All posts by shepsrq

1st Sunday in Advent

1st Sunday in Advent

November 29, 2020

Mark 13:33-37

“Wakey Wakey”

Grace, mercy, and peace be yours in the name of God our Father and our Good Shepherd Jesus. The sermon today, on this a brand-new church year is the Gospel lesson read from Mark 13.

My dear friends in Christ Jesus,

I would be willing to be that your parents used a variety of ways to wake you up every morning. Maybe they were traditional about it and just turned on the light in your room. Maybe they were clever and played reveille with their mouth to wake you up. Yeah, that one is ALWAYS hysterical at 6:00 AM. Maybe they came in and nudged you; maybe they came in and yanked the blankets away. My parents, my mom specifically, came in my room in the morning and almost always said, “wakey, wakey, eggs, and bacey.” I’m not making that up! She would say “wakey wakey, eggs, and bacey.” It’s not as if we had eggs and bacon every morning, but it was her clever little way to wake me up in the morning.

I bring that up because the theme for our Gospel reading – and one of the themes of Advent in general – is the idea of being awake, vigilant, and ready for the coming of our Lord Jesus. This is Advent – a brand-new church year, a brand-new church season, and a new theme for us to consider for the next coming weeks. Before we celebrate the coming of the Lord as the Word made flesh as the Babe of Bethlehem, we will focus for a few weeks on His Second Coming and our need to not be found sleeping; to “wake up” and be ready! Wakey wakey!

In Mark 13, Jesus warns the disciples 4 times in 5 verses (repetition was a common way to emphasize in Greek) using a Greek word form known as an imperative. That would be like our exclamation today. In verse 33 he tells them to “be on guard” and “keep awake.” In verse 35 Jesus says they should “stay awake!” and in verse 37 he again strongly urges them to, again, stay awake. Wakey wakey!

What does this mean? Were the disciples or are we supposed to never go to sleep? No…that’s not it at all. The message for the disciples – and for us as modern-day disciples – is that we are to stay vigilant and be in a constant state of spiritual readiness should the Lord return at any given moment. Sounds easy, right?

Well, not so fast. As we prepare to enter the Advent season and a new church year, today is a good opportunity for us to stop and reflect on our state of readiness for the coming of Christ. Are we ever vigilant and ready to meet the Lord, or have we allowed ourselves to become distracted, that is, lulled to sleep by this world and the awfulness of this year? Are we being faithful to what Jesus calls us to do on this earth – to know Christ and make Him known – or are we often times distracted by how much of a struggle it’s been since March? There is SO MUCH out there to distract our attention and make as “asleep at the wheel” so to speak: worries about the future, struggles with our money, our pursuit of sinful desires, and on and on it goes. Especially amid all our COVID-19 issues, there is so much that makes it so difficult to focus on what our tasks are as Christians.

Through this Gospel lesson, Jesus encourages us to live just the opposite – not to fall asleep in our sinfulness as life stays tough, but to stay awake and remain in a state of grace-filled readiness. But living in a state of constant readiness is almost impossible, and God knows that so He did something about it.

He issued the ultimate wake-up call for humanity. He did not encourage us to “wakey wakey,” but instead His wake-up call was a shout…“It is finished!” (John 19:30). The cross was the call that wakes us out of our sinfulness when we realize the sacrifice that was made there. The death that Christ died was not just the result of Jewish persecution or Roman viciousness; His suffering and His death had a purpose. St. Paul wrote “The death (Jesus) died, he died to sin once for all; but the life he lives, he lives to God” (Romans 6:10).

Those are more than just words; they are a promise. That promise and that gift changes us; the life that Christ lives to God is also the life that we desire to live to God. We are called to not spend our time in pointless speculation about when that might be, but rather to wake up and watch and be ready ALWAYS. Wakey wakey!

And how do we do that? Easy. Hebrews 12 says, “let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us. Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith” (verses1b-2a). To be prepared for the end of the age, whenever that may be, is to stay awake spiritually and keep our focus on Jesus. That means more than just looking up to heaven or the occasional pre-meal prayer. It is living in the faith that He gives. It means that we are to work faithfully for the Master who will return just as He promised. But we also work with confident assurance because we know it is the Master who returns.

Today’s Gospel lesson is a call for us to Watch! Stay awake! Be alert! Watch out! It is not a simple call to “wakey wakey,” but instead we are to remain vigilant in faith until the end comes. Christ has overcome sin and this world and given us faith in Him so that, when the end comes, there will be no need to fear the end, but instead welcome it with wide open eyes and a wide open heart and then, one day, we will “wakey wakey” to an eternity in Heaven with Christ for all eternity. May our Advent plea this year – and ever – be “Come Lord Jesus, come quickly.” Welcome to Advent in the year of our Lord 2020

Amen.

 

Last Sunday of the Church Year

Last Sunday of the Church Year

November 22, 2020

Matthew 25:31-46

“Two Types of People”

Grace, mercy, and peace be and abide with you all in the name of our Good Shepherd Jesus. The basis for the sermon is the Gospel lesson read from Matthew 25 – Jesus’ narration of the day of final judgment.

My dear friends,

The brilliant poet Robert Frost once said, “There are two kinds of people: some willing to work and the rest willing to let them.” Do you agree? Would you agree that there are two kinds of people in the world? I would anticipate that some of you will accept that statement, and others will not. Which, I guess, just goes to show you that there are two kinds of people.

