16th Sunday after Pentecost

16th Sunday after Pentecost

September 20, 2020

Matthew 20:1-16

“Wonderfully Unfair”

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 20.

My dear friends in Christ Jesus,

Whoa whoa WHOA. Time out! Back up the truck, Alice. Did we just hear that parable right? Matthew 20:1-16 is frequently called the “Parable of the Workers in the Vineyard,” and Jesus tells this Parable because the disciples were concerned in chapter 19 that their discipleship wouldn’t mean anything. You think last week’s lesson and “70 x 7” was counter –cultural? Let’s talk about counter-cultural! Check this out.

The master of the vineyard needs some workers. That’s nothing unusual. Grapes were a very important crop in ancient Israel and the harvest had come. So the master set out at 6 AM to find workers agreeing to pay them a denarius for a day’s work…a more than fair wage. Then he found more at 9 AM, sent them out to work, even more at Noon, and even more workers were sent out at 3 PM. At 5 PM, more workers were sent out for the final hour of work. That means you have some workers who worked a 12 hour day in the hot sun, and some who worked an hour as the day cooled to evening. When it came time for the foreman to pay the workers, the master was present, which is unusual.

But what is even more unusual is that everyone got paid the same! To use modern amounts, those who started first expected a full days wage…say $100. Those who were hired last were paid first and since they only worked 1 hour, they expected to get roughly $9. Or, those who worked all day expected that they would get much more. Instead, everyone gets paid the same. Of course, those hired first complained that they worked much longer than those hired last, but everyone got paid an equal amount. That’s not fair! The master’s response? “Friend, I am doing you no wrong. Did you not agree with me for a denarius? Take what belongs to you and go. I choose to give to this last worker as I give to you. Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or do you begrudge my generosity?” (Matthew 20:13-15 ESV).

Sure, parables are earthly stories with higher, spiritual meanings, but c’mon! They all got the same! Did you hear that? They all got the same! It’s not fair! It goes against everything we hold dear; it goes against all our notions of what is right and fair. One of the first rules of economics is that people get what’s coming to them. If you have worked harder, longer, and more faithfully than others, you get more. Conversely, if you do less, you should not expect more. Our economic system is based on a simple premise: the more you do, the more you get. That’s the way it “works,” right? This creates a psychological itch to be scratched…it’s not “fair.”

“Guys who worked 1 hour getting paid the same as those who work 12 hours? It’s just not fair,” we cry! We labor long and hard, and does Jesus mean that it all adds up to nothing? That’s what the disciples thought in Matthew 19. We reckon that it should count for something, if not here and now then in the grand scheme of things at the end of days when the Master returns. But did you hear what the Master said? “Don’t I have the right to do what I want with what belongs to me?”

Oh. Now, that’s not good. It is a terrifying thought…God does what he wants with what is his! How do I know that? Psalm 24:1 – “The earth is the LORD’s and the fullness thereof, the world and those who dwell therein;” Psalm 50:10-11 – “For every beast of the forest is mine, the cattle on a thousand hills. I know all the birds of the hills, and all that moves in the field is mine;” Romans 14:8 – “For if we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord. So then, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s.” I think you get the idea. This is my Father’s world. He created it, He owns it, He maintains it, He does what he wants because it’s all His. Don’t ever forget that not even for one minute.

Indeed, God does what he wants with what is his, and what he wants above all else is to be generous! This parable teaches us not about “fairness,” whatever that is, but it’s about God’s great generosity! God is wonderfully unfair! God does what he wants instead of treating us as we deserve! Even our best work is soiled with sin. We’ve been proud of ourselves and resented others or refused to forgive. The wages of sin is death—this is the payment we deserve – and we all know this. But, above all else God is generous in His “unfairness!”

God’s ways are not our ways (Is 55:8), and that’s good! He will freely pardon (Is 55:7). In Christ, God shows his utter generosity. In our ways and thoughts we are thoroughly convinced that we deserve more. But from God’s perspective, Jesus didn’t deserve what happened to Him either. But again, God is wonderfully unfair. His life, His sacrifice, His death, His resurrection mean life and hope for all of us.

God in Christ is generosity incarnate and wonderfully unfair! It’s easy to see life as unfair. Decades of marriage suddenly ends in divorce. Children raised in respectful and loving homes shake off all the values you lovingly taught and nurtured and then they never call or contact you. You turn on the TV or read the news and see “not fair.” We are growing weary of the disruption caused by Coronavirus. We are tired of the unrest and disrespect and lawlessness. We are tired of the political bickering while the nation crumbles and erodes around us. We want a return to normal. We want life to be fair. You want fair? They have a nice one coming up in March 2021 at the Roberts Arena on Fruitville. You can eat a corndog and ride the Tilt-A-Whirl and see a pig and stuff. But fair in the world? Good luck with that. No one ever said life would be fair. More often than not, it isn’t.

Was God “not fair” to you this week? Whose definition of “fair” are you using? He doesn’t operate according to our standards of what’s right and fair. Instead, he does what he wants with what is his! And what he wants above all else is to be generous! We live in his generous love and forgiveness and grace, in Christ, now and always because God is wonderfully unfair!

Amen.

15th Sunday after Pentecost

15th Sunday after Pentecost

September 13, 2020

Matthew 18:21-35

“Are You in Debt? Of Course You Are…Or Not.”

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 18.

