Sunday, September 29, 2013

A Life of Ease Considered in the Light of Eternity

Luke 16:19-31  I want to begin with the five brothers who were still living—who very much needed to hear what God had to say about the place of money in their lives.  Their rich brother had died and was in hell—Lazarus had died and was in heaven—and both of them would remain there forever.        But the brothers were still living.  There was still time for them to turn aside from the idolatry of greed and to faith in God.  And the question was:  would they listen to what Jesus had to say about money—or would they turn a deaf ear and end up in hell like their brother?
I begin there because that’s where we are and the same question asked of us.  When it comes to money, will we listen to Jesus or the world? 
Is it really true that we can’t serve God and money?  It seems like we do a pretty good job of trying.  Is the love of money really the root of all evil-- or is it possible to love money the right way?  Should we really be content with just the basics of life-- or should we strive for luxury like the world around us?  Does the desire for riches really plunge us into ruin and destruction-- or does it encourage us to be successful in life?
Just like the five brothers of the rich man in Jesus’ day, we are the ones who need to hear this story that Jesus tells about Lazarus and the rich man because the consequences of living a life devoted to wealth rather than to God are eternal and terrible.
Jesus said:  “There was a rich man who was clothed in purple and fine linen and feasted sumptuously every day.”  We hear the question often: What would you do if you won the lottery?  And the fantasy begins.  Having the best of everything.  Living a life of ease.  That's the kind of life the rich man was living–and there is no indication that it was ill-gotten gains that he was living on.  He apparently worked hard, invested well, and was enjoying life. 
There's much in this picture that appeals to us.  After all, he's living the American dream!  And if he forgot the God who blessed him–if he neglected those in need around him--well after all, he was busy with life and concerned for himself.
That’s not hard for us to imagine, is it?  Often times we grow complacent (rather than thankful) during times of prosperity, forgetting the God who blessed us and the poor who need our help.  But putting ourselves in Lazarus’ place--now there's a difficulty.  Jesus said:
“[At the rich man’s gate] was laid a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, who desired to be fed with what fell from the rich man’s table.  Moreover, even the dogs came and licked his sores.” 
Imagine this with me: You have no place to live.  You have no money.  You have no food.  You have no family to help you out.  And on top of all that, you have a horrible disease that disfigures you to the point where you can't even stand up.
The best, most compassionate thing that anyone can think to do for you is take you and lay you at the entrance of a mansion, hoping that someone will come out of those doors, find you, and have mercy on you.  That's the most you have to hope for, but what you receive instead, is a visit from scavenging dogs.
But rather than cursing your situation--rather than being angry at your desperate lot in life--you simply say "God is my help".  And most remarkably of all, it’s not just a slogan--you actually believe it—that is your confession of faith!  In the midst of this horrible situation, when you seem abandoned by God and there is no visible sign of his mercy or provision--you say, "God is my help."  That's what the name “Lazarus” means: “God is my help”. 
It’s difficult to imagine having such faith.  Especially because we know how just a few setbacks in life can make us begin to question God--to demand his help as we see fit, when we see fit--to forget everything that our Savior has so generously given in the past. 
Though they were completely different in life, both Lazarus and the rich man shared this one thing in common:  they were both mortal.  Their physical life came to an end.  Jesus said:  “The poor man died and was carried by the angels to Abraham’s side.  The rich man also died and was buried.”  No matter what their financial picture, they could not escape death—and neither can we.  Whether we are rich or poor, we will leave our possessions behind and they will not matter to us anymore because we are either in the joys of heaven like Lazarus or the unquenchable fires of hell like the rich man!
Just as they were different in life, so they were different in death and eternity.  When Lazarus lived, he was carried to the entrance of a rich man's house, only to be ignored.  When he died, his poor body was carried to a pauper's grave with no one to mourn his passing–forgotten by the world.
But God hadn’t forgotten him.  The holy angels carried him to his eternal home in heaven--a mansion far grander than the richest man in the world could ever imagine.  The pain of his life passed away never to be experienced again-- or even remembered --and Lazarus’ faith was rewarded with the riches of his heavenly Father.
But when the rich man died, how different was the scene in time and eternity!  His funeral must have been extravagant!  There were family and friends to mourn his passing.  There were people from the community to eulogize his life.