For example, there are people who think that salvation is a free gift from God, including myself. Then there are others who would say, “No, salvation is something you can earn.” Take today’s Gospel for instance. One group would analyze Matthew 25:31-46 and say, “See! You can get into heaven by the things you do! That’s what Jesus is saying as the basis for why He separated the sheep from the goats.” That collection of people is free to say that, I guess. They’re wrong…but they can still say that.

That group of people is wrong because they fail to understand the real reason for the separation of the sheep and goats. Did you notice that, at the final judgment, neither the sheep nor the goats – the righteous vs. the damned – are surprised by the fact they are sheep or goats? No…they are surprised by the reason that Jesus gives. The sheep know they are sheep because they are God’s people called by faith. Those called by faith do what the faithful do! The people of God serve our neighbors for the sake of the neighbor; our single motivation is the need of the neighbor. Sheep serve our neighbors because we love our neighbors serving them for the neighbor’s sake. The sheep don’t serve because they perceive Jesus standing over their shoulders. Sheep are motivated by a faithful heart; the goats were not motivated from the heart. Their hypocrisy and their apathy towards Jesus are what condemn them, not their “inferior” works. Salvation is a matter of the heart, then the hands and not the other way around.

You know what I find interesting? This lesson is the end of Jesus’ long narrative about the end of the age. And what happens next in Matthew’s Gospel? The events of our Lord’s passion are set into motion: Passover celebration preparation, His anointing, and Judas’ betrayal. This final judgment narrative is Jesus’ last public teaching session…and His topic is the end of the world. Why? Because very soon one group of people will be crushed by the events of Jesus’ passion that end in His death and another group will be indifferent. It’s just like I said…there are two different types of people in the world. And perhaps you’re confident that I’m going to tell you that God also thinks there are two kinds of people in this world.
And if that’s what you’re guessing, my friends, you are wrong. In fact, nothing could be further from the truth. God believed there is only one kind of person in this world: sinners who are helpless, lost and condemned to hell. There were no exceptions.
Of course, while that may have been true at one point in time, thankfully it no longer is. This means God believes there are three kinds of people in this world. What! Two kinds, then one kind, now three kinds! Pick a lane, Pastor! Ok…I will. First, there are the lost. Once upon a time all of us were on that list. Then something happened to change the makeup of that list. A second kind of Person came into this world. That second kind of Person was the Second Person of the Triune God…Jesus Christ.
Born of a virgin by the power of the Holy Spirit, Jesus is unique in the history of humankind. His perfection, His godly qualities, His dedication to giving His life for others, make Him an individual who is head and shoulders above anyone else. Jesus fulfilled both prophecy and His Father’s lawful will. His life was lived without slip or stumble – the only PERFECT person. Type #2.
So, to recap. First, we have the lost. Second, we have the perfect – Jesus Christ. He’s the only One in that category. This, of course, takes us to the third group of people. The third type – these are those who have been given faith in Jesus as their Rescuer and have had their sins washed away in the blood of the Lamb. The redeemed – the sheep – have a righteousness of the heart given by God, fed and nourished by His life-changing Word and soul-sustaining Sacraments. God desires that all people fall into this last category (1 Timothy 2:4), but the goats are there by their own choosing, and that, my friends, is tragic.

Do you know any “goats?” Are you okay with the fact that the goats will be cast into eternal punishment after hearing Jesus say “Depart from Me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels” (25:14)? Scary thought, right? How will your prayers and attitudes and behaviors be different knowing that your neighbor is destined for eternal damnation?

This is the end of the church year and many times at the end of the year, people reflect on “big ticket” issues like life and death (Charlie Crowder, COVID-19). Do you ever wonder what people will think of you when you’re gone? What will your legacy be? Did people “see” Jesus in you? Will you be remembered as one who fed and welcomed and clothed and visited? If your faith was examined in a court room, what evidence would be used to make a case one way or another? Do people already know you’re a sheep? How come? Why not?

On the Last Day, Jesus will make a final separation into two types of people. True believers – sheep – will be welcomed into heaven. The other group – the goats – are condemned. Live this upcoming church year and the rest of your days confident of what type of person you are and allow that to reflect in your daily living until that glorious day of deliverance.

Amen.

24th Sunday after Pentecost

24th Sunday after Pentecost

November 15, 2020

Matthew 25:14-30

“Living in Our Master’s Joy”

Grace, mercy, and peace be and abide with you all in the name of God our Father and our Good Shepherd Jesus. The basis for the sermon is the Gospel lesson read from Matthew 25.

My Dear Friends in Christ Jesus,

Americans have long struggled with the Parable of the Talents. Early in our country’s history, this parable was used against America. Preachers in England saw the Puritans as unprofitable and wicked servants rejected by the Master, declaring that their emigration to America was God casting them into a land of darkness, where there would be weeping and gnashing of teeth (v. 30). Later, this parable was used for America. Revivalist preachers declared America to be a place of opportunity, where profitable servants would be blessed by the Master. Same text; polar opposite interpretations. Great. I love it when that happens.

And we continue to struggle with this parable today, but our struggle is a bit different. In this parable, Jesus is not talking about America. He’s preaching about the kingdom of heaven. His preaching does, however, challenge our American misconceptions. Jesus does not invite us into a world of earthly wealth, where faith is driven by profit margins, but into a world of divine love, where faith responds in joyful service to the Master.