My dear friends,

Wild stab here…how many of you have debt? Maybe you owe some money yet on your home. Or maybe you don’t. Maybe you owe some money on your car. Or maybe you don’t. Maybe you owe money on credit cards or a long-term loan or maybe you’re still paying on your student loans. Or maybe you’re not. Regardless of what kind of debt you may or may not have, wouldn’t it be so nice to have all that debt cancelled? Have all that debt erased and all forgiven, never to be spoken of again. How nice would that be, right? Well…that’s what today’s Gospel lesson is about more than forgiveness – it is also forgiving debt and never speaking of it again.

Jewish tradition in Jesus’ day was to forgive a debt only on condition, like not forgiving someone until they apologized. And often with forgiveness came a price: the transgressor had to make it up to you somehow. Also, you were only obliged to forgive somebody the same sin 3 times. That being the case, in our text, Peter seems to be showing incredible generosity, offering to forgive the same sin 7 times, which is a lot in Peter’s day.

But what Jesus says is counter-cultural, which was nothing new for our Lord. He wanted people to think of the ways of God, not the ways of man. Jesus advocated that we forgive the same sin (depending on the translation) either “seventy times seven” or “seventy seven” (v 22). The point is, God’s not counting. He means freely forgiving all the time and with NO condition. Think about it: every single time – endlessly – forgiving that person who speaks harshly to you, who talks about you behind your back, cuts you off in traffic, the person who really “pushes all your buttons,” instantly treating him or her as if each time is the first offence and then, once the wrong is forgiven, to never speak of it again? That falls under the category of “easier said than done,” right?!

In today’s Gospel lesson, Jesus explains this difficult teaching using a parable about a man in debt…MASSIVE debt. 10,000 Talents? According to the Jewish historian Josephus, the total tax revenue for Judea, Samaria, Galilee, and Berea for one year amounted to only 900 talents or roughly 220 million dollars in modern US currency. In the parable, one servant’s debt is 10,000 talents. A talent was not a coin, it was a unit of a measure of weight – 62 pounds troy – and was always applied to something of value like gold or silver. If Matthew was referring to gold as the base, then using the price for gold this week, 10,000 talents of gold would be in excess of 1.5 billion US dollars! At my current salary, I would have to work for more than 200,000 years to pay that off! It was an amount that would have reminded the original audience of the massive wealth of ancient Egypt or Persia. By comparison, the second debtor in the parable owes 100 denarii which is 100 day’s wages or about $10,000.

The king, out of pity, forgave and forgot that enormous, huge, massive debt of the first servant…a debt that he couldn’t re-pay in 1000 lifetimes. But, when the forgiven servant had the chance to extend that same pity to someone else, he refused and had his fellow servant thrown in debtor’s prison. How absurd for one forgiven of so much to refuse to forgive so little! The news of this injustice reached the king who summoned the forgiven servant and confronted him. “You wicked servant! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. And should not you have had mercy on your fellow servant, as I had mercy on you?’ And in anger his master delivered him to the jailers, until he should pay all his debt” (v. 32-34).

Ever notice how some churches – including ours – look like courtrooms? Courtrooms are not nice places to be! I’ve been there. They are intimidating and scary. This is no accident. So also, when we come to worship we “approach” the Judge with our debt of sin…our MASSIVE debt of sin…and beg Him to have mercy on us and forgive us. Thankfully, God doesn’t grab us by the throat and choke us as in the parable. No, because of Jesus, God forgives us, announcing to each of us personally, “I forgive you all your sins.” Completely. Totally. Forgiven and forgotten. Never to be spoken of again.

There is a condition, though. There is a price, and it’s a price we could never pay. Instead, Jesus pays the debt of our sin with His life. Jesus takes our place under the judgment of God. He takes our place as the guilty criminal in the courtroom. He takes our place on that instrument of execution which is the cross. We who are guilty are declared innocent, as God’s Son, Jesus, who really is innocent, is declared guilty—a marvelous and beautiful exchange. And because of that great act of sacrificial love, we approach the Judge every week, every day, every hour, and are continually, freely forgiven. The courtroom is no longer a place of terror and judgment, but a place of celebration, as we rejoice in our forgiven debt. As repentant, believing sinners, we no longer need to fear condemnation when we approach His holy throne but instead we approach and hear mercy, grace, love, joy and peace.

I know it’s often difficult to forgive, yet the remarkable thing about Jesus is that He forgives us even for the times we don’t perfectly forgive others! This forgiveness in turn gives us a remarkable strength to forgive others. God gives you the strength and ability to forgive. Mercy is not giving to a person what they deserve. Grace is giving to a person what they don’t deserve. Mercy and Grace are extended to us by God so that our sin debt is forgiven and forgotten. The expectation is that we will do the same for our fellow sinners…our fellow servants.

Are you in debt? Of course you are…or you were. I don’t know about financially, but you were in debt to sin. But not anymore. Because of Jesus, God has removed your transgressions “as far as the east is from the west” (Ps 103:12). Now that’s far! You may still have financial debts, but your debt with God is canceled…forgiven…forgotten. It is “Paid in Full” by the blood of Jesus Christ and in the waters of your Baptism. What you do as a result of the forgiveness that you have in Christ Jesus is now up to you.

Amen.

14th Sunday after Pentecost

14th Sunday after Pentecost; Sermon series #5

September 6, 2020

Ecclesiastes 3:11a, 12-14

“Summer Road Trip; We’re There!”

God’s grace, mercy and peace be to you all in the name of our Living Lord and Good Shepherd Jesus. Today we conclude our “summer road trip” in search of meaning in life. Today…we find that meaning, which Solomon articulated for us in Ecclesiastes chapter 3.

