
But one little girl sat off to the side with this pitiful look on her face.  Caroline and I had talked about her at home.  Her parents were getting a divorce and it was a bitter, ugly mess.  After everyone else had taken their picture Caroline asked this little girl’s parents (who were standing on opposite sides of the classroom) if they wouldn’t like to stand together by the tree with their daughter and have their picture taken too.
I was watching that little girl’s face the whole time and for one brief moment, thinking about that picture around the tree, there was a spark of light in her eyes, but at Caroline’s question, both of the parents answered the same way “We most certainly DO NOT want to stand together for a picture”!  I wish you could have seen that little girl’s face—because that is the face of divorce.  That is why God says:  I hate divorce.
In our sermon today we are going to hear what Jesus has to say about divorce.  But before we do that I want to warn you about two different attitudes that people have when they hear sermons on divorce. 
The first is self-righteousness on the part of those who have never suffered through a divorce, believing that somehow, someway this puts them a little bit higher in God’s sight than those who have. 
And the second attitude is despair on the part of those who have been divorced, believing that somehow, some way they are marked with a scarlet letter in permanent ink that no amount of repentance will ever take away. 
Neither attitude is right.  Both of them cast the grace of God underfoot.  Every one of us—whether divorced or still married-- has a life with God only because Jesus opens wide his arms of grace and says:  Come to me.  The Bible says:
The Pharisees came up and in order to test Jesus asked, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?” He answered them, “What did Moses command you?” They said, “Moses allowed a man to write a certificate of divorce and to send her away.”
            Among the religious leaders of Israel there were two main schools of thought when it came to divorce.  The first one said that a man could divorce his wife for any reason whatsoever.  The second one said no, a man could only divorce his wife for some sexual sin. 
Despite being poles apart when it came to acceptable reasons for divorce, there was no question in their mind that divorce itself was fine in God’s sight—after all Moses himself had regulated divorce in the law.  But divorce isn’t fine in God’s sight—it is the sad result of sin.  Jesus said to them, “It was because of your hardness of heart Moses wrote you this commandment.
            At the center of every divorce is the sin that Jesus called “hardness of heart.”  He’s talking about the hardness of heart that leads a man to abandon the wife of his youth for a newer model.  He’s talking about the hardness of heart of a woman who is never satisfied with her husband, makes sure everyone knows it, and destroys his spirit.  He’s talking about the hardness of heart of a couple where neither one is willing to put the other first or serve the other in love. 
            Harness of heart is why we (who have never been divorced) ought not sprain our arm patting ourselves on the back!  Hard-heartedness in marriage doesn’t just exist between those who get divorced—it exists in every marriage to one degree or another. 
It’s there when a husband doesn’t love his wife like Christ loves the Church-- and it is there when a wife doesn’t respect and submit to her husband as to the Lord.
These failings are not new to us or unique to our time and place—it’s as old as sin—and Moses tried to limit the damage of divorce on everyone concerned (especially women) by regulating it in the law.  But divorce was never part of God’s will for marriage.  Jesus said that:
From the beginning of creation, ‘God made them male and female.’ ‘Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.’ So they are no longer two but one flesh.
            When you attend a Lutheran wedding service you will hear these words three different times:  the first time from Moses in the Old Testament reading, the second time from Jesus in the Gospel, and the third from the Apostle Paul in the epistle lesson. 
These words are God’s institution of marriage and his holy will has never changed despite what our culture and the courts of the land have to say: one man, one woman united in a lifetime marriage.  This is God’s design, God’s order, and God’s will.
Marriage is not a social construct that can change with the times.  Marriage is not a private arrangement between two people.  Marriage is not a legal contract that can be dismissed if the terms of agreement are breached.  Instead…
Marriage is the work of God where he takes one man and joins him to one woman for a lifetime.  Marriage is the union between one man and one women made one flesh by God himself.  Marriage is a relationship that takes precedence over every other earthly loyalty and love. Marriage is a gift of God that must not be destroyed by man.  The Bible says:  What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate.” 
In this one verse is both encouragement and warning for those who are married.  There is going to be conflict in our marriage—how can there not be when two sinners live together under one roof?!  There is going to be disappointment.  How can there not be when God has designed us to find our ultimate fulfillment in him alone—not our spouse?! 
And so then, when there is conflict and when there is disappointment, what a blessing it is to know that it is God himself who joined us together!  What an encouragement to know that this is the one who God has given me!  How it changes things for the better in our marriage to see our spouse that way, as God’s gift to us!