When the master returns to settle accounts, Jesus wants you to hear, “Well done, my good and faithful servant. Enter into the joy of your master.” And so, we consider today, what does it mean to live in our master’s joy?

First and foremost, living in our Master’s joy means trusting in God as revealed in His Word rather than in the god we may imagine. In the parable of the talents, the cause of the unprofitable servant’s damnation is his own imagination. He chooses to live with a master he has imagined rather the master who has revealed his generous love.

In the parable, Jesus reveals a generous master, one who gives all that he has into the hands of his servants. The Master left one servant with five talents, another was given two, and a third servant was given one. A Talent wasn’t a coin. It was a unit of measure to quantify large quantities of money. 1 silver Talent was equal to 7300 denarii…and the average laborer would earn 1 denarii for one day of work, so 7300 denarii or 1 talent is about 20 years’ worth of wages. So…the servant given 5 Talents would have been given a literal lifetime – 100 years – worth of wages! That’s very generous…very trusting.

The unprofitable servant, however, lives with a different master, not a generous and trusting master, but the master he has imagined. For him, the master is “a hard man, reaping where [he] did not sow, and gathering where [he] scattered no seed” (v 24). This belief causes him great fear. It paralyzes him so that he buries his master’s talent in the ground. When the master returns to settle accounts, he judges the servant according to what he has believed. As the servant believes, so it is done to him. It’s not about money or investment strategies; it’s about trust. Because he did not trust in the loving generosity of his master, the servant is cast out into darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.

Unfortunately, there are many in our country and our world who live with a god they imagine rather than the God Jesus reveals. The god they imagine, however, is not hard and demanding and someone to be feared (like the servant’s imaginary master); a Master to be feared, loved, and trusted. No, the “American” god is all-loving. He is like a kind-hearted grandfather (terrible with Smart phones and remote controls), too weak to do any real harm but strong enough still to love us and pat us on the head when we’ve done wrong. Instead of repentance, this imagined god calls for tolerance. Instead of forgiveness, this imagined god offers acceptance of everyone no matter what. People in our world imagine they can stand before God with all of their sins and be accepted for who they are and tolerated for what they have done. In their imaginary little world, it’s okay to fear a virus but not fear God.

Unfortunately, this god is a figment of the American imagination, and, in the end, this imagined god will save no one. God saves us not by our imagination but by His action. In Jesus Christ, God has entered into our world and acted to save. His love goes beyond our wildest imagination. He saves not by becoming what we want him to be, but by being the one we need him to be, our Savior. Our Savior knows the very real danger of sin and therefore calls us to repent. Our Savior knows the eternal cost of sin and therefore dies under our eternal punishment. But our Savior also knows the eternal joy of salvation and therefore rises again, not to tolerate sin and accept sinners, but to forgive the repentant and invite the faithful to live in eternal joy. Living in the joy of our Master means turning away from America’s imaginary god and trusting God as revealed in Jesus Christ, the Son of God who gave his life for us that we might live in eternal joy.

Living in our Master’s joy also means serving as people differently gifted but equally loved. While one servant fears the master he has imagined, the other servants trust the master they know. Their master is a gracious and generous man. Instead of harshly ruling over them, he graciously rules through them, giving them his great wealth for service in the world. He divides his possessions between them according to their ability (v 15) and sends them forth as servants differently gifted but equally loved: one receives five talents, one two, and to another one. Living in the joy of their master means not questioning the difference in divine giving, but rejoicing in faithful service, differently gifted but equally loved.

It doesn’t matter if God has entrusted you with a lifetime of wages or you live check to check. Instead, living in our Master’s joy means trusting in what God has revealed to us in Jesus Christ—that he loves all of us equally—and faithfully serving in the various places where God has called us, differently gifted but equally loved, and equally saved.

Now…who has a Talent they can loan me? That new car isn’t going to pay for itself…or do they? Maybe my car has that feature. Better yet…who has a talent they can joyfully use in service to the Master until we all hear the words we long to hear…“Well done, good and faithful servant. Enter into the joy of your Master?”

Amen.

23rd Sunday after Pentecost

23rd Sunday after Pentecost

November 8, 2020

Matthew 25:1-13

“Those Who Were Ready”

Grace, mercy, and peace be and abide with you all in the name of God our Father and our Good Shepherd Jesus. The basis for the sermon is the Gospel lesson read from Matthew 25.

My dear friends,

In my ministry I have presided at 40 weddings and to summarize most of my experiences in a word…Yikes! I have seen it all from weird bridal requests to fainting bridesmaids to a bride 25 minutes late to her own wedding! Have you ever planned a wedding? Weddings require a TON of planning; you don’t prepare at the last minute. Can you imagine an engaged couple on their wedding day if there was no preparation: securing the pastor or wedding site, sending out invitations, planning the food, purchasing the clothing, planning a reception or getting the marriage license? What would happen if the day came and no one was ready? I’m guessing you’d see one upset bridezilla! Not too much sympathy from me. A failure to plan on their part does not constitute an emergency on my part. They did it to themselves; they were not ready and there are consequences for their choice.