My Dear Friends in Christ Jesus,

On our summer road trip in search for meaning in this life we stopped at 4 different locations. In Seattle we failed to find meaningful life in wealth. In Washington D.C. we failed to find life’s meaning even in power. In Las Vegas we could not find a meaningful life in instant gratification and pleasure. And last week we didn’t find life’s meaning in a location laden with wisdom – Silicon Valley, CA. We have not found meaning for life in wealth, power, pleasure, or wisdom…4 things that King Solomon had in abundance, but every week it’s been the same thing…meaningless! So where DO we find meaning in life? And maybe you’re wondering, “Oh…where are we going today, Pastor?” The answer is…in terms of finding meaning in life, we’re already there.

The rally cry of King Solomon in the book of Ecclesiastes is “Vanity! Meaningless! Everything under the sun is meaningless; it is a chasing after wind.” King Solomon was wise; he would know these things. Wealth, pleasure, power, and wisdom are nice, but they are not lasting. They have no “staying” power in and of themselves. It’s like candy…good for the moment, but not intended for long-term use. Money, power, pleasure, and wisdom do not make an eternal difference. So what does? What does make a lasting difference?

Solomon points out for us what finally, truly, lasts; what isn’t vanity or meaningless. “(God) has made everything beautiful in its time. Also, he has put eternity into man’s heart…I perceived that there is nothing better for them than to be joyful and to do good as long as they live; also that everyone should eat and drink and take pleasure in all his toil—this is God’s gift to man. I perceived that whatever God does endures forever (Ecclesiastes 3:11a, 12-14a ESV). And what is it that God does that endures forever? Love. He loves, for He IS love. That’s just what we need to hear these days.

Right now our world is FULL of hate. On top of a global pandemic, the Right hates the Left. The Left hates the Right. Just look into so many city streets and you can almost see the hatred emanating from both sides of every social issue. As the people of God we are not called to hate, but to love. I did a word search of the ESV Bible regarding the words “love” and “hate.” I found 169 hits for the word “hate.” There were more than 650 occurrences of the word “love.” In God’s Word, love outweighs hate 6-fold. The same is to be true in our lives, also.

In the New Testament, there are 3 Greek words for love: Eros, Philo, and Agape. Eros is the physical aspect of love – the lust part. “Erotic” comes from the same root word. There is no shortage of examples of Eros love in the pleasures of Las Vegas. The strip clubs and adult book stores in Vegas are evidence enough. Philo love involves the type of love that is shared between friends, what you might find among the wealthy folks of Seattle or the “techies” of Silicon Valley; maybe not so much in Washington D.C. There is closeness and a spirit of camaraderie that underlies Philo love. This is an enjoyable type of connection, but it isn’t necessarily long lasting. It is often a bond that can be easily broken by circumstances. And then there is Agape. Agape is the ultimate expression of love. It is a self-sacrificing love, a love that puts a higher priority on the welfare of the other person than on your own desires.

Agape love is the type of love that is used to describe God’s love for mankind. From John 3:16 we know that God so loved you – Agape – that He sent His one and only Son – our Savior Jesus Christ – to bring about the forgiveness of sins and give you the promised hope and fulfillment of that very same hope for eternal life. So also in 1 John 4 we learn, “let us love – Agape – one another, for love is from God…In this the love of God was made manifest among us, that God sent his only Son into the world, so that we might live through him. In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins” (1 John 4:7-10 ESV). Without God – without love – Solomon is spot-on right. All is meaningless! But love…well, God’s love changes everything.

We don’t have to go anywhere that personifies love. We practice and find love – find meaning for our lives – right where God has put you today. St. John wrote in his first letter, “Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another” (1 John 4:11, ESV). No location, no conditions. Meaning for life is found in love: God’s love for us in Christ, which is above all, enables us to show love towards family, friends, in relationships, and is manifested in helping others. Our love for others is a reflection of God’s love for us. They say that love makes the world go around. If that’s true, then God’s love is what makes the ride worthwhile.

The meaning of life is realized as we love God as He has loved us, which in turn propels us to love our neighbor. When Jesus told the parable of the Good Samaritan, He declared that everyone is our neighbor and that we have a responsibility, a divine calling, to show love to all people just as God in Christ loves you.

Solomon had it all: wealth, power, pleasure, wisdom and so much more. But it doesn’t mean anything because none of those things make an eternal difference. But love does. Friends, your wealth, your status, your possessions, and the like truly are inconsequential in light of God’s bigger picture for you.

I know these are hard and trying times. I don’t know when if even if they’ll end. Still, be joyful for what God in Christ has done for you, and show that joy in your relationships of love with family, friends, and neighbors. As wise Solomon would say, do good as long as you live. Love what you do and love those who are in your life. In doing so, you will find the meaning you’ve been looking for.

You know what they say. It’s always fun to go on vacation, but it’s always good to get back home. Home is where we are…it is where we love. It is here that we find meaning in life. Welcome home.

Amen.

13th Sunday after Pentecost

13th Sunday after Pentecost; Sermon series #4

August 30, 2020

Ecclesiastes 2:12-17

“Summer Road Trip; Wisdom/Silicon Valley”

God’s grace, mercy and peace be to you all in the name of our Living Lord and Good Shepherd Jesus. Today we continue our “summer road trip” in search of the meaning of life. Today’s journey takes us to California – Silicon Valley – by way of Ecclesiastes chapter 2.

My Dear Friends in Christ Jesus,

So far in our summer road trip in search for meaning in this life we have stopped at 3 different locations. In Seattle we failed to find meaningful life in wealth. In Washington D.C. we failed to find life’s meaning in power. Last week, in Las Vegas, we could not find a meaningful life in instant gratification and pleasure. This week we drive a little NW to California and we find ourselves in Silicon Valley – more specifically, the San Francisco/San Jose area.