But there is also a warning here.  We are not permitted to separate what God has joined together or abandon the one whom God has given us.  And Jesus is not just talking about the final act of divorce-- but every sinful act that undermines God’s good gift of marriage and drives a wedge between husband and wife.  The Bible says that:
In the house the disciples asked Jesus again about this matter. And he said to them, “Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her, and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery.” 
            When Martin Luther explained the sixth commandment (Thou Shalt Not Commit Adultery) in the Small Catechism, he explained it this way:  “We should fear and love God that we may lead a chaste and decent life in word and deed, and each love and honor his spouse.”  He was exactly right. 
Divorce is a sixth commandment sin because it destroys God’s gift of marriage and that destruction doesn’t just affect the husband and wife—it affects their children-- and it undermines every new marriage they enter into.  That is why God says:  I hate divorce.
When we began our meditation on God’s Word I warned you about two different attitudes that people often have when they hear sermons on divorce—the first being self-righteousness that says “Lord, look at me, I’ve never been divorced.  Surely I’m better than my friend or fellow church member who has.” 
But there is another attitude to guard against and that is a kind of despair in those who have been divorced that says, “Lord, I know I’ve done wrong and there is nothing I can do to fix it, no way to go back.  Will I have to bear this burden forever?!”  The cure for our self-righteousness and the cure for our despair is found in what happens next.  The Bible says that:
They were bringing children to Jesus that he might touch them, and the disciples rebuked them. But when Jesus saw it, he was indignant and said to them, “Let the children come to me; do not hinder them, for to such belongs the kingdom of God. Truly, I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it.” And he took them in his arms and blessed them, laying his hands on them.
            These words of Jesus serve us today as a beautiful reminder about the breadth of God’s kingdom and the love of Christ that welcomes every person and embraces them in love and forgiveness.
Those who were wanting to keep the children away from Jesus had a mistaken view of life in God’s kingdom.  They thought that it was necessary to bring something to the Lord so that he would make a place for you.  Children couldn’t do that and so they were excluded.
But that’s not how the Kingdom of God works!  There is a place for us with God because Jesus has made a place for us by his death and resurrection.  There is a place for rich and poor—for men and women—for young and old.  There is a place for the divorced and a place for those of us still plugging along with the same guy or gal thirty, forty, fifty years later.
There is a place for us in God’s kingdom for all of us because Jesus’ shed blood has paid for all of our sins—including divorce and the self-righteousness that looks down on the divorced.  There is a place in God’s kingdom for all of us because Jesus’ resurrection is the promise of a fresh start and a new life for us-- even when divorce has been part of our past.
When husbands and wives respect and love one another they become living, breathing examples of Christ’s redeeming work and the love that he has for all of us and so I pray that God would strengthen the marriages of his people in this place so that our enduring love for another would be a sign to those around us of God’s enduring love for all people!  Amen.

Sunday, September 20, 2015

"A Gracious Call" St. Matthew's Day

Matthew 9:9-13 “As Jesus passed on from there, he saw a man called Matthew sitting at the tax booth, and he said to him, "Follow me."
We know him as Matthew the Apostle, one of the original twelve disciples, a man who is remembered with his own feast day the liturgical calendar.  We know him as Matthew the Evangelist whose Gospel contains the most complete account of our Lord’s life and teachings—a means of grace that God the Holy Spirit has used to bring countless people to faith in Christ over the last two thousand years.  We know him as St. Matthew, one of the great heroes of the faith who occupies one of the twelve thrones in heaven. 
But that is not how the people of his day knew him.  They knew him as Matthew the tax collector—a public sinner held in contempt by his neighbors—cut-off from society—excommunicated from the synagogue.    
And it is only when we begin to see the story like that--that we understand what an earth-shattering, grace-filled event this call of Jesus to Matthew was—how completely unlike the way mankind thinks that God works.  
Each of us are born with a natural religion that believes that God looks down from heaven and chooses people to love on the basis of who we are compared to others and of course we are always among those chosen and loved.
But in the call of Matthew we see that God invites us to have a life with him as an act of his pure grace—not on account of who we are—but because of Jesus and what he has done. 
If you knew nothing else of the Bible but this story-- you would still know the Good News that Jesus graciously calls sinners to come and have a life with God.
The Bible says that Jesus said to him:  "Follow me." And Matthew rose and followed him.  This simple sentence and the scene it portrays is so remarkable that virtually every bible commentator says that surely Matthew must have known Jesus beforehand to have such a radical break with his past. 
