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.

Saturday, September 5, 2015

Jesus Does All Things Well

Mark 7:31-37 St. Mark writes that:  Jesus returned from the region of Tyre and went through Sidon to the Sea of Galilee, in the region of the Decapolis. And they brought to him a man who was deaf and had a speech impediment, and they begged him to lay his hand on him.
When this man was born, his parents and family and neighbors rejoiced.  Every safe delivery of a child–especially in that place and time–is a blessing from God.  The Bible says that children are a heritage of the Lord.

Over the first months of life how they must have delighted in this child.  But it was only as he grew up, perhaps not until he was two or three that his parents began to suspect that something was wrong with their precious child-- and then finally they learned the sad truth–he couldn’t hear or speak.
As we view this scene from a distance of thousands of years and thousands of miles, it’s difficult for us to get caught up in the personal tragedies of just a few people long ago and far away–it’s hard to feel emotionally connected. 
Even when we hear of modern tragedies it’s hard to really connect with what’s happening unless it comes close to us with the loss of our own family and friends. 
We simply hear too many of these stories and we become used to them.  We can watch the latest reports of military casualties and famines and natural disasters and simply click the button on the remote when we become tired of it.  We even explain these tragedies away by telling ourselves that this is just the way that the world is–that suffering and death are natural.
But God says something very different.  In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth and called it good.  He created the seas and the plants and the animals and man and called it good.  In the beginning—in God’s good creation--there was no suffering or death. 
What this was like we cannot understand because we have no frame of reference for a world without suffering–seeing, as we do, nothing but death and evil all around us.
But the world has not always been this way- and it is not the way that God intended it to be. He did not intend for there to be birth defects or famines or terrorist attacks or any of the tragedies we see and read about every day on the news.  The world is not supposed to be this way.  And yet it is-- and there is no escaping from it.

We shield ourselves from this painful truth and we do a pretty good job of keeping the harsh realities of this world at an emotional distance until it comes close–like it did for this man and for his family and friends and neighbors. 
For them, the broken-ness of this world could no longer be ignored–it had come directly into their homes–into the lives of their loved ones-- and so they came to Jesus for help.  That’s what God wants us to do because Jesus does all things well.  St. Mark writes that:
Taking the man aside from the crowd privately, Jesus put his fingers into his ears, and after spitting touched his tongue. And looking up to heaven, he sighed and said to him, “Ephphatha,” that is, “Be opened.” And his ears were opened, his tongue was released, and he spoke plainly.
I am immediately struck by the differences between Jesus and the Benny Hinn charlatans of this world.  No wild gyrations. No silly screaming.  No diamond rings or Rolex watches, fancy hairdo’s, satellite TV broadcasts or million dollar homes. 
Just a simple man who commands the waves to be still and they are--who says to the ill “be healed” and they are--who commands lifeless bodies to rise and they do—who says of bread and wine:  this is my body, this is my blood—and it is. 
The miracles that Jesus performed served as a sign for the people that day (and for us this day) and it’s this: the One who spoke at the beginning and called light and life into existence-- entered into his creation -and by that same powerful word brought healing and restoration and new life to that which was broken by sin.
In this, Jesus is a very different kind of God than the world offers up to us to believe in.  In the face of suffering and death, the lodges offer the Great Architect who with cold, calculating efficiency orders the universe according to his design–each of us merely a cog in the wheel.
Philosophers both ancient and modern offer us the prime mover who set the universe into motion and then went off to do more important things than helping his poor creatures.  Islam offers us a god of death and terror.
But Jesus is very different indeed.  He is the caring Creator who entered into the broken-ness of his ruined creation to make things right.  He is the God who cares about his creatures enough to suffer and die with them.
We see his compassion and love and goodness that extends to each individual as Jesus confronts this one little piece of suffering in one little out of the way place with a deep sigh. 
That sigh communicates much!  Our suffering is the Lord’s suffering.  Jesus does not keep our suffering at arm’s length, but entered into the midst of it and was affected by it.  Our God is a God of compassion and mercy who is moved in his inmost being to help his creatures.
One other clue as to goodness and love of Jesus is not so clear in the text but it is there nevertheless.  Jesus performed this miracle in the same area where he was driven out by the people because they didn’t like that he helped a demoniac by sending his demons into their herd of hogs. 

It is in that same area that this healing takes place.  Despite their initial rejection of him and their love for material goods rather than the healing of God, Jesus didn’t wash his hands of them–he didn’t say “forget you”--he kept on loving them–desiring to bring healing and wholeness and new life-- even to these sinners who had rejected him.
That is the story of our good and gracious God from beginning to end.  When Adam and Eve sinned in the Garden, God could have said, “enough is enough” and destroyed the whole thing and started over—but he didn’t.  As his ancient people abandoned him time and time again he could have washed his hands of the whole sorry mess and said “I’m done with you”—but he wasn’t.  The countless times we have sinned and disappointed him he could have said “that was your last chance”–but he doesn’t.
 Instead of giving up on us, he comes to us again and again with healing and forgiveness and the opportunity to begin again with a new life. That’s what the deaf man received that day–nothing other than a new life.   And yet Jesus didn’t want it publicized.  St. Mark writes that: 
Jesus charged them to tell no one. But the more he charged them, the more zealously they proclaimed it. And they were astonished beyond measure, saying, “He has done all things well. He even makes the deaf hear and the mute speak.”
As compassionate as Jesus is-as sympathetic to our suffering--his primary mission in his first coming was not to heal every disease, cure every birth defect, raise every dead person, or feed every hungry person.
These miracles served their primary purpose in identifying who Jesus really was–true God in the flesh–the Messiah sent by God to cure the root problem that led to the world’s broken-ness and misery-and that was sin.
Jesus could have healed every sick person, raised every dead person, fed ever hungry person-- but he would still be doing it right down this very moment and would do so forever. 

Now I know that for those of us who have recently lost loved ones or who have loved ones suffering from various illnesses–that sounds very good indeed!  But then what?  Some other disease and some other tragedy–forever and forever without end.
Jesus could not–would not-- act in such a heartless way.  The solution to the broken-ness, misery, suffering, and death of this world would have to strike at the root problem–at the sin of the world-- not just the individual symptoms-and the solution would cost the life of God’s son.
A great miracle took place that day in that man’s life but a much greater miracle was still to come for all people.  Jesus took upon himself the sins of the world, the broken-ness and sinfulness of all people everywhere in every time and place and carried them to the cross.
His suffering and death there brought us healing–real healing-- for our real problem: sin and Satan.  His glorious resurrection three days later was the proof and promise that the best is yet to come for us. 
When Jesus comes again we will be given a new, resurrected life.  A life unencumbered by the effects of sin–no more suffering, no more sickness, no more death.  A new, perfect life that never ends–just exactly what God has always intended for us from the beginning.

What a blessing this is and what a blessing to share!  The man who was healed was brought to Jesus by those who cared for him and then they told others what they had seen and heard.  We have the exact same responsibility and privilege. 
All around us are those who need to be brought to Jesus.  All around us are those who need to hear about the good things Christ has done for us.  All around us are those who need the healing that comes only through Jesus
I pray that we would have the same compassion as our Lord and reach out to those who need his healing touch; that we would turn aside from the temptation to ignore the suffering all around us; that we would see in each person that we meet an object of God’s love and concern and that we would bring others into his presence where there is forgiveness and healing and new life.  Amen.