In 1977 a couple of college dropouts by the names of Steve Jobs and Stephen Wozniak introduced the Apple II computer, the world’s first personal computer. Now, virtually every home in America has some kind of personal computing device, which launched the Silicon Valley revolution.

Silicon Valley became – and remains to this day – the high-tech center of the world. There are currently more than 2000 high-tech companies in the Silicon Valley – the densest concentration in the world – including: Apple, Hewlett-Packard, Google, Intel, Adobe, EBay, and Facebook just to name a few. Those companies alone employ 800,000 people! Now throw in the close proximity of Stanford University and UC-Berkeley and the Silicon Valley is a unique area indeed.

Seattle personified wealth. Washington is power central. Vegas is all about pleasure. But it is the San Jose/San Francisco Bay area of California – Silicon Valley – that has become the epicenter – the heart – of wisdom in America. Maybe we can find meaning there. This world is not controlled by bombs and bullets anymore. It’s about bytes – gigabytes and terabytes – information…is the new weapon of choice; who has it and who controls its flow. There must be meaning in having knowledge and wisdom, right?

Speaking of wisdom, that would be King Solomon. Solomon is described in Scripture as the wisest man who ever lived. He didn’t have a B.A. or M.B. or PhD, he had a G.O.D. God Himself gave Solomon his fantastic wisdom. Yet, Solomon didn’t find wisdom to give meaning to life. He said in today’s lesson “What happens to the fool will happen to me also. Why then have I been so very wise? And I said in my heart that this also is vanity (meaningless)” (2:15 ESV). It was Solomon’s wisdom that enabled him to understand that wisdom was meaningless. Whoa…kind of blows the mind, right?

We live in an era of technology and instant information. It is said that to have information is to have power. We may not always crave power, but isn’t wisdom kind of what we all want? I don’t mean Steve Jobs or Stanford kind of wisdom. I don’t think any of you are building a new PC out of spare components in your garage these days. Yet, don’t we always just want to know? No one likes the unknown. No one likes to admit that they don’t know this or that. Why? It’s a one-word answer: Fear. One of the earliest consequences of sin is fear. Adam and Eve heard God walking in the Garden, but they knew they had done wrong, so they hid themselves. Why? Because they didn’t know what God would do to them, and so they were afraid. So it is also the case for us. When we don’t know, we are afraid, and when we are afraid we are not trusting in God. Does that sound like a wise act to you? It’s not.

   Friends, you will not find meaning in life in wisdom because there are many things in this life that we will not know, and yet we trust in God.

As a believer – a Christian – there are certain spiritual things about life that you may not completely know. Maybe a three-in-one and one-in-three Triune God confuses you, but does that mean God is not capable of that? Maybe the thought of Jesus dying on a cross confuses you or even frightens you, but that’s what God did to save us from our sins thanks to Adam and Eve. Maybe you wrestle with what we are about to do in a few moments. Regarding bread, “this is my body.” Regarding wine, “this is my blood.” Human wisdom, and the enormous lack thereof, does not and cannot restrict how God chooses to work in our midst.

Not knowing – lacking wisdom – and still trusting? That’s called FAITH! Hebrews 11:1 says “faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen” (ESV). Meaning in life is not found in human wisdom, because there are too many times you are just NOT going to know! Maybe you don’t know how that bill is going to get paid. Trust in God’s provision. Maybe you don’t know how that messy situation you got yourself into with your family is going to get resolved. Trust. Maybe you’re not sure why this hurts or that aches. First, go see your doctor…then trust. Maybe you don’t know why this or that had to happen to you or your loved one. Trust in God’s grace and mercy. It’s going to be okay. Your wisdom is not going to resolve the issue, but God will in His way and in His time through grace and forgiveness and mercy and love.

Believe that God in His wisdom knows exactly what He’s doing. Just because you don’t know and just because you can’t see where, when, and how God is going to work especially in these trying times doesn’t mean it won’t happen. Real wisdom in this life is the confidence to trust that God is lovingly at work in your life even when you can’t see it. You will not find meaning in life in wisdom because there are many things in this life that we will not know, and yet we trust. It’s called “having faith.”

   Shed your chains of fear. Live like a redeemed child of God set free in His wisdom. “Trust in the LORD with all your heart, and do not lean on your own understanding.” That’s Proverbs 3:5…written by, Yup, King Solomon. Pretty wise guy, right?

So…meaning in life is not necessarily found even in a place like Silicon Valley which is wisdom personified. Now we have ruled out wealth, power, pleasure, and wisdom as providing meaning in our lives. So…where exactly CAN we find meaning in this life? We’ve been all the way across the country and back again! Well, fasten that seatbelt, little campers. Guess you’ll have to wait until next week, but rest assured. Yes…we ARE almost there.

Amen.

12th Sunday after Pentecost

12th Sunday after Pentecost; Sermon Series #3

August 23, 2020

Ecclesiastes 2:8-11

“Summer Road Trip for the Meaning of Life; Las Vegas/Pleasure”

God’s grace, mercy and peace be to you all in the name of our Living Lord and Good Shepherd Jesus. Today we continue our “summer road trip” in search of the meaning of life. Today’s journey takes us to Las Vegas by way of Ecclesiastes chapter 2.

My Dear Friends in Christ Jesus,

So far we’ve searched, with no luck, for meaning in life in both Seattle and Washington DC. There was no meaning in life in either money or power. That’s okay…this is a virtual road trip after all. For today’s destination, we roll into Las Vegas, NV.