But Matthew is the one telling his story and he never mentions anything of the sort.  He simply says that Jesus called him and he followed. 
I think the reason that bible scholars have such a difficult time believing what is right there on the Bible page in front of them is because what happens in the response of Matthew is so different than what we experience in our own life of faith. 
What is common to our experience is the call of Jesus to the rich young man who didn’t want to give up his stuff.  Or the call of Jesus to the man who lost a loved one and his family came first.  Or the call of Jesus to Nicodemus who wasn’t ready to give up his religious misconceptions about how God ought to work and what the Messiah ought to be.  These folks we understand--because they are like us. 
But a notorious sinner who hears the call of Jesus and immediately, whole-heartedly follows?  A sinner who gives up his livelihood in one fail swoop?  We have to come up with a reason of why that can’t be so because it is such a sharp rebuke to every one of us who has priorities other than obedience to the call of Jesus.
But why shouldn’t Jesus expect just exactly the same faith from each of us this day that he received from Matthew that day?  The One who calls us to follow him is God in flesh and he speaks with the same authority and he calls to us:  follow me!
All who answer that gracious call of Jesus with the “yes” of faith we will discover what Matthew did:  that whatever we leave behind is nothing compared to what we gain:  forgiveness for our sins—a new beginning—and a life with God. 
Gaining this for himself, Matthew he wanted his friends and fellow sinners to know and have the same forgiveness and new life.  The bible says that:
As Jesus reclined at table in the house, behold, many tax collectors and sinners came and were reclining with Jesus and his disciples. 
            There at the table in Matthew’s house were all of his friends—his fellow tax collectors and other notorious sinners—and Jesus, eating with sinners.
That was something that decent people of that day didn’t do.  It was certainly something that religious leaders didn’t do.  And it was beyond imagination that the Messiah would do such a thing! 
And yet there Jesus was in the midst of sinners:  speaking to them—sharing food with them—laughing with them—and touching them. 
The call of Matthew and the meal at his house is such a beautiful summary of the Good News of salvation in Jesus! 
God did not hold himself aloof from the broken-ness of his creatures but sent his Son in human flesh-- right into the midst of our sin and broken-ness-- to make it right by his death and resurrection. 
He so identified with our broken human condition that our sins were laid upon him and he suffered the death that we deserved.  And he endured it all and rose up from the dead so that the fellowship we see around the table in Matthew’s house would be an eternal reality for every person who comes to Jesus in faith—a new eternal life for the sinners like Matthew AND for the self-righteous like the Pharisees.  The Bible says:
And when the Pharisees saw this, they said to his disciples, "Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?" 
            The implication of the Pharisees’ question to the disciples was that if Jesus really were holy—if he really were a rabbi—if he really were the Messiah-- then he would never have fellowship with sinners—but that is why he was there in the first place!
Somewhere along the way the religious leaders of Israel had forgotten that the purpose of the Messiah restore fellowship between God and man their purpose as God’s people was to tell the world this Good News!
And so rather than being engaged with the world for the sake of their salvation—they kept the world at a distance with one arm-- while patting themselves on the back for their own holiness with the other arm.
We need to remember this scene of sinners eating with Jesus while the self-righteous stand outside that fellowship because we are not somehow magically immune to their contempt for the fallen. 
Our congregations become holy huddles of like-minded people with little room for those who struggle.  We look askance at those who have failed in real ways.  We stand in God’s place as judge rather than act like Jesus who was the friend of sinners. 
And slowly but surely, our Christian faith (which ought to have as its first priority a loving concern and compassion for the lost) becomes instead the reason for keeping the lost at arms length and away from Jesus who came to heal the sin-sick.
The Bible says that when Jesus heard the Pharisees question about his eating with sinners he said:  "Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick.  That is how Jesus regarded those around them table with him:  that they were sin-sick unto death.
            Jesus was there that day in the midst of sinners because they were afflicted the fatal disease of sin and death and as the Great Physician of body and soul he had been sent by his Father to bring them healing.  He wouldn’t abandon them! 
And yet that is what the Pharisees expected Jesus to do, not realizing that they were just as sin-sick because their self-righteousness had blinded them to that diagnosis.  But Jesus desired their healing too and so he said to them:  Go and learn what this means, 'I desire mercy, and not sacrifice.'
            The ceremonies and rituals Pharisees were not an end unto themselves but were intended to bring them to a correct knowledge of God—that the LORD is a God of mercy who longs to forgive us so that we might have a life with him.