In these last few weeks of the church year, we now focus on the end of the age. In our Gospel lesson today, Jesus tells a parable about a wedding feast and ten virgins. These ten virgins are like modern bridesmaids…sort of. Not a lot is known of 1st century wedding customs, but we do know a few basics. In the days of Jesus, the couple’s parents would have arranged the marriage. The groom would save money until both he and the bride were of age and he could support himself and a wife, and then it was time for the consummation of the marriage. The groom would inform the bride’s family and the bride would begin her preparations for consummating their marriage at the bride’s house. Afterwards, there would be a procession to the groom’s home for a wedding feast that might go on for days. The processions often took place at night, when torches made for a spectacular display. The ten girls in Jesus’ parable were involved in going out to meet the bridegroom, They would then have had their place in the procession to the bridegroom’s home for the feast. But only 5 were wise in that they were ready…they had extra oil. 5 of them were not. They didn’t have enough oil and had to run off to buy some. By the time they came back, the doors of the feast were shut, and they were not allowed to enter (vv 11–12). So…what does this mean?

These wise virgins are the believers in Jesus Christ. The foolish virgins are unbelievers in this world. They would love to go to the eternal feast on the Last Day. They may even know a little bit about this Jesus. But they love the world and themselves more and will, one day, find themselves greatly unprepared. They had their chance, though.

This parable is about the kingdom of heaven and ten virgins with lamps of oil. The lamps are faith. The lamps of the foolish virgins are filled with the wrong thing: emptiness, space, air, a lack of oil. If faith were an oil container, with what does the world fill it? In what does the world put its faith? What does the world fear and love and trust above all else? The foolish of this world fill their faith with belief in other gods: Allah, Buddha, wealth, self, government, Hollywood, sports heroes, their own idols. This world’s foolish people fill their faith with total spiritual apathy—not knowing what they believe, not caring that they don’t believe in anything, taking a chance that if there is some god out there he’ll let everyone in to whatever this afterlife is. They also will not enter the marriage feast. The doors will be slammed shut, and they will hear its hollow ring of the joy on the other side.

In this parable, Jesus is teaching about the Last Day, the Day of Judgment, when the Bridegroom, Jesus Christ, will return and call His Bride – the Church – the faithful, repentant believers – to the eternal marriage feast. And when he comes, O wise believers, you will have been filled with Christ, which will mean you are prepared. Your lamps are filled with Christ and his Word, which has sustained your faith through life’s trials and temptations and given healing and forgiveness to you in your sinful life. It has strengthened your faith to endure even the days such as these. Your lamps are filled with Christ in his font, where faith in him was created, washing your sins, and where he shields and wards off Satan and his constant deadly attacks against you. Your lamps are filled with Christ at this Table, where Christ enters your body and your soul to forgive your sin, to strengthen your faith in this difficult, fallen world, and where he promises you a place at the greater feast to come. This parable is about the Bridegroom who prepares you for the marriage feast on the Last Day as he fills your lamp of faith with himself—his death and his resurrection—and in him you are ready and prepared to enter the feast . . . no matter when he comes. A failure to be ready by the foolish unbelievers of this world’s part does not constitute an emergency on Christ Jesus’ part.

In 1992, country music artist Billy Ray Cyrus released his first album entitled “Some Gave All.” Neither critics nor Rolling Stone magazine liked it. In 2006, “Some Gave All” ranked at number 33 in Q magazine’s list of “The 50 Worst Albums Ever,” despite the fact it sold more than 20 million copies worldwide. The first release from that album was “Achy Breaky Heart” which became an overnight sensation sparking the popularity of country line dancing and the aptly named “achy breaky shuffle.” Yikes. I prefer the title track from that album. The chorus of “Some Gave All” – a tribute to veterans – goes like this: “all gave some, some gave all. Some stood through for the red white and blue and some had to fall. And if you ever think of me think of all your liberties and recall some gave all.” Wednesday is Veteran’s Day and we give thanks for and remember our brave men and women who have served, sacrificed, and stood tall. When the call to arms came, they were ready.

If Jesus returns today, will you be ready? Will your loved ones be ready? May we do all that we possibly can to ensure that our nation remains the Land of the Free Because of the Brave and that all people will be ready for the coming of Christ because of their saving knowledge of His truth.

Amen.

All Saints’ Day

All Saints’ Day
November 1, 2020
Matthew 5:1-12
“Blessed…Who, Me?”

Grace, mercy, and peace be and abide with you all in the name of God our Father and our Good Shepherd Jesus. The basis for the sermon today on our celebration of All Saints’ Day is today’s well-known Gospel lesson that is the opening verses of the Sermon on the Mount known specifically as “The Beatitudes.”

My Dear Friends in Christ Jesus,

What do you get if you combine quality cuts of ham, some sugar, salt, a pinch of potato starch, water, and some sodium nitrite? These are the primary ingredients of perhaps the most misunderstood meat product in the world. These are the ingredients of SPAM, a product that has been available to the general public since 1937. However, poor SPAM has gotten a bad rap over the last 83 years. SPAM is a high-quality meat product that people have loved for generations upon generations. But does it ever get served at fancy dinner parties? NO. Can you find it on the menu of fine restaurants…or any restaurants? NO. You know how bad it has gotten? What do people call undesirable, junk e-mail that no one really wants to receive? It’s called — (sigh) — SPAM. It’s just not fair! SPAM…so good, but so misunderstood!