Las Vegas was founded in 1855 by Mormons – how ironic is that? – and it is the largest city in the state. It was at one time one of the fastest-growing cities in the US. Between 1990 and 2000, the Las Vegas population increased by 83%, growing to 1.5 million people. But then a little something called the housing market crash happened in 2008, and Nevada jumped to #1 in home foreclosure rates.

When you consider Vegas’ geographical location, the fact that it exists is amazing. The fact that it’s a thriving metropolis is utterly amazing. How can that be? There’s nothing geographically redeeming within 200 miles of Las Vegas. How can such dramatic growth occur in a region that is nothing but sand? The answer is obvious when you see the billboards as you approach the city. Seattle was money personified and Washington DC was power personified. But Las Vegas is more than a city. Las Vegas is even more than the leading gambling Mecca in the US. Las Vegas is pleasure personified; it is outlandish, over the top, and overdone in every conceivable way. Nothing about it is understated and people LOVE it. It’s not always been that way.

In the early 1950s, Las Vegas was still little more than a novelty stop that offered a little gambling, a few burlesque shows, and some nightclub per­formers. There were only about 1800 hotel rooms in Las Vegas back in 1953. For decades, Vegas had a reputation for being a raunchy, sleazy place; you went there looking for wine, women, and song…and bottomless buffets. Vegas in the 50s was certainly not a place for family enter­tainment. But that was then and this is now. Everything about Las Vegas has changed. These days, there are more than 149,000 hotel rooms in Vegas.

Anything you could want under the sun…you can find it in Vegas. Maybe we can find meaning in life in a place like Vegas. Endless pleasure in one city. Anything the heart can dream it can have…for a price, of course.

Las Vegas is a city of instant gratification and what a way to find meaning in life! Our culture is obsessed – we find our pleasure – with instant access to everything such that we have a felt need the newest, the best, the fastest. We are obsessed with obtaining the latest technologies, instant shopping, instant knowledge through emails, texting or Facebook. All are pursued relentlessly and when we don’t get them instantly we are frustrated. Since Vegas is about instant pleasure and gratification, maybe we can find some meaning in life there, right?

The Las Vegas of the 900 BC era could be found at King Solomon’s house. He was Israel’s king from 970-930 BC before the disastrous split of the kingdom into two halves. Solomon, who had massive piles of wealth, decided that he would build himself some stuff: the Temple, cities, and an opulent palace. 1 Kings 7 describes Solomon’s palaces. It took Solomon 13 years to build his palace; only took 7 to build the Temple. He built the Hall of the Thrones and he covered it with cedar from floor to ceiling. He planted vineyards, made gardens and parks, and installed water pools. He had a palace full of slaves, concubines, and singers. What a show!

And regarding all this fun stuff – these items of decedent pleasure – wise Solomon then wrote, “whatever my eyes desired I did not keep from them. I kept my heart from no pleasure…and this was my reward for all my toil. Then I considered all that my hands had done and the toil I had expended in doing it, and behold, all was (meaningless) and a striving after wind, and there was nothing to be gained under the sun” (Ecclesiastes 2:10-11 ESV). A wise man like Solomon recognized that real meaning in life is not found in limitless pleasure or instant gratification. Pleasure may give momentary satisfaction, but a life designed around pleasure will be empty. What does Solomon say of these desires? “Meaningless; a striving after wind” (2:11).

The mindless pursuit of pleasure as a way to define life draws as away from God and points us toward other altars. St. Paul wrote to Timothy in 1 Timothy 6, “godliness with contentment is great gain, for we brought nothing into the world, and we cannot take anything out of the world” (6:6-7 ESV). Martin Luther lived by the motto “For what God gives I thank indeed; what He withholds I do not need.” We are called to be thankful – content – with what we have and not so worried about what we don’t instantly have.

Meaning in life is not necessarily found in a place like Las Vegas which personifies our obsession with instant gratification and pleasure. Please do not misunderstand, though. I am not saying it’s “bad” to go to Las Vegas. Hey, Sarasota can be every bit as spiritually deadening as Vegas can. You will not find meaning in life if you define it by a constant striving for material satisfaction. Godliness with contentment…that’s the key!

God is not really all that complex. He reveals Himself to you in creation itself. He reveals Himself to you on a simple cross. He revels Himself to you in the doorway of a now-empty tomb. He still reveals Himself to you in Word, water, bread, and wine – simple things. Find your meaning in life and your contentment in what God desires not only that you have, but that you share with others.

God in Christ has loved you. Live simply and love others. God in Christ has forgiven you of all your sins. Live simply and forgive those who have wronged you. God in Christ gives you all things. Live simply and be a good steward of what you have instead of dreaming for always newer, better, faster, bigger. God in Christ has called you by the Gospel. Live simply and share that grace-filled message with someone else. If you want to chase something, seek godliness with contentment.

So, the meaning of life is not necessarily found in a place like Las Vegas. Next week, we’re headed to Silicon Valley to see if we can find the meaning of life there.

And no…we are not there yet. But we soon will be. We soon will be.

Amen.

 

11th Sunday after Pentecost

11th Sunday after Pentecost; Sermon Series #2

August 16, 2020

Ecclesiastes 4:1, 13-16

“Summer Road Trip for the Meaning of Life; Washington DC/Power”

God’s grace, mercy and peace be to you all in the name of our Living Lord and Good Shepherd Jesus. Today we continue our “summer road trip” in search of the meaning of life. Today’s journey takes us to Washington DC by way of Ecclesiastes chapter 4.