An ornate cloth covered his body and a large, beautiful stone monument marked his grave.  I'm sure he would have appreciated all the care and concern…if he hadn't been burning in the fires of hell.  But that was exactly his situation and it would remain so for eternity.  Jesus said that:  “In Hades, being in torment, he lifted up his eyes and saw Abraham far off and Lazarus at his side.” Please understand….
Lazarus didn't go to heaven because he was poor–there is no moral value in poverty.  The rich man did not go to hell because he was rich–there is nothing immoral in wealth.  There are many rich people like Abraham in heaven and there are many poor people in hell.  People don’t go to heaven or hell because of their wealth or lack thereof.  Where we spend eternity is determined by what we have lived for and where we have placed our hope and trust and faith in this life:  in Jesus or in the things of this world.
Lazarus knew that God was his help and lived his life, as difficult as it was, with his eyes of faith fixed on that promise-- and when he entered into eternal glory his faith was proved true.
The rich man lived his life-- as if this world was all there was.  How very wrong he was!  God's Word plainly teaches that eternal torment in hell is the punishment for those who turn their backs on Jesus and serve instead some false god such as money or pleasure or success. 

Now you would think that in hell people would come to the terrible realization that all they had believed and lived for was wrong --and repent of it in tears.  But they don’t.  They exist in hell as they existed in life–separated from God–turned in on themselves–unconcerned for others.  The rich man said: 
Father Abraham, have mercy on me and send Lazarus to dip the end of his finger in water and cool my tongue, for I am in anguish in this fire.”
Even in hell the rich man still saw Lazarus as some one who exists to serve his needs, demanding that he leave the peace and joy of heaven to come to the agony of hell to bring a drop of water for his burning tongue—still concerned only for his physical needs, with absolutely no thought of the pain he caused others.  As he lived on earth–so he would remain in eternal death and damnation.  There would be no relief from the fires of hell for him–then or ever.
“Abraham said, Child, remember that you in your lifetime received your good things, and Lazarus in like manner bad things; but now he is comforted here, and you are in anguish.  And besides all this, between us and you a great chasm has been fixed, in order that those who would pass from here to you may not be able, and none may cross from there to us.” 
It’s a frightening picture isn’t it?  It’s meant to be!  Jesus tells us this story because he wants us to be reflective about the direction of our life before it is too late.
Have we lived our lives like the rich man?  Have we put our desires, our wants, our needs before those around us?  Has our selfishness caused pain for others?  Have we lived our lives on this earth, as if this life is all that matters?
Through the voice of the rich man crying out in hell’s torments, Jesus speaks a stern warning to us this morning.  He says:  Turn away from selfishness!  Turn away from greed!  Keep your lives free from the love of money!  Open your eyes to the needs of others!  Live with eternity in view!  Look to me alone for help!

Just like with the rich man’s brothers there remains for us a gracious, God-given opportunity to hear and heed the words of Jesus and change the direction of our lives.  Today is the day to remember and take to heart that, just like with Lazarus, God is our help.
Despite the scarcity of our loving concern for others, our Father has given of the riches of his Son’s holy life in place of our self-serving life.  Despite our desire to selfishly hold onto our blessings, God has poured out upon us the blessings of his grace and mercy by forgiving our sins on account of his Son’s bloody death on the cross.  And despite our unwillingness to see the needs of others, he has not only seen our need for salvation and forgiveness and new life, but has met that need through his Son’s resurrection from the dead-- so that life-- not death-- is our eternal future.
God gives us the riches of his grace as a free gift through his Son Jesus Christ and it is this risen Savior, witnessed to by Moses and the prophets, who calls us today to live a new life like his, concerned for others.
And so, we go forth into this new week as disciples of Jesus Christ with our eyes fixed on heavenly, not earthly values---looking for opportunities to show our faith in Jesus through loving and generous service to others.  May God grant this each of us for Jesus’ sake! Amen.