But I guess SPAM is not the only thing or event that has been misunderstood in history. Case in point…today’s Gospel lesson from Matthew chapter 5 has been and continues to be misunderstood today in so many places and in so many contexts. Just as people misunderstand SPAM, so too they also misunderstand the “high quality” passage known as The Beatitudes.

Let’s set the scene. Jesus and His disciples are in the region of Galilee. The traditional location for the Sermon on the Mount is located on the northwest corner of the Sea of Galilee not far from Capernaum – a hill about 1800’ above sea level. Those who followed Jesus and learned from Him were with Him, and upon seeing the large crowds that followed (5:1) He sat down which is the classic position for a teacher to take before a lesson begins. What then follows is one of the most impressive narratives that we have in all of the Holy Bible — the Sermon on the Mount. The followers of Jesus are gathered around Him, He is sitting on a mountainside so that His voice can be heard, and He begins to teach the crowds with words like they had never truly heard before (7:28-29).

The reason that this section of teaching is called The Beatitudes comes from Latin. The name “beatitude” is derived from the Latin noun beatitudo because the first word of each statement in the Latin Vulgate translation of the Bible is “beati,” which is the Latin translation of the Greek verb “makarioi,” hence the name “Beatitudes.” If you misunderstand, it’s okay? That’s not the primary thing that confuses people anyway. What really causes misunderstanding is not Latin vs. Greek, but what Jesus means here when He says that these people are “blessed.” So what does that mean?

In our contemporary culture the connection is made that if you are “blessed” then you have to feel “good” about yourself, having a good self-image, being in control of everything in your life, having a plethora of material things, and being free from illness or injury. There are some in Christendom who believe that God wants you to be healthy, wealthy, and wise and all you have to do is believe more and give more and do more and all this will be given to you; you will be “blessed.” The theological term for this is “bologna” because that’s not how grace works. This is why The Beatitudes can be so greatly misunderstood by people today.

We don’t think of panhandlers as blessed. We don’t think of the elderly isolated in nursing homes as blessed. We don’t think that those who are poor in spirit, those who mourn, or the meek as being “blessed.” Those kinds of people aren’t “blessed,” we rationalize, “they’re miserable! What they need are a few blessings…that’s what they need.” Being “blessed” is more than being happy. To be “blessed” – truly blessed – is to know the distinctive joy of those who share in the salvation of the Kingdom of God.

If you really, REALLY want to understand what Jesus is talking about in the Sermon on the Mount in general and The Beatitudes specifically, you have to realize where all this is taking place. Verse 1 states that Jesus “went up on a mountain.” Now, when things happen on mountains in the Bible you know something really important is going on. The Ten Commandments were given to God’s people on a mountain. The Transfiguration of Jesus takes place on a mountain. God revealed Himself to Elijah on Mount Horeb. Noah’s Ark came to rest on Mount Ararat. In the Scriptures, Jerusalem is associated with “Mount Zion.” But perhaps the most monumental mountain experience will come later in Matthew’s Gospel. Matthew 27:33 remind us that Jesus was led to the place called Golgotha, or what you and I know as Mount Calvary to be crucified. The truth is that the glory of the Sermon on the Mount will soon be replaced by the gore of Mount Calvary. At the cross of Calvary Jesus will suffer death and hell in our place for our eternal salvation. That being the case, today’s Gospel lesson from the Sermon on the Mount is better understood — finally — through the perspective of the crucifixion that also occurs on a mountain. All of the blessings of The Beatitudes and the contents of the Sermon on the Mount are only available to us sinners as facilitated by Jesus’ death on the cross of Mount Calvary. It is the cross of Christ that truly blesses us. It is the resurrection of Christ that truly blesses us. It is the forgiveness of sins that comes though these history-shattering events that truly blesses us.

The blessings of The Beatitudes are not challenges or guidelines for righteous living that we are supposed to try and attain. The Beatitudes are both present and future gifts of God. Yes, we are poor in spirit. Yes, we mourn. Yes, we are meek and hunger and thirst for righteousness. And through faith and discipleship, we become what Jesus promises we become: merciful, pure in heart, peacemakers, and so on. All these things — and then some — are given to us by virtue of our faith in Christ Jesus.

Perhaps you are tempted to look at your own life and think, “blessed — who me? I don’t feel blessed. I feel sick and tired and run down and poor and stressed and addicted and sad.” My dear friends…don’t misunderstand. You may not “feel” blessed or your financial statements may have figures that you don’t think are a “blessing,” but you have something even better. You can, just as Jesus Himself said, “Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven” and this is the same reward that those who have gone before us in faith – the saints – now enjoy all of God’s blessings in their fullest. Blessed…who, me? Yes…you. Now, if you’ll excuse me, there is a sandwich with my name ALL over it!

Amen.

Reformation Day

Reformation Day

October 25, 2020

Romans 3:19-28

“A Really Scary Story”

Grace, mercy, and peace be and abide with you all in the name of our Good Shepherd Jesus. The basis for the sermon today is the Epistle lesson previously read from Romans 3.

My dear friends in Christ Jesus,

Today we celebrate Reformation Day, but next weekend is Halloween. Halloween’s origins date back to an ancient Celtic festival involving death and ghosts. By the 800s, the influence of Christianity had spread into Celtic lands and Pope Boniface IV designated November 1st as All Saints’ Day, a time to honor saints and martyrs, and the night before was no longer a pagan festival. It began to be called All-hallows Eve and, eventually, Halloween. Today it is a day associated with costumes and candy ghosts and trick or treating (probably not this year) and scary things. So keeping in that general theme, I have a really scary story to tell.