My Dear Friends in Christ Jesus,

So far in our quest for the meaning of life this summer we didn’t find life’s meaning in the collective wealth of a place like Seattle, so today we’ll look someplace new. Today our journey rolls us into our nation’s capital – Washington D.C.

Washington is in the District of Columbia and is the home of our nation’s capital. It was founded in 1790, but transfer of governmental power from Philadelphia to Washington didn’t happen until 1800. D.C. is a large area; not only is it the home of a great number of our national landmarks and center of our government, it also boasts a metro population in excess of 6.2 million people, 6th largest in the US.

Just as Seattle personified wealth, Washington D.C. is the epitome of collective power. It is a town of hidden agendas, political moves meant to manipulate future events and people, and probably enough corruption going on that it would tempt many of us to move north to Canada if we knew the full truth. With that much power in one place, bad things can and do happen

That doesn’t mean we don’t want some. As sinners we all want a “taste” of power. Maybe not in political office, but we still desire to have things be our way, we want to be in charge, we want people to listen to us. And once we get a taste of that manipulative power over our spouse/children or at home or at work or in church, we can never get enough. Maybe a place like Washington DC offers meaning in life through manipulation and power…getting our own way all the time. Or maybe not.

They say that power corrupts; absolute power corrupts absolutely. While that may be the case, that is not what Ecclesiastes teaches. The real enemy to power isn’t corruption. The real enemy to power is time.

King Solomon was perhaps the most powerful king of his day. Historians report that kings and leaders from other countries traveled to Jerusalem – the Washington D.C. of the ancient Near East – to learn from Solomon. Yet Solomon knew the futility of having power: “There was no end of all the people…whom he led. Yet those who come later will not rejoice in him. Surely this also is (meaningless) and a striving after wind” (Ecclesiastes 4:16 ESV). Solomon points out, and rightly so, that there is no lasting meaning in power. It is better to be wise, young, and unknown than those “on top” whom will disappear from the halls of power to be soon forgotten. For example, can you name any of the 5 Presidents before Abraham Lincoln (Polk, Taylor, Fillmore, Pierce, Buchanan)? Who was the President after Lincoln (Andrew Johnson)? See what I mean?

Earthly power doesn’t last; it just doesn’t. What holds true in the world of rulers and politicians in Washington DC also applies to the fields of business, sports and entertainment. Though it is not always famous people; this is an issue “across the board.” Many people rise only to later fall…and fall hard. Today’s hero easily becomes tomorrow’s has-been. That doesn’t mean that we don’t want power, because we do. Lots of people dream of being famous actors and actresses or being the best in their favorite sport. “This too is meaningless,” Solomon would say, “a chasing after the wind.” Those on top don’t stay in top. Just ask Roy Farris.

Well, you may not know him as Roy Farris. You might know him better as the “Honky Tonk Man.” The greasy-haired Elvis impersonating professional wrestler was the longest reigning Intercontinental Champion in WWF history, when he held the title for 14 months in the 1980s. His days as a champion, however, came to a sudden end at a pay-per-view TV wrestling event called SummerSlam ’88, when a jam-packed Madison Square Garden crowd saw him lose to the Ultimate Warrior. The last time I saw Honky Tank Man wrestle was not on TV or a crowded arena, but at a county fair in east central Minnesota in 2012. From TV to Madison Square Garden to the Isanti County Fair in front of maybe 100 people…maybe. The former WWF champion, at 60 years old, was making a living wrestling in the hot sun of the county fair circuit. Oh, how the mighty and powerful have fallen.

Meaning in life is not holding power over others at home, at work, in school, or on a committee. Power in this world is only meaningful as it allows us to be helpful in the lives of other people. We are called to serve, not be served. God gave us two hands – one to help ourselves and one to help others. In Matthew 20, Jesus said, “whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be your slave, even as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”

Jesus Christ is the ultimate authority for us in this world and in the life of the glory of heaven yet to come. He has been given all power (authority) on earth (Matthew 28:19), but when He came, He came TO SERVE. Rulers and kings and wrestlers and politicians and presidents have come and gone, but God in Christ has come to serve us forever.

Washington D.C. is full of monuments, but as the people of God there is only one monument we truly need. At Calvary’s cross Jesus dies to secure your forgiveness (even to forgive the sin of coveting power over others), life, and salvation. At the cross and empty tomb He disarms the power of sin and Satan, and gives His people light and life and hope! In reality, we don’t need to hold power over others; God’s power is made perfect in our weaknesses (2 Corinthians 12:9-10).

Meaning in life isn’t found in a place like Washington D.C. because its power doesn’t last. Serve God through the faithful use of your time, your talents, and your treasures. Keep the 4th Commandment – honoring those in authority over us – for that is also a form of service. Power in this world doesn’t mean anything; only loving service rendered to God and for God lasts. Solomon taught that. Jesus personified that. Now, go live that.

Well, we didn’t find the meaning of life in Seattle (money) or Washington DC. (power). Next stop…Las Vegas to see if we can find the meaning of life there, and you know what they say about Vegas.

Amen.

10th Sunday after Pentecost

10th Sunday after Pentecost

August 9, 2020

Ecclesiastes 4:7-8

“Summer Road Trip for the Meaning of Life; Wealth/Seattle”

God’s grace, mercy and peace be to you all in the name of our Living Lord and Good Shepherd Jesus. Today we begin, you and I, on what I am calling a “summer road trip” in search of the meaning of life. The first leg of our journey takes us to Seattle, WA by way of Ecclesiastes chapter 4.