General Prayer Pentecot 19 Proper 21

Gracious heavenly Father, as we come to You in prayer, let Your steadfast love comfort us and Your mercy rest upon us that we may live: 

You have abundantly blessed us and yet we have misused those blessings to fashion for ourselves a life of ease while those around us suffer.  Forgive us for our lack of compassion and empathy that blinds us to the needs of others and renew in our hearts a concern for all.

We confess that you are our Father and our Creator.  Give us understanding so that we may learn Your commandments and do Your will—not because we fear Your punishment but because we love You and desire to please You with our lives.

Help us to remember that we brought nothing into this world and can take nothing out of it so that we may value what is truly lasting and important.  Grant us contentment with the earthly blessings You have bestowed upon us so that greed would not plunge us into ruin and destruction.

Fill us with Your Holy Spirit so that we can fight the good fight of faith, take hold of eternal life and pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, live, steadfastness, and gentleness.  Help us to be rich in good works and ready to share with others the good things You have given to us.

Enable us to make the good confession of faith, declaring to the world that there is salvation in Your Son Jesus Christ.  Bless the preaching and teaching of Your Word so that the voice of Moses and the Prophets and the risen Savior would always be heard in this place.

We know that when we pass from this life there is another life to come—either in heaven with You or in the fiery torment of hell.  Give us a firm faith like that of Lazarus so that we may believe that You are our help and that trusting in You we would enter into eternal life. 

We believe and confess that Your hands have fashioned us.  We thank You for the gift of life that You have granted to Emma and pray that You would bless her in body and soul all her days.

We ask all of things in the name of Jesus Christ, the blessed and only Sovereign, the King of kings and Lord of lords, who alone has immortality, who dwells in unapproachable light, to him e honor and eternal dominion.  Amen.

Sunday, September 22, 2013

You Cannot Serve God and Money!