Once upon a time, there was a young couple named Allan and Eileen. Allan and Eileen were given a free place to live – can you imagine their luck! – a free place to live – an old mansion no less – right in the center of town. The landlord allowed Allan and Eileen to stay there as long as they maintained the place and as long as they followed one simple rule. They were to never, NEVER, go into the mansion’s cellar. It was strictly forbidden to go into the cellar. But you know how people behave…especially people in a scary story who should know better! Anyway, one day curiosity finally got the best of Allan and Eileen and they decided to go into the cellar anyway.

They inched their way to the huge cellar door and turned the door knob. It turned easily since the door was unlocked. The couple pushed open the door and it groaned on ancient hinges. They slid into the dark room. It was so dark they couldn’t see their hands in front of their face. They could see nothing…but they could hear. And what they heard make their hearts pound in terror! All of a sudden they felt something moving around their ankles. By the time Eileen found the light switch it was too late. Giant, mutant cockroaches scurried around the floor and around their legs. When they tried to turn and run both Allan and Eileen were bit.

When Allan and Eileen finally made it to the emergency room and saw a doctor, they were given good news and bad news. The good news was that researchers would be naming a new disease after Allan and Eileen. You can imagine the bad news. Their treatment was horrible; both Allan and Eileen suffered misery as doctors tried to fight off the terrible disease they were infected with. They fought and they fought, but they never were cured and both died. They never set foot in the mansion, or any other place for that matter, again. The end.

Pretty scary story, huh? That’s kind of a Halloween story. But what keeps the story from being REALLY scary is that it lacks any basis in reality. There’s no such thing as giant, mutant bugs. People are not really scared by what they know is not real. For something to be really scary – something truly terrifying – is to have its basis in reality.

Now do you want to hear a REALLY scary story – one that has its basis in reality and impacts each and every one of you? Once upon a time Adam and Eve were given the perfect Garden of Eden and they could stay there rent free! All they had to do was keep it up and follow one, simple rule. They were not to eat of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil (Genesis 2:17). That’s it. Don’t eat fruit from that tree. But you know what? They did, and as a result they got infected with sin and – here’s the scary part – all of us are infected too.

Once sin was unleashed on this world, there was no stopping it and no earthly cure. As a result, Adam and Eve were kicked out of that Garden and they one day died. And we suffer the same fate. Because we are victims of what is called original sin, we now commit daily or actual sins. We sin, that is, we fail to do what God commands and we do what God forbids. Romans 3:19-20 said, “Now we know that whatever the law says, it says to those who are under the law (that’s all of us), so that every mouth may be silenced and the whole world held accountable to God (fairly scary, right?). Therefore no one will be declared righteous in his sight by observing the law; rather, through the law we become conscious of sin.” No one has escaped this sin infection – not a one. Romans 3:23 stated, “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” Because of our sinfulness – our breaking of God’s Laws and commands – we deserve God’s wrath, His punishment, and the eternal death and damnation that is the fate of all sinners. Pretty scary story, huh?

But the story doesn’t end there. God knew humanity’s predicament, and because He is gracious and merciful, He did something about it. Paul went on to explain in chapter 3, “But now a righteousness from God, apart from law, has been made known, to which the Law and the Prophets testify. This righteousness from God comes through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe” (v. 21-22a). The treatment for our sin disease was that someone satisfy God’s demand for breaking His Law, and that is what Jesus did. God’s own Son, Jesus Christ, came into this world for the express purpose of living and dying and rising again to “cure” our sinfulness. Christ is the One who brings forgiveness and salvation and peace and righteousness before God. It doesn’t come from us.

That is a message that Martin Luther realized and proclaimed over and over: “We maintain that a man is justified by faith apart from observing the law” (v. 28). That is a truth that Luther acknowledged and spoke of over and against a church that did its best to oppress both his soul and his pocketbook. For a time, Luther only knew the scary story of his impending judgment from a wrathful God until he discovered and confessed and tasted the sweetness of the Gospel – the forgiveness that is ours by the sacrifice of Christ Jesus on the cross. It was Luther’s teaching that began what we know today as the Reformation.

And maybe that’s what we need today – a modern-day Reformation. There is no doubt…you and I live in scary times. COVID-19 will just not go away and its effects will be felt for at least a generation. People are afraid about the future. We’re scared about our own futures, virus or no virus. These are scary times! Maybe for Halloween this year we skip the scary movies…this whole year has been “A Nightmare Before Christmas.” In reality, though, Halloween isn’t scary and now, because of Jesus, our future isn’t scary either. Your future is with Christ, and there’s nothing scary about that…only joyful! The trick here is on sin, death, and hell, for they were defeated by the cross and empty grave of Christ Jesus, which has become the ultimate treat for us all.

Amen.

20th Sunday after Pentecost

20th Sunday after Pentecost

October 18, 2020

Matthew 22:15-23

“A God Above Labels”

Grace, mercy, and peace be and abide with you all in the name of our Good Shepherd Jesus. The basis for the sermon today is the Gospel lesson previously read from Matthew chapter 22.