My Dear Friends in Christ Jesus,

Today we set off on vacation, but since COVOD-19 is messing up all travel, we’re going a safe way. We’re going on a virtual vacation and we’re going to see if we can find the meaning of life this summer. “What did he just say?” you might ask. Yes…we’re going in search of the meaning of life without ever leaving your pew.

Our first destination is Seattle, Washington. Seattle was founded in 1851 and boasts a population of around 3.5 million people. After you get on the I-90 bridge, the Seattle skyline looms ahead, and beyond that the dramatic views of Elliot Bay and Puget Sound. Seattle was the home of the 1962 World’s Fair and still features Seattle’s defining landmark, the Space Needle.

Every city has its own “vibe” and Seattle is a city of cool. New York may be busy, gritty, and worldly, Orlando is touristy, and New Orleans is funky, but Seattle is just plain cool. Part of it has to do with the scenery, but a lot of it revolves around the lifestyle. Seattle is the home of the coffee culture giant Starbucks, Amazon, and Microsoft. As a result of those three industries, Seattle is also a city of great wealth. There are more than 60,000 households in the Puget Sound area with a net worth of $1 million or higher including the $50 million homes of Microsoft founders Bill Gates and Paul Allen. Jeff Bezos of Amazon lives in Medina and his home is worth $70 million. Seattle smells like money, well, that and mildew from all the rain.

It’s not just Seattle, you know. America is the richest nation on earth. There is not even a close second. So also there was a man with no equal or close second named Solomon. Perhaps you remember him from your Sunday School days. Solomon was King David’s son who ruled Israel from 970-930 BC. As his reign began, God asked Solomon what he most wanted. Boy, that’s a loaded question! But Solomon answered wisely: “Give your servant an understanding mind to govern your people, that I may discern between good and evil…” (1 Kings 3:9 ESV). So that’s what God did. Not only did God give Solomon a wise, discerning heart, but He also gave victory over all Solomon’s enemies and honor and long life. And, oh yeah, wealth. Staggering wealth.

Jewish tradition says that Solomon wrote Ecclesiastes much later in his life. It is a book of reflection on life in preparation for death. Maybe that is why he is so pessimistic: “Meaningless! Everything under the sun is meaningless!” Solomon recognized and lamented that life on earth is full of trouble and even when we think we’ve found satisfaction, it doesn’t last. How painfully true.

In modern America, we don’t view money as meaningless…just the opposite! Ever since “Day 1,” we’ve been told that a little money is bad and lots of money is good. So, as Americans and as sinners really, we chase around wealth like rats in a maze always looking for another, bigger hunk of cheese. Money, our possession and pursuit of it, controls SO MANY aspects of our lives! Does then a wealthy place like Seattle hold a special attraction to us – can we find the meaning of life – because of its vast, collective wealth? Well, do the names Howard Hughes, Elvis Presley, and Michael Jackson mean anything to you? All three men had vast fortunes, and all 3 died living like freakish hermits. Bill Gates is absolutely loaded, but as a result he is forced to live sheltered and secluded life (he does give a lot of money away, though). The point is that as sinful people, far too often we let our finances give meaning to our life and our chasing after wealth control us, instead of us controlling our finances as good stewards.

At the time of his reign, no one on earth was richer than Solomon, and even he admitted that money and possessions by themselves aren’t the answer. He wrote “one person who has no other, either son or brother, yet there is no end to all his toil, and his eyes are never satisfied with riches, so that he never asks, “For whom am I toiling and depriving myself of pleasure?” This also is vanity and an unhappy business” (4:8).

Now, please do not misunderstand. Money in and of itself is not bad. So many people misquote 1 Timothy 6 as saying “money is the root of all evil.” NO. Sin is the root of all evil. Instead, Paul wrote to Timothy “the love of money is a root of all kinds of evils” (1 Timothy 6:10 ESV). And Paul also went on to write in that same chapter “But as for you…flee these things. Pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, steadfastness, gentleness. Fight the good fight of the faith” (1 Timothy 6:11 ESV).

Too many people, Christians included, see wealth as a wonderful solution to all life’s problems. But those who love wealth like that do so at the expense of loving their Lord and God first and foremost. Jesus is the ultimate stewardship example. He gave all so that you might have life. He gave all that you might have forgiveness of sins, even the sin of coveting wealth. He gave all that you might have hope, even if you don’t have a lot of money. However much you have or don’t have, our Savior blesses whatever we have to be used to advance His kingdom of grace here on earth. It is because of God’s gospel grace you can find meaning in life without defining it in terms of money. Life is not found in our wealth; it is found in our crucified and risen Savior Christ Jesus, who IS the Life.

Martin Luther once said that the first conversion of a Christian takes place in the mind. The second conversion of a Christian takes place in the heart. And he also said that the third conversion of a Christian takes place in your pocketbook. When one hears the Gospel message (mind), it creates saving and sustaining faith in Jesus that changes your words and deeds (heart), which in turn drives your stewardship of your time, talents, and obviously your treasures (pocketbook).

So, the meaning of life is NOT found in wealth or in a place like Seattle, WA. Next stop on the summer road trip…Washington D.C. Oh, this trip is getting more interesting by the minute. Hey you kids, stop that back there! No…we’re not there yet! Don’t make me pull this car over! We just got started. In searching for the meaning of life, we just got started indeed.

Amen.

 

9th Sunday after Pentecost

9th Sunday after Pentecost

August 2, 2020

Matthew 14:13-21

“Eyewitness Account”

Grace, mercy, and peace be and abide with you all in the name of our living Savior and Good Shepherd Jesus. The basis for the sermon today is the Gospel lesson from Matthew 14 and the familiar miracle the “Feeding of the 5000.”