That the Pharisees could not see God’s love for sinners in the actions of Jesus Christ, God’s own Messiah, shows how far they had wandered away from the truth.
What about us?  Are we rigorous in doctrine but merciless to sinners?  Are we satisfied with external religiosity but withhold the one thing needful from those around us?  Are we quicker to judge than to forgive?
If we find ourselves numbered today with the sinful, self-righteous Pharisees, there is still Good News for us because Jesus “…came not to call the righteous, but sinners."   The same Jesus who loved and called Matthew to leave his life of sin and follow him, loved and called the self-righteous Pharisees to do the same.
That we number ourselves with those sinners that Jesus has called is not a sign of shame but a sign of salvation-- for Jesus came for this very purpose:  to call sinners to a life with God through faith in him.  Amen.

Saturday, September 19, 2015

Those Who Make Peace

James 3:13-18 I remember reading an article by a Mennonite author in which he posed this question:  What if we as a nation, with the same money and resources and determination and skill as we wage war—what if instead, we waged peace?
To wage peace—I had never thought about foreign affairs and our life as a nation from that perspective before.  I’m not really convinced that it would work-- or that it is even biblical.  After all, St. Paul tells us in Romans that those who wield the sword in our government are God’s ministers for our good and I don’t really think that ISIS is going to be changed by a peace sign and a daisy. 
Waging peace may not work in our life as a nation but as individual Christians we are definitely called to wage peace—that is, to be peacemakers in our relationships with one another, actively working to live in peace with one another. 
In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus says that:  Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God.  St. Paul says:  if it is possible, so far as it depends upon you, live peaceably with all.  And in our lesson today James tells us that: a harvest of righteousness is sown in peace by those who make peace.
God expects that Christians will live out their faith by actively sharing the peace of Christ in all their relationships for the One we confess as Lord and Savior is the Prince of Peace.  And so then…
Because the Prince of Peace has made things right between us and God—because we have peace with God through the blood of Jesus--how we live with one another will reflect that new reality and status and relationship by our living in peace with one another as brothers and sisters in Christ.
But peacemaking gets very difficult indeed when the concept of living in peace takes on a concrete shape with the people around us.   For example:
What does it mean for me as a husband or a wife in a conflicted marriage that God is calling me to be a peacemaker?  What is my role as a disciple of the Prince of Peace in a family where there are hard-feelings that have lasted years?  How can I show my fellow church members that the peace with God that I have through faith in Christ is more than just words?  James writes:
Who is wise and understanding among you? By his good conduct let him show his works in the meekness of wisdom.
            Have you ever heard of a Gordian knot?  It comes from Greek mythology and it’s named after the ancient king Gordias who tied a knot so intricate that he promised that whoever could untie it would rule Asia.  Alexander the Great arrived on the scene—was able to come up with a solution—and did indeed rule Asia.
I tell you this little story because often times it seems that the conflicted relationships where we are called to live as peacemakers are like Gordian knots.  They are so tangled up and twisted up that we don’t even know where to start. 
Unkind things have been spoken—unkind things have been said in return—time passes--hard feelings become ingrained—and where do we start to make things right? 
Hateful things have been done to us—things that erect what seems like an impenetrable barrier between us and others-- and we don’t even know where to begin to bridge that wall.  How do we make peace with others in those kinds of situations?
The bible says that the solution to these kinds of conflicts requires wisdom and understanding—and the bible IS NOT talking about a merely intellectual grasp of who right and who is wrong or who needs to apologize first.  (All of us are great at that-- even if we are oftentimes wrong about who is at fault.)
But what the Bible is talking about is wisdom and understanding that show up in how we live and how we act toward others:  what the Bible calls the “meekness of wisdom”.
“The meekness of wisdom”—that is an interesting phrase.  The word that is translated as “meekness” is also translated as “gentleness”-- but it does not mean passiveness or resignation.  The root word was used to describe a stallion under the control of a bit and bridle. 
To put it in modern vernacular we might say that, to be a peacemaker in our relationships—to be truly wise and understanding—we need to be the “bigger man”.
You’ve heard that expression, right?  You’ve told it to your children when they have a conflict at school—that you need to be the bigger person and not continue the conflict.  That’s what James means when he talks about living in peace with others and…
An even better way to describe what James is talking about is to picture our Lord.  Jesus came into this conflicted world full of sinners as the King of kings and Lord of lords.  He had every right to judge us and punish us and compel us to do his will.  And yet he came in gentleness and meekness and wisdom—full of forgiveness and peace. 