My Dear Friends in Christ Jesus,

You know what I am getting sick and tired of? All the “labels” that people attach and wear these days. Sometimes it’s literal. NBA and NFL players have “league approved” social statements on their jerseys or their apparel. More often than not, though, it’s not a literal label, yet BOY do they stick! If you wear the label “Black Lives Matter,” then you are all for “freedom, liberation, and justice” (BLM website), but shouldn’t that apply to everyone regardless of color? People who like President Trump are “Patriots.” People who like Joe Biden are “Progressive.” Why can’t I be a patriotic American who also wants the right changes at the right times for the right reason? Well, today’s sermon is called “A God Above Labels,” because this sermon is about what our loving God had to say to the Pharisees and to all of us, labels or no labels.

Before we look too closely at this text, we must remember the greater context of this event. Back in Matthew chapter 21, Jesus was approached by the Pharisees who were, as we might label them, not “happy campers.” They wanted to know by whose authority Jesus did the things He did and said the things He said (21:23). Jesus then proceeded to tell the Pharisees and those in attendance three parables, and we have heard those parables in previous weeks: the parable of the two sons sent to work in the vineyard, the parable of the wicked tenants, and the parable of the wedding banquet. As I have said before, parables are earthly stories that have heavenly meanings, and the same is most definitely true here for these three parables that were told back-to-back-to-back for a very specific reason.

The labels on our clothes stay hidden…unless a tag sticks up from the collar. Jesus was, in effect, making the labels of the Pharisees visible for all. By the parables Jesus pointed out that the Pharisees hadn’t repented like the tax collectors and prostitutes had done (two sons), they were plotting to kill him (wicked tenants), and they had turned down the invitation to God’s eternal kingdom (wedding banquet). As a result of what Jesus had said, the Pharisees were really angry, and they decided to place a trap for Jesus; it was their effort to label Him either a “traitor” or a “subversive.” This was a “no win” situation for Jesus.

Yet, win He did. The Pharisees teamed up with the Herodians – not exactly a match made in heaven – in order to get Jesus. They start by slapping their own labels on our Lord: “integrity, truthful, steadfast” (v. 16). They didn’t mean it, but they didn’t know how right they were. Next they by posed a no-win, trick question: “is it lawful/right to pay taxes to Caesar or not?” (22:17). The Herodians had their own label – partisans of Rome with a religious orientation. But they were there to be – to use another label – “tattletales.” If Jesus answered it is okay to pay taxes, the Pharisees would tell it to the people and turn them against Jesus; He’s a “traitor” or “Roman sympathizer.” But, if Jesus answered “no, it wasn’t okay to pay taxes,” the Herodians would turn Him in as a “subversive” or “insurgent.” But God is a God who is above labels.

Jesus saw through all their fluffy rhetoric and He gave them an answer that they weren’t planning on: “you hypocrites, why are you trying to trap me?” (22:18). Jesus would not accept their labels. He exposed their hypocrisy and deceit; He showed them to be who they really were. And, as He had done in the past, Jesus answered their question with another question – “show me the coin used for paying taxes,” Jesus said, “Whose likeness and inscription is this?” Of course, it was Caesar’s and Jesus had them where He wanted them.

Those who set a trap fell into a trap themselves! Our Lord replied to their trick question “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and (give) to God what is God’s” (verse 21). The Herodians had their answer. The Pharisees had their answer. They were amazed and left Him and went away (v. 22). Jesus was not about to be labeled by their trick questions…at least not yet…because the Pharisees would be coming back, and they had plenty more labels to slap on and this time Jesus willingly accepted them.

After His celebration of the Last Supper, Jesus was taken away from the Garden of Gethsemane. At that point, Jesus knew the time had come to allow the labels to stick. Accused by false witnesses, Jesus remained silent. The high priest said to him, “I charge you under oath by the living God: Tell us if you are the Christ, the Son of God.” “Yes, it is as you say,” Jesus replied (26:63-64). And with the application of that label, the events were set in motion that led to Calvary’s cross.

This time the Pharisees were right, and they didn’t even know just how right they were! Jesus was and is the Christ, the Son of God. He also received the label of “guilty” for a specific reason. Pilate shouted, “Why (should I crucify him)? What crime has he committed?” But the crown had already labeled Him “criminal,” so they shouted all the louder, “Crucify him!”(27:23). Jesus, the Son of God, allowed the label of “guilty” to be applied to Him. And He bore the penalty and the anguish that the charge of guilty brought. In the ultimate act of labeling, on the cross they placed above Jesus’ head the written charge against Him: THIS IS JESUS, THE KING OF THE JEWS (27:37). Again, they had no idea just how right that label was.

In today’s lesson Jesus said we are to give to God the things of God. And just what are those things? It is exactly the things that Jesus was pointing to by the three parables. He calls the Pharisees, and us, to repentance, to believe, and to hope for the life of the kingdom yet to come. So often we get caught up in our own “labels” of life that you carry: poor, sick, tired, scared, lonely, regret, desperate, terminal, addict, overworked, worried, hurting, under-employed, unappreciated, angry, and so on. But what is important are the things of God. When we are called to repent and we do, when we are called to believe and we do, then the biggest label of “condemned sinner bound for hell” no longer sticks to us. It slides right off having lost its hold by virtue of the life, death, and resurrection of Christ Jesus, and being freed of life’s labels strengthens you to face and live every single day.