Luke 16:1-13 The story that Jesus tells is simple—the scheme that it reveals could be the headline in the Wall Street Journal.  The manager of a business has mismanaged the owner’s money and possessions and he is about to get fired.  His options are limited.  No one’s going to trust him with a similar position.  He is unable to do physical work.  He is ashamed to beg.  What is he going to do when he loses his job?  And so he comes up with a scheme. 
He tells all of those who owe money to the owner to take their bills and reduce what they owe so that then they will be indebted to him for saving them money and feel obligated to take him into their homes when he loses his position as manager.  When the owner finds out about it, with a kind of rueful grin and shake of the head, he commends the man for the shrewdness of his scheme.
It’s important to note that when Jesus tells this story he is not commending the manager for his poor management or his dishonest solution.  He is not commending the folks who got a good deal dishonestly.  He is not commending the owner for his appreciation of the manager’s cunning. 
Jesus simply says:  this is how the world works when it comes to money.  Everybody is working an angle—everyone is scheming—and even when they get taken in, they can at least appreciate the subtlety of the scam. 
But while Jesus does not approve of either man, he does use this story to make a judgment about us and about our use of money.  He says, “The sons of this world are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than the sons of light.”  In other words, this man at least knew how the world’s economy works-- but much too often Christians do not know how the “economy” of God’s kingdom works and the role that money plays in their lives in time and eternity. 
From the story, Jesus shows us that in the kingdom of the world there are owners and managers of others goods—that money is important--and that a day of reckoning comes when managers will have to open up the books and give an account of how well they have managed the owner’s money.  That’s how the world works.
In the same way, in the Kingdom of God, in Jesus’ “economy”, there is an owner—God—and there are managers or stewards—you and I—and how we use money is important because there will be a day of reckoning for us when we will be called to give an account of how well we have managed God’s money.
Jesus says that many who follow him fail to exercise the same wisdom regarding money and what is spiritually valuable-- as unbelievers do when it comes to what they value--especially when it comes to the future.
The manager knew that his time as a steward of another man’s possessions had come to an end and so with an eye to the future he made plans to make sure he was in good shape when his money ran out—that he would have friends to welcome him. 
Jesus says that we ought to think the same way when it comes to our life as God’s stewards-that we ought to manage God’s gifts with an eye towards our eternal future.  Jesus says:   “I tell you, make friends for yourselves by means of unrighteous wealth, so that when it fails they may receive you into the eternal dwellings.” 
What does Jesus mean by that?  After all, we know how to make friends in the world’s economy.  We take clients out to lunch.  We give Christmas bonuses.  We give discounts to our best customers.  We shop with this guy and he shops from us.
But how does this idea work spiritually in God’s economy?  How do we make friends for ourselves eternally? 
The first thing that we need to realize is that there will come a time for each of us when, in Jesus’ words, “unrighteous wealth fails us”—that is, when money will no longer matter—and that is when we die.  All those things that the world values so highly (salary, possessions, investments) will not matter to us in the least because our life as God’s steward will come to an end. 
BUT…what we have done with God’s money in this life will matter very much indeed in the life to come!  While there is nothing holy or righteous about money in and of itself (it is simply a tool that we use for a time here on earth)-- money can be used in ways that matter eternally to us and to others. 
How is that?  How do we make friends for ourselves through our use of money —friends who will welcome us into heaven?
We do it when we give money for works of mercy and for works of mission—works that show our faith in Jesus Christ—works that benefit those around us for time and eternity. 
In the story of the sheep and the goats found in the 24th chapter of Matthew, Jesus gives us a vivid picture of the final judgment and the evidence that will be presented about each of us concerning our faith in Christ. 
A large part of that evidence involves the way we have used the material possessions that God has granted to us for a time:  whether we have fed the hungry and clothed the naked and sheltered the homeless and cared for the sick.  True Christians did.
On the day of reckoning, when the Lord reads from his ledger, no good deed that we have ever done in the name of Christ for the good of those around us is forgotten.  Not one dollar that we have ever spent to help someone in need goes unaccounted for in the final judgment.  And those Christians who have received our care (even if we never met them in this life) will be part of that welcoming committee that receives us into heaven.
All the offerings we have given over the course of our life so that the Gospel can be preached and the sacraments administered here and around the world—mean that there will people who will be in heaven to welcome us home because of our generosity in giving to the work of the Lord’s mission. 
So, do we do these things and give this money to be saved?  NO!  We do it because we are saved.  We are merciful and generous and giving to others because Christ has been merciful and generous and giving to us—sacrificing his entire life for us on the cross—and we are called to be sacrificial with the money entrusted to us.
It’s just plain old money that we receive in our paychecks—the same money that unbelievers use and misuse in so many different ways that are not pleasing in God’s sight —and yet that same money (used by the child of God) accomplishes eternal things in the divine economy of the kingdom of God. 
Whether we always recognize it or not, there is a strong connection between the faithfulness of our stewardship of money and our faithfulness to Christ.  Jesus says:
"One who is faithful in a very little is also faithful in much, and one who is dishonest in a very little is also dishonest in much.  If then you have not been faithful in the unrighteous wealth, who will entrust to you the true riches?  And if you have not been faithful in that which is another's, who will give you that which is your own? 
            We heard earlier in the sermon about the similarities between the world’s economy and the divine economy of the kingdom—but there is also a huge difference between the world and the kingdom:  and that is the value that is given to money.  In the world’s economy, money is counted as pretty much everything—but in the divine economy money itself counts for very little. 
Compared to the forgiveness that Christ won for us by his death and resurrection, what is money?  Compared to the Word of God and Baptism and Holy Communion, what is an offering?  What is earthly wealth compared to eternal life with God? 
Money is a small thing compared to the spiritual treasures we have in Christ and yet the way that we handle our money says much about our faith in Christ—whether it is real and living-- or a pious lie.  Jesus says:
"One who is faithful in a very little is also faithful in much, and one who is dishonest in a very little is also dishonest in much.  Jesus’ point is this:  the way we use money says something about us completely out of all proportion to the money’s actual value—something truly important. 
Our giving reveals what’s in our hearts—what we truly believe in.  The confession of faith we make in the words of the Creed is important—but so is the confession of faith found in our checkbooks.
So who is the faithful steward?  It is the one who uses money in such a way that it shows that he recognizes and lives by kingdom values in the divine economy—who believes that God is the owner of all things and that we are managers—that money and it’s use will come to an end and that we will one day give an account of how we have used God’s gifts. 
The judgment of the Jesus is this:  No servant can serve two masters, for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and money."  
The Good News for us today is that even though we have sinfully tried to have it both ways—serving God and money--Jesus Christ forgives us—not by taking away our debt in part like the unfaithful steward-- or using someone’s else resources to pay it--but by taking the whole thing away and paying our sin debt by his shed blood on the cross.
You see, Jesus is the faithful steward of God’s treasure-house of love and grace and forgiveness.  It is these most precious gifts, received in faith, that open our hearts and our hands and our wallets and makes us wise and generous stewards of God’s gifts.  Amen.