My dear friends,

As I look at your faces, I come to an undeniable conclusion. This is not your first rodeo…we’ve met. You’ve heard me preach/teach from the Bible MANY times. Have you ever heard a narrative in the Bible and just wanted to be THERE? To see with your own eyes and experience that moment yourself? Moses parting the Red Sea. The walls of Jericho crashing down. The sight and sound of the multitude of heavenly hosts bursting forth in song on the cold night when Jesus was born. Standing on the side of the road waving a palm branch and shouting “Hosanna!” as our Lord passed by. Wouldn’t that be cool to be an eyewitness to these moments?

What about being an eyewitness to today’s miracle – the well-known feeding of the 5000, which is the only miracle from Jesus’ earthly ministry found in all 4 Gospels? What would that have been like? What if you could have been there right next to Simon Peter or Andrew or John or James or even Matthew himself? What would that have been like? Remember…I do have an English degree. Maybe it would have sounded a little bit like this.

“The news of the death of John the Baptist at the hands of Herod Antipas stunned us all, including the Master who wanted some time by Himself. But as you might expect, time alone was very hard to come by. He went off by boat seeking that badly-needed time alone, but crowds of people had a sense of where He was going and went over land to meet Him. We ended up on the northeast shore of the Sea of Galilee near Bethsaida (Luke 9:10). Jesus went to be alone, He was sad, He needed rest, but He still understood the needs of the people and healed many of their diseases (14:14).

It was getting late – too late – in the afternoon and there were many, many people – thousands and thousands of them by then – and they were all needing food. This was quickly turning into a logistical nightmare! We implored the Master with, what we thought, was a reasonable request: “This is a desolate place, and the day is now over; send the crowds away to go into the villages and buy food for themselves” (14:15). Reasonable enough, right? He told us to feed them. Huh?

Us? What were we supposed to do? We had no way to do this. Frankly, we tried to be realistic. We tried to explain that “We have only five loaves here and two fish.” That’s what we would have expected…5 small barley loaves suitable for an afternoon trip and some dried pickled fish. That’s just what people ate, especially poorer people. 5 loaves and 2 fish. Seriously? That wasn’t enough to feed Jesus and us…let alone the ENTIRE crowd of thousands of people!

But then…a most amazing thing happened. Jesus had the people sit down and asked God’s blessing on the food. He then gave some of the food to us, and we gave it to the people…everyone! The food was not used up! Everyone had enough to eat, they ate until they were satisfied (14:20), and then – you won’t believe this – but there was food left over. We walked around and picked up 12 baskets full of leftovers. I’ve NEVER seen anything like that…ever. At the end of the evening I thought about my grumbling, my lack of understanding, my doubts, and my lack of trust that God would provide. Actually, the story continues, because after this we went back out onto the water and encountered a storm and something else miraculous happened, but that is for another time.” Maybe that’s what an eyewitness account would have sounded like.

It’s easy for you and I…sitting in a climate-controlled space and not being surrounded on that hillside with thousands of hungry people…to speculate about what we would or would not do. If you had been there – an actual participant and eyewitness to this event – would you have wanted to send the crowds away? How would you have responded when Jesus told you to “feed them?” Be truthful now…would you have really thought you were about to see an honest-to-goodness miracle right before your very eyes? What would you have thought and felt when you actually saw the miraculous feeding unfolding before your very eyes? Would you have trusted and believed then? Is that what it would take? To see it first, then believe and trust?

Too often, we have to see before we believe. We get so caught up in the practical concerns of every-day life that we fail to rely on our crucified and risen Lord Jesus – the Redeemer of all and the Savior of humanity – and fail to trust His abundant provision.

These days, we are all looking for some “big” miracles to take place. We are worn down and exhausted by the constant pressure of the Coronavirus and all the changes imposed on our lives as a result. We are hoping and praying that the pointless, senseless violence and unrest in our city streets will end. Closer to home, you may be looking for a miracle of healing. You’re sick and tired of feeling sick and tired. You want the pain to go away. You want your questions answered and your anxieties quieted. You keep waking up hoping and praying that you too will finally witness that miracle you’ve been waiting and praying for.

But what if it never comes?

Instant, miraculous relief is not always the answer. Many times we have to endure trials in order to grow and mature in our faith and see the REAL miracles that Jesus does…every day. We are not defined by the adversity we face, but how we respond and react to that adversity. C. S. Lewis once said, “Hardships often prepare ordinary people for an extraordinary destiny.”

Do you want to be an eyewitness to a miracle? First…live the miracle you already are. When you faithfully endure the most-difficult life situations, you don’t need a “loaves and fishes” kind of a miracle. Face life’s hardships trusting, knowing, and believing with your whole heart that for those who love God all things DO work together for good (Romans 8:28) even if they’re painful.

Secondly, find strength and comfort in how God in Christ miraculously cares for and feeds you: His Word, constant forgiveness of your sins, the Bread and Wine, His Body and Blood of the Holy Supper, the granting of our daily bread – the provision of “everything that belongs to the support and wants of the body” (Small Catechism).

You want to be an eyewitness to a miracle? In a moment, you will. However, in reality, you already have. You woke up, didn’t you? Celebrate and trust that the miracles that God does for you every day forgives your sins, saves your soul, and strengthens you for life here and hereafter even amid hardship and struggle. Be an eyewitness to your own faith and boldly give an account to the fact that “the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us” (Romans 8:18). You don’t need to see to believe that.

Amen.