Amen.

 

19th Sunday after Pentecost

19th Sunday after Pentecost

October 11, 2020

Matthew 22:1-14

“The Cure for Global Pandemic”

Grace, mercy, and peace be and abide with you all in the name of our Good Shepherd Jesus. The basis for the sermon today is the Epistle lesson previously read from Philippians chapter 4.

My dear friends,

“Wait…WHAT!” You might be thinking to yourself. “Pastor, I just saw the title for the sermon. You have the cure for COVID-19? YOU have the cure for the Coronavirus? We know you used to work in the pharmaceutical industry and all, but that was years ago! Are you telling us that YOU have the cure for this global pandemic?” Yes…yes I do. Sort of. Let me explain.

I cannot help but think that many, if not all of us in this room, are still somewhat worried about COVID-19, but that’s not your ONLY worry, right? All of us have worried about something or are currently worrying about something. I’m worried…you’re worried…we’re ALL worried about something, right? Call it whatever you want: anxiety, apprehension, being on pins and needles, fretting, being frazzled, or to quote Elvis Presely, you’re “All Shook Up.” Every time we turn around there’s something new to worry about, and it’s not always a global pandemic. St. Paul knew that life is filled with frustrations and anxieties and much worse…MUCH worse. And so Paul writes to the Philippians – and all of us really – to give us realistic, usable 3-step process to overcome problems…any problem…even the worry caused by a global pandemic. So…it’s not really MY cure for a global pandemic. Paul gets most of the credit here.

The apostle Paul knew a little something about worry. Paul never had to endure a viral pandemic (not that we’re aware of). But it’s not like Paul wrote the words “Do not be anxious about anything” from Siesta Key Beach! Betrayed by his countrymen (Acts 24:13), caught up in Roman political machinery for two years (Acts 24:27), shipwrecked on the Island of Malta (Acts 28:11), and then placed under house arrest (Acts 28:16) during which he wrote Philippians. Paul knew a thing or two or twenty about worry.

But what about us? As far as I know, none of us have been shipwrecked. None of us are under house arrest. But worries – and not just COVID 19 – still abound for us in this life. From unpaid bills to medical concerns to troubles in our family to out-and-out fear for the future, anxiety and worry is as normal for us as it was for St. Paul. And Paul’s instructions for overcoming our worries has three steps: pray about everything, give thanks in all things, and think about the right things.

The first part of Paul’s guidance is “pray about everything.” In verse 6 Paul wrote, “Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, present your requests to God.” In the Gospels we are told that Jesus often went off to pray. Frequently we see Jesus engaged with God the Father in prayer. Prayer is our lifeline to God; it is speaking to Him through our words and our thoughts. In our prayers we ask for everything that tends to the glory of God and to our own and our neighbor’s welfare. Praying that you win the lottery is NOT an appropriate prayer. Have you been praying for an end to the Coronavirus? Are you praying for those affected and those actively working for a solution?

In our prayers we also praise and thank God for who He is and what He has done. When we are truly able to do that, to be in constant contact with God, to take ALL our concerns, all our worries, all of our anxiety, and lay them at the foot of the cross and NOT take them back up again, then God takes that burden and He bears it leaving us free to praise and thank Him for what He has already done for us and continues to do by grace.

The second step in Paul’s instructions are to give thanks in all things. Verse 6 reminded us that we are to address everything “with thanksgiving.” Now please note that this is giving thanks in all things, and not for all things. There is a difference. I don’t need to tell you that not all things are good. I think it is fair to say that deadly viruses, looting, rioting, violence, drugs, and crime are things, but not necessarily good things for which we give thanks. We are directed to give thanks not just for our food or our money or for our stuff, but to give thanks IN all things…again, to thank and praise God in any and all situations for what He has done. If you can find a way to truly do this, it does reduce the worry in this lifetime.

The third step in Paul’s instructions are “think about the right things.” Paul wrote, “whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable – if anything is excellent or praiseworthy – think about such things” (verse 8). When I was learning basic computer programming in college, we learned the acronym “GIGO:” “garbage in, garbage out.” If you put garbage into a program, it’s not going to work…ever. So also if we put garbage in our minds, we will surely never overcome any kind of worry. Paul is saying that all the countless concerns of life can be kept minimal if believers, rather than dwelling on worry, will fill their minds with all things good and true and rise up and then put them into practice in this world. We are to produce the fruits of the Spirit and not always circle the drain of despair.

Of course, what we fill our minds with is the knowledge of Christ and Him crucified and risen again for our sins and for our salvation. That gives us hope to dwell on amid the worry. We are enabled to overcome our worries by knowing that God, through His grace, has lovingly extended His salvation to us and nothing, no viral outbreaks, no medical problem or bill, no trouble at work or at home, no noisy neighbor or conflict, can separate us from God’s love and His sacrifice.

And what, my friends, is the finished product of Paul’s instructions? Praying about everything + giving thanks in all things + thinking about the right things = God’s peace that surpasses everything: our worries, our finances, our world. For with God’s peace and His strength and His forgiveness of our sins, then we truly “can do everything through Him who gives us strength” (verse 13).

So, there you have it. It is and it isn’t really my cure for a global pandemic. If I figure out a REAL cure for COVID-19, believe me, you’ll be the first to know.

Amen.