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Christ Jesus Came Into The World To Save Sinners

1 Timothy 1:12-17 In our Gospel lesson today we see two groups of people around Jesus:  the sinners and the self-righteous.  The charge made against Jesus was that he received sinners and ate with them—which was true!  The self-righteous grumbled about it while the sinners were glad. 
And so let me ask you:  in which group do you find yourself (sinners or self-righteous) and what is your attitude towards the charge against Jesus that he welcomes sinners:  grumbling or gladness?
Martin Luther once said that Christ dwells with sinners.  In saying this he was simply echoing the words of Paul that Christ came to save sinners and the words of Jesus that he did not come to call the righteous but the sinner—that it is the sick who need a physician. 
And so each week we confess that we are by nature sinful and unclean—that we are poor miserable sinners.  We do this NOT because we like beating ourselves up over our failures but because we want to be found among those people (sinners though they are) who are welcomed by Jesus- and forgiven of their sins- and abide forever with Christ.
The child of God who follows Jesus Christ does not have to be afraid or ashamed to admit their sin because they know that Christ Jesus came to save sinners.  Paul writes:
I thank him who has given me strength, Christ Jesus our Lord, because he judged me faithful, appointing me to his service, though formerly I was a blasphemer, persecutor, and insolent opponent.
            When Jacob was growing up we would have him stand by the door and put a little pencil mark on the door frame along with the date to mark his height.  And as he got older and taller he would look at those marks down below with a kind of wonder at how much he had grown and almost disbelief that he had ever been that small.
So it is for the child of God who looks at Christ’s redeeming work in his life—that it is wonder and amazement of gratitude that fills our heart over the change he makes in our lives!  Paul was an apostle of the Lord Jesus Christ.  He was appointed to take the message of salvation to the Gentile world.  He was one of the greatest Christians who had ever lived.  And yet that he is not how he began. 
He had been a blasphemer of God—a persecutor of Jesus Christ—and a hateful opponent of the Gospel.  But Jesus saved him and his life was changed forever.  When Paul looked at what he had been and what he had become he was filled with gratitude and thankfulness.  He could look back upon a past life of sin as something that was no longer a burden for him but a testimony of the greatness of God’s forgiving love for him.  Luther once said:
God does not save those who are only imaginary sinners. Be a sinner, and let your sins be strong, but let your trust in Christ be stronger, and rejoice in Christ who is the victor over sin, death, and the world.
When we confess our sins of “thought, word, and deed”--those three little words capture an entire lifetime of sin that we can never begin to number.  But as great as that list of sins is, the greatness of Jesus’ forgiveness is greater. 
There is no need for self-righteousness that wants to hide our sins away.  Instead, we confess them and know that they are forgiven.  That knowledge cannot help but fill us with gratitude and thankfulness for the mercy and grace of our Lord Jesus Christ.  Paul says:
I received mercy because I had acted ignorantly in unbelief, and the grace of our Lord overflowed for me with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus.
            I want you to understand what Paul is- and is not- saying.  He is not saying that his sins were somehow less than others because they were done in unbelief and ignorance and so he somehow earned God’s grace and mercy. 
Just the opposite was true!  It was his ignorance and unbelief that NECESSITATED God’s mercy and grace.  So profound was his alienation from God that he thought his persecution and blasphemy was a service to God.  For Paul to be saved, God would have to act in mercy and grace.
So it is for us.  We have no power to save ourselves or forgive ourselves or raise ourselves from the death of unbelief.  The Bible says that by nature all of us are dead in sin and trespass and that our minds by nature are not open to God but at war against God. 
But the grace of God found in the love that Jesus has for sinners was poured into us and overflowed into our lives.  The word that Paul uses is that of an empty vessel being filled completely until the water overflows the top.  That was the depth of our need—that was the height of God’s grace in Christ—that is what Jesus came to do for us all.  Paul says that:
The saying is trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the foremost.
            The Pharisees never did understand this and many people are still confused about it today—that the entire purpose of Jesus coming into the world was to save sinners. 
Not put a stamp of approval on what we are already doing.  Not to bring us a reward for being better than others.  Not to smooth our life’s journey of all the bumps and bruises.  Jesus Christ came into the world to save sinners. 
This is the great truth of our Christian faith and it is worthy of our belief because it speaks the truth about Jesus (that he is the Savior of the world) and it speaks the truth about us (that we are sinners who need saving.)  In fact, Paul goes so far to say that he is the chief of sinners.
This is where we struggle—to admit that we are the worst of sinners--and because we will not admit it we lack the joy and thankfulness that God wants to give us as his children. 
So why did Paul confess this about himself?  After all, in the big scheme of things he could look around at a world full of people that to all appearances were much worse than he was.  He lived in the day of Nero—one of the most evil rulers the world has ever seen.
But Paul counted himself the chief of sinners because his eyes were not fixed upon others like the self-righteous Pharisees but upon the Lord Jesus Christ and himself in comparison.  He had no doubts about the greatness of his own sin when he looked to Jesus and measured his own life against that standard-- but that knowledge did not crush because he knew that Jesus had come to save sinners just like him.
Paul readily admits his sin, calls them by name, and counts himself the worst of sinners but it is thankfulness and joy and that fills his heart because he knows that however numerous and great his sins- the grace of God has been poured out upon him abundantly for his salvation.
This is the secret to a joy-filled, thankful Christian life—not to deny or sins or excuse them or hide them away under a thin veneer of self-righteousness but to call them what they are and receive from Christ a pardon that is even greater. 
This is the secret to living the kind of life that draws other people to Christ because they can come to Christ as the sinners that they are and know that they will not receive judgment (either from Christ or his people) but forgiveness.  Paul says that:
I received mercy for this reason, that in me, as the foremost, Jesus Christ might display his perfect patience as an example to those who were to believe in him for eternal life.
            From the moment that news about Paul’s conversion to Christ began to spread throughout the Roman world there were questions:  Isn’t this the one who raised havoc in Jerusalem?  Isn’t this the one who put Christians in chains!  And the answer way “yes”! 
There were very few more powerful demonstrations of the powerful love of Jesus Christ than the day that Paul the persecutor was saved by Jesus and became Paul the preacher!  Not just his message but Paul’s whole life was a sign of what Jesus wanted to do for all people—a sign of just how far his love and forgiveness went-- that even those who persecuted could come to him and be forgiven and have new life. 
Paul gladly acknowledged his sin not only because he knew that Jesus’ love was greater—he acknowledged them because he was a living, breathing sermon illustration that people could see with their own eyes and learn through him how great God’s loves really is.
You see, when we are self-righteous like the Pharisees, it not only blinds us to the love of Christ --but when we continue to act that way after becoming Christians it blinds others to the presence of Christ in us—the same Christ who wants to welcome sinners so that the saving purpose of God would be accomplished and he would glorified forever because of his goodness.  Paul concludes with these words of praise:
To the King of the ages, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honor and glory forever and ever. Amen.
            In our Old Testament lesson today we heard the promise of God that he himself would search for those who are lost and bring back those who have strayed and strengthen the weak and bind up the injured. 
In our Gospel lesson we heard about the joy of the heavenly angels in heaven when one sinner repents and believes in Jesus.
You see dear friends in Christ, your salvation is the great, loving purpose of God that stretches from eternity to eternity and it is why he sent Jesus to save sinners—and when we confess our sins and when we trust in Jesus and when we invite others to do the same God is glorified and all eternity will be e filled with the praise of God’s redeemed people for this great work of salvation.  Amen.