As his people, in the midst of conflicted and difficult relationships, we are called to the same kind of life—we are called to be the bigger person—we are called to be the peacemaker.  And yet much too often, what we see in ourselves and how we act towards those who have wounded us is just the opposite.  James says:
If you have bitter jealousy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not boast and be false to the truth. This is not the wisdom that comes down from above, but is earthly, unspiritual, demonic. For where jealousy and selfish ambition exist, there will be disorder and every vile practice.
            We all know what a “pity party” is, right?  “Oh, poor me!”  “Can you believe she said that to me!”  “Can you believe he did that to me?!”  And our anger and bitterness and resentment and hurt feelings stand at the very center of our lives as the guests of honor at our pity party. 
It’s bad enough when it’s just us a party of one—but we never do want it to be just us, do we?  And so we assemble a little group of friends and fellow sufferers so we don’t have to say “oh poor me” to an empty room--but can hear from others “oh poor you!”  “How could they have done that to you’’!  “How wrong they are!”  “You don’t deserve that”!
But I will tell you the truth dear friends in Christ, when there is bitterness and jealousy and self-centeredness in our hearts—when we love to tell ourselves and others how bad people are to us and how innocent and put upon we are—it is simply a lie. 
In fact, the Bible says that attitude is earthly, unspiritual, and even demonic”.  Now this is pretty strong language-- but if we think about it just for a minute we will see how true it is.
When we are having a pity party—when we are licking our wounds—when we are inviting others to tell us how right we are and how wrong others are who have wounded us—who and what is standing at the center of our lives?  We are! 
And if we are at the center of our lives—who is not?  God.  When there is a conflicted marriage or a family or congregation where those involved are turned inward upon themselves (their own needs and wants at the center of their existence) is it any wonder that there is that place, as James says, “disorder and every vile practice.”
Maybe you think that judgment is a little bit strong—but you tell me:  what kind of vile things are said and done in our marriages and families and friendships and congregations because we want to be right—because we want to get our way—because we are unbending and unforgiving?  What kind of things are said and done to those closest to us that we would never think about saying or doing to a perfect stranger? 
Dear friends in Christ, very simply, very plainly—this ought not to be.  This is not God’s attitude towards us—and this is not to be our attitude towards others because this is not the life of Christ within us.  Instead, the Bible says:
The wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, open to reason, full of mercy and good fruits, impartial and sincere.
From the perspective of the Bible, wisdom is not an intellectual quality or even a spiritual quality—but first and foremost wisdom is a person named Jesus.  The Bible says Jesus became for us wisdom from God, righteousness and redemption.
At the very center of our existence as Christian people is Christ crucified.  We were buried with him and raised with him in Holy Baptism.  We have answered his call to take up our cross and follow him.  The benefits of his sacrificial death are present on our altar in his body and blood.  He alone, is our righteousness and sanctification and redemption and peace. 
And so I ask you, where in our relationship with the Prince of Peace is there room boasting in the rightness of our cause when it comes to conflicted relationships?
Where is there room in Christ’s forgiveness of us for a lack of forgiveness of others?  Because Christ is the wisdom of God-- and because he lives in us as our Lord and Savior--hear again the words of James regarding our attitudes towards others:
The wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, open to reason, full of mercy and good fruits, impartial and sincere.
            By virtue of our faith in Christ, we are right in God’s sight.  We have been purified from our sins of bitterness and selfishness by his shed blood.  And so we are to live out that faith in our lives, called to be peacemakers in our relationships just as Christ has made peace for us with God. 
Like our Lord we are gentle with others.  As we ask for the Lord’s mercy for our failures—we are merciful to others—forgiving them as we have been forgiven—not because we or they deserve forgiveness but because the Lord desires to give it—to us, and through us, to others. 
And all of this sincerely—from the heart—because our heart is full of love and thankfulness to the Lord for what he has done for us.  The Bible promises that this kind of life on our part will make a difference in our lives with others.  James says:  A harvest of righteousness is sown in peace by those who make peace.
We began our reflection on God’s Word talking about an idea:  waging peace.  And we recognize that concept may not work among the family of nations in terms of our foreign policy.  But God himself promises that it will work in our lives with one another and that there will be a harvest of righteousness from those who make peace.
For that harvest to take place, seeds must be sown—conscious, deliberate efforts on our part to be peacemakers among those who are closest to us. 
And so my prayer for you this week is that as a follower of the Prince of Peace you would sow peace in your marriage and family and workplace and congregations and that God would bless that planting with a harvest of righteousness.  Amen.